The Science Ink of Moby Dick

By Carl Zimmer | December 10, 2011 11:51 am

I’ve been doing some research on the long cultural history of tattoos in preparation for my talk about Science Ink at Harvard on Tuesday. I’m a hard-core Moby Dick fan (this blog’s name comes from there), so it was a delight to stumble across a passage on tattoos, which I had forgotten.

Queequeg, readers may recall, was covered with tattoos. Here’s how Ishmael describes them:

This tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.

[Image: Rockwell Kent, Plattsburgh State Art Museum]


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

Comments (8)

  1. John Kubie

    Carl, or anybody: How did Melville get the idea to have Queequeg covered in tattoos? Were tattoos common in the 19 century? Was whole-body tattooing heard of? Melville had had remarkable world-wide adventures. Had he seen tattoos in other cultures?

  2. John–European sailors had been getting tattoos for 70 years when Moby Dick came out. It all started when Captain Cook and the crew of the Endeavour stopped off in Tahiti and New Zealand. The Endeavour crew got tattoos, brought them back to Europe, and that was that. (The journals of the voyage also used the word tattoo as skin ornament for the first time in English.)

    Melville spent years at sea, so he would have seen plenty of tattoos.

  3. @morganucodon

    “a wondrous work in one volume”
    Thanks for reminding me of that wonderful passage. Wow would I ever like to see some of the Endeavor crew tattoos – were they illustrated anywhere? Did Captain Cook have one himself??

    [CZ-I don’t think Cook got one. But Sir Joseph Banks, the ship’s naturalist, and others on the crew did.]

  4. VinceRN

    Don’t forget that Ishameal himself was heavily tattooed. He talks about it only briefly as I recall, when he is talking about the measurements of the whale skeleton found on some Island.

    @John – Queequeeg was a Maori, they have been doing tattoos for a very long time. Melville likely saw many people like that on his own travels in the Pacific, especially on his own whaling journey. Tattooing has been around much longer than recorded history. There are mummies with tattoos, frozen stone age bodies have been found with tattoos.

    Not a big tattoo fan, don’t have any myself, but a huge Melville fan.

  5. I am just very interested in why you call yourself a “hard-core Moby Dick fan.” I would like to learn more about why you call yourself that.

    [CZ: How can anyone not call themselves a fan?]

  6. Do you know if Melville had tattoos? If he sailed, perhaps that was a rite of passage?

  7. Regarding Melville

    If you enjoyed Moby Dick and are curious about tattoos, I recommend that you read (or at the very least browse) Melville’s Omoo.

    In this book, Melville continues where his semi-autobiographical Typee left off, with a rescued sailor taking off on a haphazard vessel called The Julia. The ship comes across several inhabited islands of people who have a high regard for tattoo art, and whose culture considers tattoos as an integral component of societal distinctions.


  8. tom minor

    Just watched Moby Dick again. Am getting a tattoo of him in a few weeks. It seems hard to find and good art work of him. Herman Melville is actually my 5th great uncle. Thus my dads middle name Melville.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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