How’s it going Los Angeles. Once again it’s Astor of Speakeasy Tattoo here to spin you salty dogs another yarn. Remember back in January (which was roughly 15 years ago by my count) when for a brief shining period the TikTok meme of the moment was lads singing whaling sea shanties in four part harmony? Well, far be it from me to speculate on what and why a certain thing becomes a meme but if I were to hazard a guess it seemed a lot of us, much like 19th century whalers, were all just trying desperately to entertain ourselves, afloat and isolated and dreaming about some undetermined time in the future when we could all leave our cabins and go carousing and wenching again.
This of course is my clumsy segue into this week’s topic of discussion: the obscure sailors’ art of scrimshaw. To start off let us define what scrimshaw is. To put it simply, it is the art created by whalers of the early 19th century whereby scenes were engraved into the ivory of walrus tusks or, more commonly, the bone or baleen of whales. While the origin of the word is unknown, the term scrimshaw first appeared in print in the early 1800s and seems to have originated aboard whaling vessels during this time period, seemingly as a means to pass the time while away at sea. See when they weren’t absolutely demolishing the world’s whale populations (populations that have yet to fully recover by the by), whalers, it would seem, had a lot of time on their hands, especially at night when hunting their 90 thousand pound quarry would have been far too treacherous. During these arduous voyages, sailors needed some means of keeping mind and body occupied so as not to slip into madness, and so, like sea shanties, scrimshaw became a way for whalers to find pleasure in the monotony that months-long sailing expeditions fostered.
Being a folk art, scrimshaw evolved using the materials that were simply available to whalers of the day: whaling byproducts (bone, teeth, and baleen that would have otherwise been discarded) were used as the canvas, while sail needles were repurposed as engraving tools. Fighting against the rocking of the ship, artists would delicately carve away at the tooth with these fine needles, producing work that ranged from crude, to elaborate and highly detailed. As the artist worked, they would rub pigment into the etching, bringing their scene to full view. Again this was achieved using materials readily available to sailors, such as candle soot or the juice from chewing tobacco.
Scrimshaw developed in an era when whales (particularly sperm whales) were a seemingly endless resource, an illusion of plenty that would be proven unsustainable as whale numbers plummeted very nearly to the point of no return. Their blubber and oil lit up the world, and would end up fueling the industrial revolution, but while commercial whaling has since been made obsolete, there is no denying that the industry that developed in part because of the whaling economy— two centuries of technological advancements in global shipping, trade, and commercial fishing— might end up bringing whales to the brink yet again.
And what of scrimshaw today? Two hundred years ago, scrimshaw and tattooing were intrinsically linked. They were art forms directly tied to the sea, the prerogative of sailors. In their most basic forms, the tools are the same: a needle, and something with which to black its marks. Scrimshaw, though, is by all accounts an endangered art form. With the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act in the United States restricting the sale of ivory and marine mammal bones, scrimshanders (that’s the correct term for a scrimshaw artist) must find different surfaces on which to work. Exceptions to this rule do exist, such as the scrimshaw made from mammoth ivory or scrimshaw practiced by Alaskan First Nations People, but, aside from these few exemptions it would seem that the art form is destined to go the way of the whalers (or whales) themselves.
Some scrimshaw on fossil ivory by my father-in-law, mentioned in my previous blog entry
Before I go, I want to again bring it back to the lads singing shanties for TikTok. Though most of us aren’t living lives analogous to 19th century whalers (and thank heaven for that), we too are living through a time of deep isolation and fatigue interspersed with the occasional but pronounced bouts of high anxiety and terror. As we continue on into the second summer Covid has taken from us, we could maybe learn a few things from the scrimshanders, to find ways of creatively stimulating ourselves for the sheer joy of it, and the shared amusement of others— be that practicing a dying art, writing, tattooing, or singing sea shanties on the internet. And, by that same token, we should not make ourselves beholden to making masterpieces, but find simple pleasure with what we have to hand.