(Ned Kelly the day before his execution, which happened on Nov. 11, 1880; Credit: National Archives of Australia)
Roger Byard, a professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide, made the connection after noticing that an unusual number of deceased individuals undergoing forensic autopsy had tattoos showing, or were otherwise related to, Ned Kelly, who was a 19th century outlaw in Australia.
Compared to the general autopsy population included in the study, suicides and homicides were 2.7 and 7.7 times higher respectively. All of the deceased were men between the ages of 20 and 67, with an average age of 37 years.
For the study, Byard analyzed autopsy data from Forensic Science South Australia. "Although the population studied is highly selected, individuals with these (Ned Kelly) tattoos had an above average incidence of traumatic deaths," Byard writes.
If this connection between certain tattoos and violent deaths were to hold true beyond the study region, my guess is that other tattoos might also be related to other individuals or symbols of anti-establishment movements.
Although Ned Kelly (1855-1880) died in the 19th century, he remains a powerful and controversial figure in Austalia. Of Irish heritage, Kelly came to represent Irish-Australian resistance against the British ruling class at the time. He was a member of a gang that cattle rustled, robbed banks and committed other crimes.
When police were called in, Kelly often had the upper hand. In one famous incident, he overpowered a policeman, sat on top of him, and humiliated the official by riding him like a horse. During a gunfight at Stringybark Creek in 1878, he is thought to have shot and killed three police officers. Kelly's brief and violent life was cut short by execution at Melbourne, Victoria.
Kelly's daring and notoriety turned him into a cult icon in Australia and elsewhere. In the United States, a number of singers, including Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, crooned about the Irish-Oz rebel.
Byard explains, "Kelly is a dominant figure in the popular perception of Australian colonial history with quite disparate opinions being voiced. On one hand he is viewed as a common criminal given to cattle rustling and armed conflict with the police, while on the other he is viewed as an Irish freedom fighter standing up to the oppressive British authorities. On either side of the debate his image is generally taken as representing an anti-establishment position."
The suicide/homicide link to tattoos associated with Kelly suggest that these body adornments can serve as honest visual signals communicating a person's social affiliations and values. An argument can be made that tattoos are just harmless fashion, no matter what they depict, but tattoos — given their permanence and often visibility — do appear to hold significant meaning, both to the wearer and to the viewer.
Byard writes that "in a forensic mortuary it is recognized that certain subsets of tattoos may identify individuals who have been at particular risk of violent and unnatural deaths."
He concludes, "Individuals with Ned Kelly tattoos in this series certainly had an above average incidence of traumatic deaths compared to other forensic cases; ironically, this was also a feature of the ill-fated members of the Kelly gang whose leader is commemorated in these designs."
As the below video shares, Australians are still divided over Ned Kelly.