How quick are you to assign character traits to someone based on physical appearance? When you see ink are you assigning them to a (motorcycle club, prostitution ring, gang)? Before you open your mouth to change feet, let’s have a few (dozen) facts about tattoos.
After thousands of years, the rich tradition of body art has been promoted as a form of self-expression as well as a symbol of brotherhood. Looking at the history will explain why this art noveau will never truly fall out of style.
7,000 years ago
In 5,000 BC, the Japanese entombed the social elite and their rulers with figurines which were representative of people the decendent wished to accompany them into the afterlife. These miniature representations bore tattoos.
5,000 years ago
A caveman found frozen in a block of ice, who lived around 3,300 BC, was found with 57 tattoos which used soot as ink. Although no records exist as to the meanings of the tattoos, archaeologists believe the bands around his wrist, ankle and on his back would have signified his rank in the tribe. The crosses behind his knee and on his arms and torso were likely familial or decorative tattoos.
3,500 years ago
Pharaoh Akehenaton’s statute from 1,400 BC shows he had a navel piercing. Darker skinned peoples, on whom tattoo pigments do not show well, have often used branding, scarification, piercing and other extreme body modifications in lieu of tattooing. The Mayan culture, for instance, hung metal objects between the eyes of children to make them cross-eyed.
2,000 years ago
Ceramic vases and pottery have been used to communicate across the millennia. A painted Greek vase, dating from 400 BC depicts the Thracian women as decoratively tattooed. This tradition was part of the courting ritual and the marriage rite. A Moche warrior is depicted with a pierced face on a Peruvian ceramic spout bottle dated from 100 AD.
The first written record of tattooing appeared in 297 AD in China. The text comments that the Japanese men of all ages had designs on their faces and bodies. This negative tone would be repeated for the next 14 centuries.
1,500 years ago
By 600 AD, Japan had adopted many Chinese beliefs and customs. One such belief was that tattooing was a sign of barbarism and should only be used as a punishment for a crime. Japan’s first criminal tattooing occurred in 720 AD for the crime of treason. Other island and South American countries had already adopted the custom of tattooing criminals on the face, wrist, hand or arms. Such tattoos were ostracizing.
In France, Constantine had banned tattooing of criminals at the behest of the Catholic Church, stating that it defiled the temple of the body which was created in God’s image. The church would quote Leviticus 19:28, which reads: Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you. In 787 AD, Hadian the First would prohibit tattooing of any portion of the body. Yet, tattooing continued worldwide.
150 years ago
Even the threat of death has not stopped body art. Native Americans were commonly terminal after a tattooing where charcoal or indigo was rubbed into the holes made with a sharpen bird or fish bone, used as a needle. The first recorded death was in 1837, when a woman attempted to cover a tattoo of a man’s name on her arm. The resultant infection took her life.
Syphilis was first recorded as transmitted by tattooing in 1853, a time at which the disease was certainly fatal. The artist has his ink in a shell, and it dried while he worked. He spat into the shell to dilute the ink, and thus infected the virgin he tattooed. The resulting infection nearly necessitated the amputation of the arm.
This stigma would not hold tattooing down. In 1862, King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, visited Jerusalem and had a cross tattooed on his arm. He would be tattooed several more times after he took the throne. On a visit to Japan, he ordered his sons’ tutor to take the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (who later became King George the V) to be tattooed by the renowned tattoo artist Hori Chiyo and to the artist who had tattooed their father in Jerusalem on the way back to England.
Russian explorer George H. von Langsdorff began the ties between tattooing and the circus when he visited the cannibalistic Marquesas, off the coast of Peru. He discovered a French deserter, who during his time with the tribe had become extensively tattooed. Cabri enjoyed a brief theatrical career, but would be forced to compete with dog and pony shows to earn his wage.
Circuses often vied for and exchanged tattooed people for the next seventy years. Occasionally, these people would perform traditional circus acts of juggling, balancing or sword swallowing, but the majority would be held in the sideshow as freak attractions.
He wrote the book.
Wilhelm Joest is considered to be the authority on the history of tattooing. His 1887 publication of Tattooing, Scarring and Body Painting: A Contribution to Comparative Ethnology debunks the theory that tattooing and other body adornment was for religious or superstitious reasons.
Joest goes on to state that the only common factor in all of the disparate cultures’ enduring history of tattooing is vanity.
On closer examination, however, I found that the motives for tattooing were not religious, but were rather more closely related to the intimate association of the sexes. It is therefore easy to conclude that the primary motivation is that of personal adornment. The idea that one should undergo a painful operation for the sake of a god is completely inconsistent with the general attitude of the natives, who expect of their gods only benefits and, where possible, relief from pain.” (Joest)
Christians and Jews may choose which portion of the Bible to which to adhere. What Leviticus prohibits, Galatians, Deuteronomy, Isiah, Exodus and Revelation all profess. Many Christians tattooed Christ’s name or the cross on themselves. Moses scolds those who do not have the spot of God’s children. This allusion refers to the coins tattooed on the Semites, Scutt and Gotch, who worshiped Baal.
100 years ago
Modern day tattooing is done with machines, disposable needles and in a relatively sterile environment, greatly reducing the risk of displaying personal adornment. Samuel O’Reilly’s 1891 patent for the tattoo machine is an adaptation of Thomas Edison’s sign painting 1877 patent. Charles Wagner modified the design in 1904 and received the second tattoo machine patent.
1929 would bring the tattoo machine thought of most. Filed by Percy Waters, this instrument would remain nearly unchanged until 1979. Carol Nightingale created an elaborate device that gave the artist a large latitude of control. To this day, inventors continue to tinker with the original design of Thomas Edison to create easier ways of tattooing.
Tattoo artists and the tattooed congregate in conventions, circulate magazines and e-zines about tattoos and constantly refine the trade to bring to life what was once dubbed “the common man’s art”. Tattoos today are brilliantly colored and terrifically detailed. This ancient art form should survive to the end of man’s days on this earth.
American Museum of Natural History
Tattooing, Scarring and Body Painting: A Contribution to Comparative Ethnology: Joest, Wilhelm, 1887
Tattoo History: A Source Book: Gilbert, Steven G., Juno Books
What do your tattoos signify? How do they contribute to your identity? If you could have any tattoo, which design would you choose?
(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2008-2012
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