a brief history of tattoos

the word tattoo is said to has two major derivations- from the polynesian word ‘ta’ which means striking something and the tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’. the history of tattoo began over 5000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them.

tattoos are created by inserting colored materials beneath the skins surface. the first tattoos probably were created by accident. someone had a small  wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire. once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently.

despite the social sciences' growing fascination with tattooing, and the immense popularity of tattoos themselves, the practice has not left much of a historical record.

bronze age

in 1991, a five thousand year old tattooed man ‘ötzi the ice man’ made the headlines of newspapers all over the world when his frozen body was  discovered on a mountain between austria and italy. this is the best preserved corpse of that period ever found. the skin bears 57 tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys and numerous parallel lines on the ankles. the position of the tattoo marks suggests that they were probably applied for therapeutic reasons (treatment of arthritis).

pazyryk culture

in 1948, 120 miles north of the border between russia and china, russian archeologist sergei rudenko began excavating a group of tombs, or kurgans, in the high altai mountains of western and southern siberia. mummies were found that date from around 2400 years ago. the tattoos on their bodies  represent a variety of animals. the griffins and monsters are thought to have a magical significance but some elements are believed to be purely decorative. altogether the tattoos are believed to reflect the status of the individual.

egypt

written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to egyptian tattoo have virtually been ignored by earlier egyptologists influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium. today however, we know that there have been bodies recovered dating to as early XI dynasty exhibiting the art form of  tattoo. in 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of amunet, a priestess of the goddess hathor, at thebes who lived some time etween 2160 BC and 1994 BC. this female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body - grouping dots and/or dashes were aligned into abstract geometric patterns. this art form was restricted to women only, and usually these women were associated with ritualistic practice. The egyptians  spread the practice of tattooing throughout the world. The pyramid-building third and fourth dynasties of egypt developed international nations with crete, greece, persia, and arabia. by 2,000 BC the art of tattooing had stretched out all the way to southeast asia . The ainu (western asian nomads) then brought it with them as they moved to japan.

japan

The earliest evidence of tattooing in japan is found in the form of clay figurines which have faces painted or engraved to represent tattoo marks. the oldest figurines of this kind have been recovered from tombs dated 3,000 BC or older, and many other such figurines have been found in tombs dating from the
second and third millennia BC. These figurines served as stand-ins for living individuals who symbolically accompanied the dead on their journey into the unknown, and it is believed that the tattoo marks had religious or magical significance. The first written record of japanese tattooing is found in a chinese dynastic history compiled in 297 AD. The japanese were interested in the art mostly for its decorative attributes, as opposed to magical ones. the horis - the japanese tattoo artists - were the undisputed masters. their use of colors, perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole new angle. the classic japanese tattoo, is a full body suit.

china

from southern china the practice spread along the silk route.

polynesia

In pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. Polynesian peoples, believe that a person's mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. the vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies. elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body. In samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘tatau’, by hand, has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role. The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The first europeans who set foot on samoan soil were members of a 1787 french expedition. they got a closer look at the natives and reported that ‘the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed, although they are almost naked’. the mythological origins of samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history of tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of new zealand, and later disseminated  into various international subcultures from auckland to the netherlands.

the hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art, known as ‘kakau’. it served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health  and spiritual well-being. Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men's arms, legs, torso and face. Women were  generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue.

the arrival of western missionaries forced this unique art form into decline as tattooing has been discouraged or forbidden by most christian churches throughout history.

new zealand

The maori of new zealand had created one of the most impressive cultures of all polynesia. their tattoo, called ‘moko’, reflected their refined artistry -  using their woodcarving skills to carve skin. The full-face moko was a mark of distinction, which communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal  affiliations. it recalled their wearer's exploits in war and other great events of their life.

indonesia

Borneo is one of the few places in the world where traditional tribal tattooing is still practiced today just as it has been for thousands of years. until recently many of the inland tribes had little contact with the outside world. As a result, they have preserved many aspects of their traditional way of life, including tattooing. Borneo designs have gone all around the world to form the basis of what the western people call ‘tribal’.

india / thailand

Hanuman in india was a popular symbol of strength on arms and legs. the mythical monk is still today one of the most popular creations in thailand and myanmar. They are put on the human body by monks who incorporate magical powers to the design while tattooing. Women are excluded because monks are not allowed to be touched by them and because thais believe women do not need the extra boost as they are already strong enough on their own.

africa

In africa, where people have dark skin, it is difficult to make coloured tattoos as we know them. but they want to be tattooed anyway, so they have developed another technique - they make scarifications (this is not really tattooing, but it is related to tattooing). made by lifting the skin a little, and making cut with a knife or some other sharp thing special sands or ashes were rubbed in to make raised scars in patterns on the body, it can be felt like braille lettering... these patterns often follow local traditions.

