History and Evolution of Tattoos

Tattooed individuals are a common sight in the modern West, a fact which shows how accepted the art of tattooing has become in Western culture. This cultural acceptance in the West, however, was an evolutionary process, one which traces its roots back into the literal pre-dawn of history. Historically people from all cultures have tattooed themselves, and these tattoos have been done for a variety of social, cultural, economic, and religious reasons; they have ranged from abstract designs to startling realism; and they have been done with a wide variety of tools and in a spectrum of colors. Today, the modern tattooist employs a tattoo ‘gun’ to etch the image into the recipient’s skin. The tattooist in antiquity and in primitive cultures, however, had far simpler tools, yet they achieved the same results which the recipients of the past desired.

The word ‘tattoo’ is not nearly as old as the art, however, and the word itself has evolved as well. The modern word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Polynesian word ‘tatau,’ and the word was first entered into the English language by Captain James Cook in his book, First Voyage from July of 1769, referring to the fact that the Polynesian natives were “tattow’d.” The Oxford English Dictionary also records that the tattoo is “the mark made by tattooing,” and that tattooing is the forming of “permanent marks or designs upon the skin by puncturing it and inserting a pigment,” and “also by some ancient nations and by individuals (e.g. seamen) in developed countries since the 18th c.”A more current understanding of the word tattoo, as both noun and verb, reveals that the art of tattooing is constantly undergoing redefinition as tattooing becomes legitimatized as an art form, and is subsequently growing in cultural and social acceptance.

The Tattoo in Antiquity

Tattooing has struggled for acceptance predominantly in the West, and in what would be considered ‘civilized’ times. The history of body alteration via tattooing, however, can be found not only in those societies and cultures which early Western explorers deemed savage, but in the world of classical antiquity, upon which so much of the West’s own culture is founded. Egypt, long a source of fascination for the West with its power and close ties to both Rome and Greece, had an embedded practice of tattooing in its culture. In Egypt figurines have been excavated which vividly depict markings upon the body and the face which, when examined alongside mummified remains, reveal a rich and religiously significant tattooing aspect of Egyptian culture. The tattooing in Egypt was gender specific, with tattooed patterns designed to protect women during the difficult time of pregnancy, and during the dangerous act of giving birth. These specialized tattoos, found on mummies over 2,000 years old, could still be found being administered in Egypt as late as the mid twentieth century. Ancient Egypt, however, was not the only culture in antiquity to practice the art of tattooing.

The Legions of Rome, during the ages of both the Republic and the Empire, came into contact with a variety of cultures as they expanded Rome’s borders. In Europe the Legions came upon the Britons and the Celts, people whose tattoos identified both rank and station in the different tribes. These tribes employed a wide range of tattoos and body markings to separate themselves both culturally and socially from other tribes and social groups.

The Romans and the Greeks were no strangers to the practice of tattooing either, and tattooing in both of these cultures often served as a identifying the tattooed person as belonging to a particular religious sect. With the advent of Christianity, and the conversion of many legionnaires to that religion, the soldiers of Rome often tattooed themselves for religious reasons. As legionnaires moved through the empire, they brought with them their religion and tattooed religious imagery, imagery which the wearer hoped would protect him from both physical and incorporeal ills.

One of the oldest tattooed specimens comes in the form of a 5,200 year old mummy known affectionately as the “Iceman.” The Iceman was discovered by hikers in 1991 on the Italian-Austrian border. The Iceman’s tattoos were not readily visible, nor did they become so until he was fully examined. His tattoos are believed to be therapeutic in nature, due both to their unobtrusive locations, and the specific patterns which are formed by the tattoos.

The Iceman also reveals, through the complexity of his tattoos and their placement upon his body, that tattooing was a well established practice generations before he received the tattoos. The Iceman’s tattoos also seem to support the belief of some archeologists and anthropologists that tattooing can be traced as far back as the Stone Age, and that tattooing has long been an accepted form of body modification in various cultures across the world, and through out the millennia.

