For those who are unfamiliar, the guillotine is a device made for execution by beheading. The structure consists of a tall wooden frame from which a razor sharp and heavy blade hangs ready to fall on its victim who is placed in a stock of sorts, leaving the neck exposed and ready to be separated from its body.

Bloody guillotine by Larry Coffins at Toronto Ink
Woodblock print style guillotine done by Baynez Graff at Pinecone Gallery Tattoo

The guillotine as we know it was allegedly invented by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as a more humane way to execute people. It was significantly quicker than even regular beheading by axe which could be easily botched and would often take two or more swings to finally kill the victim. This specific name “guillotine” dates back to 1789, France, but similar devices with different structural designs existed for centuries before; such as the “planke” in Germany and Flanders dating back to the Middle Ages, and the “Halifax Gibbet” in England which may have been used as far back as antiquity. But the French guillotine design was specifically based off of two other existing execution devices; the “mannaia” from Italy during the Renaissance, and the “Scottish Maiden” from Scotland which was used from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Bold heavy black and dark red guillotine done by Hudson at Lock and Key Tattoo in the UK
Bright and colourful American traditional guillotine on fire with skulls done by Chin at Common Ground Tattoo in Bangkok

Dr. Guillotin was apparently horrified when the device was named after him, and his family even tried (and failed) to have the name changed in the early 19th century. The French Guillotine claimed its first victim in April 1972, and its last use was in France in 1977 where it was still the main method of execution until capital punishment was stopped in 1981. While hundreds of thousands of people met their bloody end underneath the glinting blade of a guillotine, the most infamous time of its usage was during the French Revolution which took place from September 1793 – July 1794. During this relatively short time a shocking 16,594 people were executed by the guillotine in France, with 2,639 in Paris alone.

American traditional guillotine with demon and skulls done by Chris Spriggs at Iron and Gold Tattoo
Black and grey traditional guillotine with flower done by Lizzy Michelle at Pacific Tattoos in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Public beheadings existed from the beginning of the French Revolution until 1939 in France, but during the Revolution it was extremely popular for anyone, including families to check out an execution and even grab a bite to eat at the famous  “Cabaret de la Guillotine” before watching the bloodbath. There was even a well known trio of women called the “Tricoteuses,” who used to sit next to the guillotine and knitted in between executions. Theatrics even became popular for those being executed with some dancing on their way up the steps, and others offering jokes and sarcastic remarks before their heads rolled away.

Black and grey guillotine on fire done by Mike Marion at Grizzly Tattoo in Port’s End, OR
Broken blackwork guillotine done by @phil_bomb_ in Seoul

As tattoos, guillotines are popular with those interested in the darker side of life and history buffs alike. They are easily recognizable and can be done in many styles including American traditional, neo-traditional, black and grey, blackwork, and woodblock print styles. They are often accompanied by decapitated heads, skulls, flowers, flames, and blood.

Blackwork guillotine and head done by Laura Alice Westover
“Keep your head up” and guillotine done by Luke Nicou at Lucky Luke’s Traditional Tattooing, Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha, South Africa

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