ancient greece and rome

The greeks learnt tattooing from the persians. Their woman were fascinated by the idea of tattoos as exotic beauty marks. The romans adopted tattooing from the greeks. Roman writers such as virgil, seneca, and galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed. A legal inscription from ephesus indicates that during the early roman empire all slaves exported to asia were tattooed with the words ‘tax paid’. Greeks and romans also used tattooing as a punishment. Early in the fourth century, when constantine became roman emperor and rescinded the prohibition on christianity, he also banned tattooing on face, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators. Constantine believed that the human face was a representation of the image of god and should not be disfigured or defiled.

the celts

were a tribal people who moved across western europe in times around 1200 and 700 B.C. they reached the british Isles around 400 B.C. and most of  what has survived from their culture is in the areas now known as ireland, wales and scotland. Celtic culture was full of body art. Permanent body painting was done with woad, which left a blue design on the skin. spirals are very common, and they can be single, doubled or tripled. knotwork is probably the most recognized form of celtic art, with lines forming complex braids which then weave across themselves. these symbolise the connection of all life. Step or key patterns, like those found in early labyrinth designs, are seen both in simple borders and full complex mazes. Much in the way that labyrinths are walked, these designs are symbolic of the various paths that life’s journey can take.

central and south america

In peru, tattooed inca mummies dating to the 11th century have been found. 16th century spanish accounts of mayan tattooing in mexico and central americareveal tattoos to be a sign of courage. When cortez and his conquistadors arrived on the coast of mexico in 1519 they were horrified to discover that the natives not only worshipped devils in the form of statues and idols, but had somehow managed to imprint indelible images of these idols on their skin. the spaniards, who had never heard of tattooing, recognized it at once as the work of satan. The sixteenth century spanish historians who chronicled  the adventures of cortez and his conquistadors reported that tattooing was widely practiced by the natives of central america.

north america

Early jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among native americans. Among the chickasaw, outstanding warriors were  recognised by their tattoos. among the ontario iroquoians, elaborate tattoos reflected high status. in north-west america, inuit women's chins were  tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity. the first permanent tattoo shop in new york city was settled up in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing military servicemen from both sides of the civil war. samuel o'reilly invented the electric tattooing machine in 1891.

middle-east

During the time of the old testament, much of the pagan world was practicing the art of tattooing as a means of deity worship. a passage in leviticus reads: ‘ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you’. (19:28) this has been cited as biblical authority to support the church's position. biblical scholar m.w. thomson suggests, however, that moses favored tattoos. moses introduced tattoos as a way to commemorate the deliverance of the jews from slavery in egypt.

vikings

It is very likely that the vikings were tattooed. at around year 1100 the arab ibn fadlan described a meeting with some vikings. he thought them very rude, dirty - and covered with pictures.

england

Explorers returned home with tattooed polynesians to exhibit at fairs, in lecture halls and in dime museums, to demonstrate the height of european civilization compared to the ‘primitive natives’. After captain cook returned from his voyage to polynesia tattooing became a tradition in the british navy. By the middle of the 18th century most british ports had at least one professional tattoo artist in residence. In 1862, the prince of wales, later to become king edward VII, received his first tattoo - a jerusalem cross - on his arm. He started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when he was tattooed before ascending to the throne. In 1882, his sons, the duke of clarence and the duke of york were tattooed by the japanese master tattooist, hori chiyo.

france

in the 18th century, many french sailors returning from voyages in the south pacific had been tattooed. In 1861, french naval surgeon, maurice berchon, published a study on the medical complications of tattooing. After this, the navy and army banned tattooing within their ranks.

stereotypical and sensationalised association of tattoo design

sailor

Sailors on their ships returned home with their own tattoos... usually of a very basic style that only uses a minimum amount of details making the tattoos look quite two dimensional and flat. This often gives a cartoonish feeling and typical motifs would be flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names.

criminality

for a long time, tattooing was the preserve of sailors and... criminals! in prison, the tattoo - professionally done and homemade- indelibly imprint on their bodies what these men desire in their souls: autonomy and identity. The ultimate symbol for gang members are their gang tattoos, getting a permanent mark is a sign of showing total commitment to the gang. these tattoos can reveal lots of things, like, who you are/what gang you're in/ what your beliefs are (racist etc..), what you have done, where you have been, how many years you have been in jail (also referred to as ‘dead time’) and even things like how many you have killed. Known symbols include teardrops under the eye as well as spider webs on the elbows to symbolize people killed.

circus

the popularity of tattooing during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century owed much to the circus. when circuses prospered, tattooing prospered. For over 70 years every major circus employed several completely tattooed people. some were exhibited in sideshows; others performed traditional circus acts such as juggling and sword swallowing.

tattoo flash

as with other artistic mediums and cultural developments, vocabulary continually evolves, reflecting the depth and potential of body marking and of the contemporary imagination. In recent years tattooing has emerged to the forefront of popular consciousness. today a tattoo ‘flash’, is a folder of tattoo- artwork by tattoo artists. styles range from the traditional and vernacular to the sacred and innovative.

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