Le capitaine Costentenus
Recently I was at the ethnographic Musée du quai Branly in Paris. A post about some of the museum’s permanent collection of lovely, demented and/or terrifying masks will follow shortly, but the museum also currently have an exhibition on (until the middle of October 2014) called Tatoueurs, Tatoués (Tattooers, Tattooed) which is worth seeing if only to be reminded that there can be more to tattoos than spelling error tramp stamps, nonsense kanji, the ubiquitous badly drawn pseudo-tribal sleeve, and permanent disfigurements that are just plain wrong.
The exhibition has modern examples and historical images from all over Asia, Europe and Oceania, but for some reason the image that stuck with me was the one shown above, of ‘Captain Costentenus’. Maybe it’s just my general prediliction for Victoriana. He was an attraction at the Folies-Bergère, the Parisian cabaret that remains in operation to this day. The caption says “Tattooed by order of Yakoob-Beg, chief of the Tartars, with two million dots and 325 animal figures.” Did somebody actually count the dots? Maybe Costentenus did, as they were being poked into him.
Another colour lithograph, in English (below)– from the reliably kinky Wellcome Collection– gives further information about Captain Costentenus, describing him as a “Greek Albanian, tattooed from head to foot in Chinese Tartary, as punishment for engaging in rebellion against the King”… the king presumably being the aforementioned Yakoob-Beg. Chinese Tartary is an obsolete term, referring broadly to the areas such as Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, which doesn’t quite match up with him being Greek Albanian although I guess he could have been travelling when he committed whatever transgression caused Yakoob-Beg to mandate such an elaborate punishment. Either that, or we’re looking at what we’d call nowadays creative PR.
19th century aquaria were evidently as much sites for general oddity as they were display facilities for fish.
Note the date of Costentenus’ stint as an attraction at the Folies-Bergère. Édouard Manet painted his famous Un bar aux Folies Bergère in 1882. The painting can now be seen at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Just imagine slumming posh boy Manet, Suzon the demimondaine (this painting’s model, who really did work there), the woman on the trapeze (top left) and Captain Tattoo all hanging out of an evening, over more than a few Bass Pale Ales at the Folies-Bergère.
If we could do a bit of time travelling and fast forward about forty years to the mid 1920s, they could all hook up in exactly the same place with beautiful, bonkers Josephine Baker and her bananas for a completely off the hook weirdo Parisian night life supergroup that would make Baz Luhrman puke with envy, down the road at the Moulin Rouge. The League of Extraordinarily Drunk Ladies and Gentlemen and Sideshow Acts and Fruits.