The barbed wire tattoo is back and ready to stab your memory
From Russian prisons to Pam Anderson to now
When Americans picture the barbed wire tattoo, it’s on the flabby bicep of a formerly buff pharma rep who went through a Harley-Davidson phase. Or on the lower back of an honorable mention beauty queen. Or on Pamela Anderson.
But like every other dusty trend and Splash remake, millennials are making barbed wire their own. Influential tattoo artists and v. hip Instagram influencers are inking it afresh. But it’s not as simple as looking tough for the next hipster skee ball tournament. The history behind the symbol proves controversial.
As American pioneers moved West in the mid-19th Century, they discovered the flat plains and wide grasslands of the frontier contained few natural resources with which to build fences. In the East and New England, settlers could divide land by pulling stones from the native soil and wood from forests. Without these materials, pioneers in the West attempted to protect crops and contain livestock using furrow fences, earthen ridges, and hedge fencing — all of which were insufficient.
The first patent for barbed wire was issued in 1865 to Louis François Janin, who twisted two wires together and tied them with diamond-shaped barbs. By 1867, there were six patents total, including one called “The Wooden Strip with Metallic Points.” But credit ultimately goes to the “Big Four” in barbed wire design — Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, Charles Francis Washburn, and Isaac L. Ellwood — who produced superior products out of De Kalb, Illinois. They promoted and sold throughout the new frontier, banking on the inexpensive, easily transportable fencing solution.
Besides land cordoning, barbed wire was used during wartime to prevent enemy encroachment or to contain prisoners. The Nazis used barbed wire when constructing concentration camps, since it had the added “benefit” of conductivity and could be electrified.
Barbed wire is adaptable to different environments or for different uses. Sometimes wires are looped over a chain-link fence, or angled toward potential climbers. The wire itself comes in many iterations, some with spurs or sawtooths instead of traditional barbs. But every version, however minimal, messages a silent hostility.
The success of barbed wire spread like brushfire. Its symbolism in war and private property, and as an agent of pain made it ripe for tattoo interpretations. According to tattoo historian Carmen Nyssen, it “typically represents confinement, struggle(s), repression, rebellion, sacrifice(s), overcoming adversity, etc.”
Early instances of barbed wire ink were seen among Russian prisoners in forced labor camps during the Stalin era, who tattooed their foreheads if they were serving a life sentence, or perhaps their arms or other body parts for shorter terms. Each barb on the wire represented a “deed” accomplished (such as murder or theft) or another year the individual had spent behind bars.
Some also point to the similarities between the design of barbed wire and the crown of thorns Jesus wore during crucifixion.
And then there’s Pamela Anderson, who revealed her ink in 1995 while filming the movie—wait for it—Barb Wire. She told The Los Angeles Times at the time, “The makeup people were going to paint this on my arm every day, but I had a tattoo artist just sketch it on me and I wore it around for a half a day to see how it looked. I decided I’d just go ahead and get it done. I love it. I think it’s very feminine, for barbed wire.” These days the tattoo is barely visible as Anderson undergoes removal.
After Anderson popularized the look, 1990s counterculture copycats clamored for barb tats. They became so pervasive, mostly among men, that comedians like George Carlin poked fun at the cliche. “Some guy who hasn’t been laid since the bicentennial wants me to think he’s a bad motherfucker because he’s got a picture, a painting of some barbed wire. I say, ‘Hey, Junior, come around when you have the real thing on there. I’ll squeeze that shit on good and tight for ya.’”
It’s a regretful truth that tattoo trends come and go as easily as Crocs, but to see this design resurface so soon is curious. Nyssen thinks people are becoming more aware of the decades-long history behind certain designs.
Just don’t say that to Pam Anderson’s face.
EKG machines and other high-tech medical equipment are common in hospitals across the country. But as accurate and sensitive as they are, they can’t always answer the questions a doctor might have:
The images were dramatic. The young man was in his early 20s, and his shoulders, chest, and upper arms were covered with a swirling image of skulls, barbed wire, spider webs, and violent messages. The tattoos were, no doubt, meant to send a message to anyone who saw them. The images disappeared underneath the hospital gown that had been draped over him.
As a surgeon, I have seen my patients' tattoos become more elaborate over the years. When I was in training, old men often carried blurred and fading souvenir images of sailing vessels, pin-up girls, and birds. Somewhat younger men had blue daggers and women's names on their arms.
As the culture changed, more and more patients displayed an ever expanding range of detailed, colorful images. Some of them are truly striking. I have been moved by memorials to lost friends and children. The pictures are sometimes remarkable and evocative. On the other hand, I have also spotted some apparent world-class lapses in judgment and some unfortunate spelling errors.
I rarely ask patients about their body art. To me, tattoos are rarely conversation-starters like, say, a t-shirt, a jacket, or a carried book. If a favorite sports team proves to be a disappointment, the patient can change sweatshirts. Not so with body art. A sexy woman in a 1940s swimsuit looks a bit incongruous on the atrophic bicep of a 90-year-old man. Since I can never know if the person regrets or celebrates the decision to get the tattoo, I usually leave the discussion alone.
Nevertheless, the artwork often makes me stop and wonder. What story is behind that particular image? What was he or she thinking when they had that done? And, sometimes, that one must have hurt!
So, in the operating room, we gently transferred the unconscious, tattooed young man onto the table. His gown was unsnapped and folded down, then we cautiously removed the hard plastic collar. The nursing staff carefully washed the skin with sterilizing solution. There were several abrasions from the motorcycle accident that had recently broken his neck.
I placed the sterile drapes before performing his tracheotomy. As I did so, I noticed that many of the images had only been sketched and the spaces between them had been incompletely filled with color. Much of the artist's work had been left unfinished, apparently with plans to return for more sessions another day.
I pulled the last of the surgical drapes into position so that only the front of his lower neck was exposed. I wondered if he would ever see the images completed. His life was still a work in progress.
Lake Effect essayist and contributor Doctor Bruce Campbell is a head and neck cancer surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin. He writes about his experiences in his blog, Reflections in a Head Mirror.
Bruce Campbell reads his essay, "The Tattoo."