The girl with the military tattoo

Tattoos may be ubiquitous nowadays, but it wasn’t always thus. So I was amused by an anecdote of my great-uncle Richard Flatter, lawyer by day, playwright and leading Shakespeare translator by night. It didn’t make it into my book “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”.

“Never overworked” as a lawyer, nor ever particularly passionate about the profession he went into to please his father, Richard liked to recall his more colourful cases. One such was that of the tattooed lady.

In the 1920s, he had to defend a female client for free in a case that involved the theft and fencing of jewellery. Her boyfriend was the thief, and she had sold on the rings and necklaces. She intended to plead guilty. Richard was writing down the points of mitigation: her close connection with the thief; her confession; the fact that the jewels had been recovered; and the fact that she was very poor.

“By the way,” Richard asked the young woman, “what’s your occupation?”

“I’m an artist.”

“Oh, and what sort of artist?”

“Well, y’see, I’ve got pictures tattooed all over my body.”

Her boyfriend was in fact the artist, and she was his canvas.  She exhibited his tattooed work for a few coins in the backrooms of shady cafés.

”And – if you don’t mind telling me, what do the pictures show?”, Richard asked.

“They’re about the last war.” 

She was adorned by such heroes of the 1918 defeat as Emperor Franz Josef and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, along with German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and Austrian general Hötzendorf.

Richard claims in his memoirs that although curious to see them, he was concerned that his secretary might suddenly fling open the door. Locking the door would only have made matters highly suspicious, so he didn’t ask. That’s his story anyway.

Instead, he consoled himself with lines from the Shakespeare Sonnet,

The painful warrior, famoused for fight…

Is from the book of honour razed quite.

The woman he had just led to the door, he reflected, was a living monument to their memory, a walking reminder of the transitoriness of pride and glory.