Tattoos Around the World

Tattooing is believed to have spread from Egypt and the Middle East, starting earlier than 2,000 BC. The art of tattooing dispersed slowly, first from the cradle of Western Civilization along the Eastern trade routes to China, India, and Japan. As the practice spread, it took on different meanings in the various cultures. In China, archeological evidence from mummies excavated in the Taklamakan Desert, dating to the thirteenth century BC, show evidence of tattooing. At certain periods in history Chinese tattooing was reserved solely for the Chinese nobility, however, as related by the Chinese historian Ma-Twan-Lin. Ma-Twan-Lin lived in the twelfth century AD, and wrote that the tattooing took place when a young noble woman married.18 This purpose for tattooing was a drastic cultural change, however, for before the Chinese nobility adopted tattoos for matrimonial purposes, criminals bore the marks of their crimes in their skins during the Han Dynasty, specifically from 200 BC to 200 AD.

The Chinese, great travelers and documenters of history, recorded evidence of tattooing in Japan during the same time. Initially the Japanese men, during the first centuries AD, tattooed symbols of rank and status upon their faces. These identifiers were amplified by further designs tattooed upon the torsos of the men.As the years progressed later Chinese historians and Japanese historians as well began to record the change in the social and cultural significance of tattoos in Japanese society. Soon tattoos no longer represented a superior position in the social hierarchy of Japan. Tattooing, instead, became an art reserved solely for the lower classes of Japan’s extremely class conscious culture.Some Western anthropologists believed that the tattooing of the entire upper body by Japanese men was an attempt to mimic the expensive silk garments of wealthier people, and some have even put forward the idea that the full upper body tattoos took the place of clothing amongst the truly poor. Regardless of the cultural significance of Japanese tattoos, Japanese tattooists have been seen as the masters of the art of tattooing for well over a century, and it is easy to see how their passion for the art spread to India, and into the Pacific Island culture.

On the Indian Sub-Continent anthropologists have recorded a wide variety of tattooing styles amongst the various ethnic and cultural groups. Totemic symbols and imagery – tattoos of animals and insects – was the dominant practice for many of the cultures. In Malay the early recipients of the tattoos believed that by being tattooed with the image of a particular insect or animal would grant the bearer of the tattoo some of the inherent physical and magical powers of the totemic symbol which he had chosen. In Burma, however, the approach to tattooing was more aesthetic. The Burmese received tattoos in order to enhance their physical attractiveness, and early European collectors of tattoos often traveled to Burma for the express purpose of being tattooed by Burmese artists, who were considered exceptionally skilled since Japan was closed to the outside at the time. Amongst the eastern tribes of the Indian Sub-Continent, such as the Nagas and the Angamis, the people were heavily tattooed not only upon the arms and torso, but upon the face as well. The heavy tattooing upon the faces of the tribes-people was similar in extent to that found in the island cultures of the Pacific.

When considering the early history of tattooing, it is the variety and extensive nature of the tattooing practices of the Pacific Island cultures which come to mind. Since Captain James Cook first recorded the tattooing cultures of the people he met on his voyage in the late 1700s, Westerners and anthropologists have been fascinated with the massive role that tattooing played in these cultures. Amongst the Marquesan Islanders both the men and the women bore extensive tattoos. These tattoos formed intricate patterns from the head to the feet, and were a historical record of that individual – either male or female – and played a significant role in their interactions within their cultural networks. For New Zealand Maori chiefs and warriors, the facial tattoos they bore spoke of their combat history, and of the warriors they had defeated in battle. The patterns of facial tattoos of New Zealand men could be found repeated again on the body, a repetition which helped to identify the man should he be killed in a battle, and his head collected as a trophy. Amongst the women of their own tribes, the more facial tattoos a Maori man wore (each an indication of his cultural position), the more attractive that man became to the opposite sex. The importance of tattooing in regards to physical attractiveness could also be found in the tattooing practices of the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islanders tattooed themselves in a method known as cicatrization. Cicatrization is the use of an edged tool rather than a needle to prepare the skin for the tattoo ink. With the edged tool the tattooist cut the shape of various designs into the flesh, and the ink was rubbed into the open wound. The process of cicatrization causes a permanent scar, colored with the tattoo ink, to rise up roughly an eighth of an inch once healed, creating dark patterns and valleys within the flesh. For women in Solomon culture the tattooing process was a mystical one, an act prepared for and carried out with a great deal of ritualistic ceremony. Once a young woman was tattooed, she was considered eligible for marriage, and the greater the beauty of her tattoos, the better chance she had of marrying a socially powerful husband.

