In the mid-16th century exhibitions of human biological rarities began to be popular in England, above all in fairgrounds and taverns. It was a show in which human deformities and peculiarities were exhibited to amuse and perplex the audience. As time passed by also heavily tattooed people began to be very popular and demanded.

The so-called Freak shows reached their highest popularity between the 19th and the 20th century both in Europe and in the United States. It is known that also king Charles I used to bring the “freaks of nature” to his Court as a pastime. People wanted to see uncommonly large or small men, bearded ladies, Siamese twins, people with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics or other particular conditions just to be amazed and have fun.

Freak Show, tattooed ladies, via
Freak Show, tattooed ladies, via

Gradually tattooed people began one of the most demanded attractions.

They used to summon a great audience willing to see their colorful bodies and the drawings on their skin, especially women’s ones.

Anyone who decided to show his or her full-inked body also used to create a false engaging story about how he or she got the tattoos: it was mostly a tell about being held prisoner among a primitive savage population that forced them to get tattooed. People liked these tales pretty much and they were seduced by the unfortunate life of the freak they were looking to. Of course none of these stories were real. It was a trick amply used by show holders to get an audience and make people interested and involved in the show itself. One of the most famous inked freak is George Contentenus, known as “The Tattooed Man” or “Captain Contentenus”, who used to show at the Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. He had his body covered with more than 380 tattoos, each one tolding the story of him being prisoner by some Natives.

The freak shows slowly lost their attractiveness but we still can see them in TV programs such as The Guinness World Record, Body Bizarre, Extraordinary People or Embarrassing Bodies. Tattoos surely have a very strong visual impact which make them perfect to get people impressed. They always had a great power to bewitch people and they still have it, so maybe this is why contemporary advertising started to use tattooed models to promote products and make them desirable.