Never Have I Ever Combined Tattooed Convicts and Data Mining: Let’s Make Digital Humanities as Popular as Bad Armband Tattoos

Drawing of a cool guy with a DH tattoo.
Image: The convicts listed in the Digital Panopticon/Convict Tattoos had images of mermaids, anchors, names of loved ones and Digital Humanities gang affiliations inked into their flesh. And how amazing the skin with the tattoos was preserved.

Despite contemporary beliefs that tattoos were unrespectable our evidence shows that tattoos designs evoked a range of positive emotions, particularly love. – Candace Sutton, Secret Codes & Hidden Symbols of Australian Convict Tattoos

Never have I ever had a tattoo or considered data and text mining as a part of digital humanities. Now consider my surprise to see the combination of the two with the database of over 60,000 Australian and British criminals from 1788-1925 with research by Zoe Alker. Her use of data mining measured the cultural trends of the time and offered another perspective on the meaning of tattoos for a person of the time. Alker wrote, “Here in this research I shifted attention from branding as a tool for state control and official surveillance to examine the convict body as a site upon which gender, ethnicity and class were symbolically marked by the convicts themselves.and offered a perspective of how working class people embraced the medium giving tattoos respectability in popular culture.” The use of visualizations and data mining demonstrated chronological patterns, explain differences in tattooing practices depending on convicts’ gender, age, place of origin, occupation, religion, offending and punishment history, and types of sentiments expressed, including love, faith, identity, and personal history. From Alker’s example and a better understanding of how data/text mining, students like us can implement these practices on our quest to become productive members of digital humanities.

Video: Data mining convict tattoos, 1788-1925 | Zoe Alker. I will never think of the word “yard” in the same way.
FYI: Women predominantly had tattoos of names and preferred tattoos on their shoulders according to the Convict Tattoos database. I wanted to challenge the gender norm and used the data subset to find women who had tattoos of mermaids which were normally tattooed on men. Here is one record I found here.

Histories of the tattoos worn by transported convicts have shown the importance of ‘giving access to the convict voice’ while also noting the rich variety in sentiments expressed through a wide range of designs (Kent 1997; Bradley and Maxwell-Stewart, 1997; Maxwell-Stewart and Bradley, 1998, Rogers, 2004).

What struck me about Alker’s presentation was her declaration on how tattoos are a form of expression by whom no other records are available to recognize that group. For data mining this offered optical character recognition. With her very specific topic she bypassed a warning about data/text mining mentioned in Carly Minsky’s article, How AI Helps Historians Solve Ancient Puzzles, “Even with high accuracy, letters and words are frequently misidentified or missing entirely. At a more fundamental level, historical data may mislead historians when algorithms are used to select what gets archived and what gets deleted.” In history entire groups of people are missing and Dr. Alker’s research offers a record of Victorian London from the perspective of those considered working class and below and the database with the tattooed convicts filled in a historical gap. Granted, there was a question of accurate record keeping and that is whether the convicts had all their tattoos accounted for on every intake with a fully naked examination every time. With over 75,688 descriptions of tattoos recorded, I believe the early twentieth century British judicial authorities demonstrated their commitment to detail. The system of record-keeping was developed in response to fears over re-offending and the apparent existence of a clearly delineated criminal class (Shoemaker and Ward, 2017). Dr. Alker’s data mining of convict tattoos, physical characteristics (eye colour, weight, etc.), bodily infirmities (scars, etc.), and personal details (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.) provided information to create graphs on occupational class, body placement, and the very interesting Changing Mix of Tattoo Subjects. For example, in the 1900s the most popular tattoos documented were justicepunishment and sex. In Dr. Alker’s conclusion she wrote, The diverse range of designs and subjects suggests that tattoos were very much embedded in the wider culture of England in the ‘long’ nineteenth century, while the demographic spread of the tattooed and the public location of most tattoos suggests that there was not much stigma associated with having a tattoo.

A paradox noted by Dr. Alker in her data mining research was the paradox of how the convict’s placement of the tattoos were visible to the public showing how they wanted them to be seen and they feared no societal stigma. Tattoos on the face were not common though unlike some rappers – men and women – of today.

Long-term goal for data/text mining and academic life in general: Make research data findable so that it can continue to have impact, even after you have finished with it.Examples of Text Mining & Text Analysis, University of Queensland.