On the islands of Fiji amongst the hill tribes it was recorded that tattooing marked a girl’s entrance into puberty. An entire ritual existed not only around the act of being tattooed, but of preparing for the act itself. The girl about to be initiated into womanhood was expected to fast and perform a ritualized task as well as obtain three thorns from a lemon tree to be used in the tattooing tool. Tattooing also played a significant role in the afterlife of Fijian women. In the afterlife it was believed that a woman who had not been tattooed would be beaten and subdued by those women who were tattooed, and in turn those without tattoos would be served as food to the various Fijian gods. In addition to abuse after death, a woman who was not tattooed in the present occupied a lower, ostracized position in Fijian society. Women unadorned were considered social oddities, and not seen as sexually appealing by the men of Fiji. Bearing tattoos was also believed to help enhance a woman’s sexual experiences.

The Hawaiian islanders, like the Fijians, closely related tattooing with sexuality and religion. Tattooists were important personages in Hawaiian culture, and they took their role seriously. Tattooing on the Hawaiian Islands also followed religious precepts and rituals, and the tattooists were devout and diligent in their attention to their prayers. Hawaiian tattooists were said to pray and offer sacrifices both before and after the tattooing ritual. The tattooists prayed for guidance, success, and safety in regards to the health and rapid recovery of the person who had undergone the tattooing process. Tattooing, while having taken on different roles and various levels of significance in the island cultures of the Pacific, is hypothesized to have been dispersed through the Pacific either via the Ainu (a nomadic group living on the Japanese northern island), or possibly to have been brought to the islands by early South Americans when they came into contact with people in New Zealand and Polynesia.

The Americas, like the rest of the world, had an early and strong history of tattooing. South American explorers came from the decorative and art rich cultures of the Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans. Archaeologists in Peru have unearthed mummies bearing extensive tattoos and dating to the first century AD. Other mummified remains of pre-Columbian cultures in both Peru and Chile show that the tattooing had specific purposes. Like the tattoo cultures of the Pacific, the tattoos found on the mummified remains contained totemic animal images in addition to geometric symbols and patterns. The placement of some of these tattoos upon the recipients also gives strong evidence that tattooing in South America, like that of Egypt, played an important part in the fertility of women, as well as in protecting them during pregnancy and childbirth.

Amongst the Toltec, Maya, and Aztec cultures tattoos were an honor. The more tattoos a man wore, the greater his stature in his community. For the Aztecs tattooing began at marriage for both men and women, and as the individual’s role increased socially, his body told that story in the design and number of tattoos he wore. Amongst the indigenous tribes in the Yucatan, tattoos also played a significant cultural role. Men who proved themselves brave bore tattoos, and as they continued to display bravery and prowess in battle, their tattoos would expand as well. Thus in South and Central America, tattooing marked a man of distinction, and helped to protect women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Tattoos in North America

Tattooing could be found among Native Americans in North America as well. In Greenland the mummified remains of six Inuit women, the bodies dating to the fifteenth century AD, revealed facial tattooing. The women’s chins were tattooed with small lines, a repeated symbol in other early cultures in the Pacific as well as elsewhere that stated that a woman was married. Inuits were only one group of Native Americans who employed tattoos, however. Captain John Smith, who established the English colony of Jamestown in Virginia in North America, recorded that the Native Americans whom he encountered were heavily tattooed. The tattoos they bore were primarily totemic images tattooed upon their bodies, while their facial tattoos were much more elaborate, non-totemic designs.

The Sioux tribes of North America also practiced some facial tattooing. These tattoos, like the tattoos of the Fiji tribes, played an essential role in a successful afterlife for a member of the Sioux culture. 56 Sioux warriors would be tattooed on their faces (either upon the forehead or the chin), as well as on their wrists. The tattoos were necessary to ensure a safe passage from one world to the next, acting as a passport for the bearer, and they needed to be displayed prominently. Should a warrior not be tattooed, or should his tattoos not be readily identifiable as such, he would be unable to enter the afterlife. Some Native American tattoos, such as those of the Osage tribes, centered upon the tribal responsibilities of the chiefs. This responsibility was evidenced in tattooed images of sacred pipes upon the chief’s chest. These images duplicated the actual pipes which were in the care of the chief, and through which he carried enormous responsibility concerning the welfare of his tribe.

In the California tribes, tattooing was also for the purposes of identifying individuals, placing them as members of a certain tribe, or of a particular family grouping. The tattooing of women in certain California tribes also denoted belonging, the tattoo stating who the woman’s husband was, and that she belonged to him. Women from both the Karol and the Patawat tribes of California tattooed their chins in blue ink with three vertical lines to show that they were married. The women of the Wintun tribe, also of California, tattooed their chins with a trio of vertical lines as well, one line from the center of the mouth, and then one from either corner. The tattoos on the chins of the Wintun also denoted a married woman. In some Native American tribes, such as the Poncas, fathers used the skin of their daughters as a living record of their accomplishments. Among the tribes of the lower Mississippi region, men only tattooed certain symbols upon themselves following the death of an enemy who had proved particularly difficult to kill. In some of the Mississippi tribes men could only wear tattoos after having killed an enemy, and returned with the physical proof of a scalp to their own tribes.

Tattooing for identification, heraldry, and religion continued through the centuries, not only in ‘savage’ cultures, but in ‘civilized’ cultures as well. While early Europeans tattooed themselves with mystical designs – such as early Celtic knot-work – and totemic symbols to give the bearer strength upon the field of battle, the practice of tattooing was not lost with the conversion of European cultures to Christianity. The early Christian Church did, however, condemn tattooing, and sought to stop the practice. The rational behind this prohibition laid down by the Church was that tattooing damaged and altered that which was made perfect in the image of God: the human body. With the advent of the Crusades tattooing increased among the Christian faithful. As Christian soldiers marched into the Muslim world the very real threat of death arose before them. The crusaders, as religious warriors, wanted to ensure that they would be given a proper Christian burial should they die outside the borders of Christendom. The tattooing of Christian images upon their bodies was so that the crusaders could be identified as Christians, and thus buried as such.

The practice of tattooing religious imagery upon the body continued well after the crusades in Western culture. Jerusalem and the Holy Land continued to draw pilgrims, many of whom returned to their European homes with religious tattoos received at the climax of their pilgrimage. Thus while the tattooists of the Holy Land did a booming trade in religious tattoos, religious tattoos became then the primary style which could be found in Europe until the eighteenth century.

Reintroduction of the Tattoo to the West

In 1769 Captain Cook’s experiences with the tattooed nations of the Pacific Islands essentially reintroduced the art of tattooing to the West on a grand scale, and this reintroduction energized a new generation of tattoo enthusiasts in the West.76 Sailors began to collect tattoos from island tattooists, tattoos which commemorated events in the sailor’s life, and which also showed that the sailor had voyaged to the Pacific Islands.