The Dataset for the Convict Tattoos involved more than research, photo scanning and countless hours of processing the information but also creating a user-friendly database. Data and text mining often involves working with and storing large data sets. It should be a consideration when starting research to have secure storage. (Examples of Text Mining & Text Analysis) Also be considerate when accessing research data made available by other organizations since it is important that your mining activities do not inadvertently disclose confidential information or breach the privacy of research subjects. It was interesting to discover Australia’s Copyright Act of 1968 makes no specific exemption for text or data mining while American copyright law views it a culture clash between publishers and technologists on individualism vs. data is meant to be extracted for meaning and information. (Copyright and the Progress of Science: Why Text and Data Mining is Lawful, Michael Carroll.) Never have I ever seen topics as debated as Digital Humanities and why face tattoos work for Post Malone.

A “Convict Connection” for the San Juan Island Pig War fans: One drawing in Barnard’s book depicts 31-year-old convict Isaac Comer undergoing inspection at Hobart Town on arrival in 1845. “Comer, who had a record in his home town of Bath for stealing a pig and assault, had been transported for 14 years for receiving stolen goods.” Leave the pigs alone people!

This Format is So Diggable: Digital Story Mapping

Go Forth and Conquer the Fear of Maps Online

Wait, whoa. Digital Humanities involves the application of computer technology to explore issues and questions in the humanities. but when I think of historical maps my initial reaction is how long the process will take to download the map and will the scan be a quality one. But this week’s module not only changed my thinking about the prospect of integrating maps for the Internet but I was enthused about GIS Storymaps. Even GIS as a program seemed daunting from my time working at a non-profit focused on land conservation and the basic maps I created for a watershed project, but the sleek functionality of this version emboldened me to think, “I can do this!”

Exploring History With Digital Maps

Again, wow. The creativity of historians in how technology is combined with antiquities for a user-friendly experience online by researchers deserves hyperbole or maybe I just don’t get out much anymore due to the pandemic. My first adventure with digital maps was the New York Public Library Digital Map Gallery and I could hear Dr. Cebula’s voice – when he’s not muted – gently chasten, “Explore lightly!”

My online journey took me to maps of the Arctic Circle with early works to 1800. Only two maps were available to few with one from 1695 and the other from 1732. What struck me about the maps was the hand-written detail for each one and how this alone deserves meditation on the skills required to be a cartographer. Now with this access, online browsers like myself can marvel over the lettering of Greenland.

While I was intrigued about how the maps were available for viewing and interaction from a modern researcher, The World in 1812 and 2013 combined the past and present with a spyglass you can move from your mouse to see how things have changed from 200 years ago. The 1812 map was engraved on two sheets and colored by hand. It was part of a “modern atlas, from the latest and best authorities, exhibiting the various divisions of the world, with its chief empires, kingdoms and states”. The spyglass can zoom in to view detail including explorers’ routes. And as the website noted, “lack of detail in Africa and Australia reflects the poor state of knowledge by Europeans of the time.” Another example from American history also offered insight into past events was the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Here the abilities of StoryMaps on ArcGIS begin to announce how powerful of a tool it can be in our Week Nine learning materials and what it can do in our future careers as public historians.

Another adventure in Digital Humanities was ledgers, another antiquated format brought to life online to analyze online, They Came on Waves of Ink: Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851-1861. What most struck me was Sean Fraga’s assertion of how, “Mapping and visualizing data is a means of doing research.” And this made sense because the argument he cited by Richard Wright on how spatial history does not change to how historians research or write but offers a different way to view and present time and space. As Wright stated, “I think that what we are doing is different, but we are not announcing the end of history as you know it or the extinction of the text or the narrative.”

Click on the image for a special treat for the spyglass enthusiast or for those who need a nap. Which camp are you?

Story Maps to Amaze

What, no way. The Story Maps and the Digital Humanities gallery was practically an art gallery of what can be accomplished with computer technology, hours of research and some pluck. My personal favorite was the ArcGIS Storymaps of Arts and Culture. Some favorite examples from this site were The Voices of the Grand Canyon, Exploring New York’s Vibrant Street Art Scene, and The American Experience in 737 Novels. But while the stories are great, the how to use the platform is even better.

The training demonstrated how interactive and accessible the site is to the user with the ease of the following attributes: how to add quotes, images, direct upload of clips, composition of map directly in the storybuilder in ARCGis, scene layers can be added, images can be moved for better focal point, interactive web content, design customization, 37 languages available and mobile friendly design. The common thread is their success in harnessing the power of Story Maps to combine maps, digital narratives and geographic data with text and rich multimedia. There is a free 21-day if you are tempted.