At first white Europeans with extensive tattooing were rare oddities in Europe. Men who were heavily tattooed were sailors, and tended to relate tales of life among the Pacific Islanders where some of the sailors choose freely – and others were forced – to participate in the ritualistic tattooing of their host culture. With their return to their native lands, these tattooed sailors toured the cities and towns of Europe, making a comfortable living by standing before learned scholars and gawkers alike. As greater numbers of ships explored the Pacific, the number of sailors exposed to the art of tattooing increased exponentially. The sailors bore tattoos which not only showed their visit to the Pacific Islands, but those tattooed images which were important personally to the sailor as well. Tattoos of nautical and religious themes grew in popularity, images which many of the men employed in an effort to ward off bad luck and ill winds while sailing upon the seas.

With the reintroduction of tattooing as an art to Western culture, the pool of tattoo recipients expanded. In roughly a century tattoos went from being popular among sailors to being popular across the entire spectrum of society. From criminals to kings, men and women became tattooed. By the end of the 19th century, learned anthropologists expressed dismay at an alarming new trend with women of high standing in London society – the gentile ladies were getting tattooed. 80 While tattooing was never a practice advocated wholeheartedly by the 19th century’s middle-class, it was nonetheless popular in a large segment of Western society. Not only could tattoos be found gracing the flesh of sailors, soldiers, and criminals, but also upon Europe’s noblemen.82 By the beginning of the 20th century many of Europe’s kings were tattooed, as well as a majority of the men of the British royal family.83 Yet despite the well-bred popularity, tattooing was most strongly represented with the European underclass.

Near the close of the nineteenth century, a Professor Cesare Lombroso made a study of nearly 3,000 soldiers, and 6,000 criminals and their tattoos. This study focused upon what number of men were actually tattooed; what were the most common images or symbols used; what was the purpose behind the individual’s tattoo; and what were the most common places for a tattoo. In his studies Professor Lombroso discovered that while criminals tended to be more heavily tattooed, there were a greater percentage of soldiers than criminals with tattoos. Soldiers of the late nineteenth century, according to Lombroso, were tattooed primarily upon the arms and breasts, while criminals treated the whole body as an available canvas for their expressions.86

Criminals tattooed themselves with a wide array of messages and symbols. Some of the men tattooed their crimes and misdeeds upon their flesh with pride, while others pondered their fate in the afterlife, with questions of morality tattooed where all could read.87 A large number of the tattoos upon criminals dealt with the idea of vengeance, and Lombroso recorded both the tattoos and the explanations behind them following interviews with the convicts. Some of the men seemed to tattoo the images and words of vengeance upon themselves not only to state their position in front of their colleagues in the world of crime and prison, but also to serve as a bitter reminder to themselves of the wrongs (real or imagined) which they had suffered. Criminals, unlike the soldiers, followed the habits of sailors and Pacific Islanders when it came to tattooing, meaning that both the hands and the face were acceptable spots for the placement of tattoos.89 From his studies Professor Lombroso began to catalog the wide variety of tattoos popular among the criminals of Europe, as well as the myriad of reasons behind the various tattoos.90 Each image and phrase tattooed upon the criminal spoke not only to the criminal himself, but to other members of the European criminal sub-culture.

In the European military sub-culture, it was no so much what the tattoos represented, but what they meant about the man who bore them. Soldiers of the late nineteenth century tended to have a higher likelihood of being tattooed than a criminal, according to Professor Lombroso’s study. The soldiers did not tattoo themselves to the extent of the criminals, nor were their tattoos symbolic and part of a mutual image based language. Tattoos, for the soldier, represented an ability to withstand voluntarily inflicted pain. Enlisted men and officers alike tattooed themselves to prove their mental strength to their fellow soldiers. Thisvoluntary act showed the soldier’s companions that he was not only capable of withstanding pain, but that pain meant so little to him, that he inflicted it upon himself. The tattoo as used by the soldier, then, was a mark of bravery and courage. The tattoo, regardless of the image which was chosen, was a symbolic reference to the soldier’s ability to be steadfast in the heat of battle.

While Professor Lombroso recorded and cataloged the tattooing customs of soldiers and criminals, he did so not out of an effort based upon a desire to expand any anthropological studies, but was a warning to the middle class of Europe. The paper in its entirety is summed up with a condemnation of tattooing as a barbaric and savage practice, an act unfit to be practiced by proper, civilized individuals. Professor Lombroso states the attitude of nineteenth century Europe when he writes that “when the attempt is made to introduce it [tattooing] into the respectable world, we feel a genuine disgust, if not for those who practice it, for those who suggest it.” Tattooing, then, was a far from socially accepted practice, and those who were tattooed were expected to be of a lower social class, one which had more in common with savages than the upper classes of their own culture.

The Establishment of the Tattoo in America

In the United States of America tattooing also began to establish itself in much the same manner as it had in Europe. By the 1920s tattooing could be found solely in the realm of undesirable sub-cultures. Fully tattooed individuals became highly profitable sideshow attractions in both carnivals and circuses around the country. With the progression of the years, and the rise of the country up out of the depression years, tattooing remained in the realm of the sub-cultures. Tattooing was, for mainstream Americans, something done by unsavory individuals, men and women of little education and who formed the unskilled labor pools which the country built its cities and road infrastructure upon.98 Tattoos were administered by the lower classes to the lower classes, as far as mainstream America was concerned, and there was more rebellion than art in regards to tattooing. The mere act of receiving a tattoo was an effort to remove the bearer from the mundane and the expected of middle class American life.

By the middle of the 1960s, though, tattooing started to become more accepted as the children of the Greatest Generation challenged the rules and ideas of their parents. With the progression of the years getting a tattoo has remained a so called ‘deviant’ act, but one which has grown socially acceptable. Along with this acceptance has come a greater emphasis on the art rather than the act. During the 1980s Dr. Clinton R. Sanders recorded a large influx of young college trained artists into the field of tattooing. These artists sought to free themselves of the bonds of traditional art, bonds which required them to work in accepted mediums, and with appropriate themes.

From Subculture to Pop Culture

Tattooing represented a break from the traditional for these art students. Working in human flesh, with willing, living canvases, the classically trained young artists drew upon a wide variety of influences both within and outside of Western culture. These new tattooists focused more upon the art than the monetary aspects of the trade. They also sought to create large pieces which utilized the human canvas to its maximum potential, pieces which explored both the physical and intellectual aspects of tattooing.106 In addition to the expansion of the art of tattooing, these new tattooists also sought to improve the techniques and equipment that they used, creating images of startling beauty and realism. Tattooing expanded into a full fledged art form beneath the guiding hand of these young artists, and grew as such in the United States, with tattoos by certain, highly skilled artists being sought out and extremely desirable.

Tattooing then, has changed over thousands of years. At first the tattoos served a highly important function in what were believed to be primitive cultures. Tattoos were used for a variety of purposes, and none of them were frivolous. As symbols of strength, implements for healing, and as a shared language, tattoos played an essential role socially and culturally. With the expansion of Western culture through the world, tattooing became less and less acceptable, and was relegated to the domain of primitive cultures, and Western sub-cultures. By the mid-twentieth century tattooing had begun to truly reestablish itself in Western culture, if as nothing more than an act done by the more deviant elements of society. The 1980s however, saw a sudden influx of young artists seeking a new medium in which to practice their art. Now, in the twenty first century, tattooing is accepted by most, if not practiced by all. Tattoos are seen as art in some cases, with the tattooists rendering exceptional images in living flesh. The evolution of the tattoo has been one of cultural significance to cultural art, with a full spectrum between those two. Tattoos and tattooing may well shift again in the next century, as has been its wont in Western Culture, but like the previous six millennia, the continued evolution of the tattoo is sure to be fascinating for the artists, the collectors, and the observers.

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