History Of Tattooing

History Of Tattooing

Tattooing has been around for many years, spreading to different cultures, with variant meanings, yet when brought all together, tattooing shows remnants of a very diverse history. By the Merriam Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary tattoos are defined as marks or figures fixed upon the body using a needle to put ink under the skin, but to many cultures and civilizations of the world, they mean much more.

In the United States of America, tattooing has changed dramatically from the way it was once viewed. The stigma that once surrounded tattooing, usually condemning those who had them, has now evolved into an accepted pop culture. Those who usually wore the tattoos were often bikers and circus “freaks”, which gave the tattooing industry a bad reputation. Moreover, a particular biker group known as Hells Angels, wear their own Hells Angel symbol to show membership to the group (Midre). Furthermore, heavily tattooed Betty Brodbent, traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus in the 1930’s and was the star attraction (Midre). Tattooing to many is no longer seen as a desecration to the body, but as an accepted art form and a means for personal expression. Unfortunately, there are those who get tattoos for irrational and ridiculous reasons. Some get tattoos just because of how many people today have them and for most people who do get these tattoos, leave no meaning to them. So do all these people who are getting tattoos understand the purpose and meanings in the origination of tattooing?

History of Tattooing around the World

Many scientists believe that tattooing happened accidentally (Flamepoint).

They came up an idea that people injured themselves on pigment-carrying, sharp instruments or materials (Flamepoint). For example, sharp materials would include charcoaled branches from leftover fires or wooden spears/arrowheads hardened in fire, which cut the skin and trapped the pigment in the dermis (Flamepoint). Many see this as an understanding to why people have associated tattooing in the survival and healing of bad wounds (Flamepoint). Different cultures have different beliefs of where tattooing originated. The first proven evidence was found in 1991, showing that tattooing may have began in Italy near Austria, dating back to 4000 BC, where they found a man in permafrost (Flamepoint). Carbon dating suggested that he was 5,300 years old and was a shaman or someone holy of a tribe (Nudity). Shortly after, evidence was found proving tattoos were on the bodies of Egyptian mummies, dating back to 4,000 years ago (Nudity).

During this era, tattoos were applied to skin with sharp instruments holding pigment. Different cultures also used this practice and it spread from Egypt to Greece, Persia, Central Asia, and Arabia along the trade routes. In Greece, people used tattoos for communication amongst themselves, identifying spies, and also showing rank in tribes (Midre). Along these merchant routes the practice spread to China. In China, they believed that ones body is a precious gift from the parents and should never be adulterated by a tattoo (Chinapage). “Ci Pei” meaning “tattoo/exile”, was placed on a criminal’s face when a court found them guilty of a severe crime. These tattoos marked that person as a criminal for life (Chinapage). Even in China today, tattoos are more likely to be used to mark members of the underground criminal society (Chinapage). Romans also tattooed criminals and slaves (Priory).

From China, tattooing spread to Japan. In Japan they also used tattoos to mark criminals using a Chinese character that meant dog (midre). They also rejected the religious meanings of tattoos that many cultures used them for and turned towards the more graphical and ornamental practice (Midre). In reaction to the harsh laws of the Tokugawa government that only allowed royalty to wear embroidered clothing caused the poor to flaunt full body tattoo suits (Priory).

From Japan, tattoos spread to the Philippines and Pacific Islands. This is where Polynesians carried the tattoo culture across the Pacific Islands to New Zealand where it was most commonly known (Flamepoint). Later on, tattooing was then refined in the British Isles. The Norse, Danes, and Saxons created the family crest, which is still used today (Midre). However, in the Christian Bible, Leviticus 19:28, it states, “You shall not… tattoo any marks upon you” (Priory). Pope Hadrian I, reluctant to go against the teachings of the Bible, banned the art for many centuries (Priory).

With a jump in time, Samuel O’Riely, patented the first electric tattooing machine in America which made tattoos reasonably priced, readily available, and much more painless (Midre). However, tattooing had also lost a great deal of credibility during this stigmatic time because tattoos were portrayed by “freak shows” of circuses (Midre). Tattooing was so poorly viewed by many that it went underground for many years to keep its harsh critics quiet (Midre). Chatham Square in New York City became the birthplace of American style tattooing. Samuel O’Riely opened up a shop there with his apprentice Charlie Wagner (Midre). Although not popular throughout the country, tattooing flourished in Chatham Square (Midre). As a result of the Great Depression, the center of tattooing moved to Coney Island, and soon enough other shops were being set up across the country (Midre). Once again, ominous luck fell upon the world of tattooing after World War II, when Marlon Brando type bikers and juvenile delinquents wore them and an unfortunate outbreak of hepatitis in 1961 sent tattoo artists heading for the hills (Midre). Things did progress though, Lyle Tuttle, a very handsome and charming fellow helped change the many disapproving attitudes towards tattooing, by tattooing celebrity women (Midre).

“Tatu” & Tribal Tattooing Captain Hooke, a well known sailor, brought with him not only tattooing from different cultures on his ship to Europe, but the actual word we use today. He referred to the operation as “tattaw”, using for the first time the word “tattawing”, unlike when tattooing was originally referred to as painting or staining (Flampoint). Tattoo comes from the Tahitian word “tatu” meaning “to mark”(Flamepoint). Tattoo is also defined as the beating of military drums, which can be compared to the rhythmical humming of the actual tattooing gun used in parlors today. All of the different aspects of what the word means have contributed to forming the actual word we use today which is “tattoo”.

The natives of New Zealand, otherwise known as the Maori, mainly applied tattoos to the face (Moko) and the buttocks (Tattooarchive). The Maori derived their wood carving techniques and applied it to tattooing, by developing a chiseled design and rubbing ink into it (Tattooarchive). Once they developed a more conventional way of tattooing, Maori tattooing was seen far and wide in many museums and because of the unusual style, yet they were not only viewed by drawings and photographs, but by actual skin (Tattooarchive). The Maori had an unusual custom of removing and preserving the heads of tattooed chiefs after death (Tattooarchive). These heads would stay within the family and be an honored possession (Tattooarchive). Primarily, they had no commercial value, but once European explorers came over and saw these strange heads they wanted them for their museums (Tattooarchive). The saying goes, “Everything has a price”, and unfortunately this is true. The once honored heads were being sold off for ammunition, weapons, and iron implements (Tattooarchive). Soon enough the demand exceeded the supply and the population sadly depleted (Tattooarchive). War victim’s heads were part of the trade supply and poor slaves were mokoed (tattooed face) only to be murdered for their heads (Tattooarchive). Eventually this disgusting, dehumanizing practice was put to an end and ultimately faded away.

The Polynesians developed tattoos for marking tribal communities, families, and rank (Midre). Tattooing came to America and was used by the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. Other tribes and cultures such as the Kayan women had delicate hand tattoos like lacy gloves, looking like what henna is perceived to be today (Midre). The Dayak warriors also had hand tattoos and these tattoos were regarded with respect and assured the owners status for life (Midre). The Aniu of Western Asia used tattooing to show social status (Midre). For example, girls coming of age were marked to announce their place in society, as were the married women (Midre). In addition, the Aniu are noted for introducing tattooing to Japan and many other cultures (Midre). In Borneo, women were the tattoo artists, creating designs that indicated the owners station in life and what tribe they belonged to (Midre).

With the incessant changes in technology today, tattoos no longer have to be covered up with another tattoo in order for a person to disguise the old image. However, even with new technology, tattoos were meant to be permanent for a reason, just going to show that even the removal techniques of today, can never truly destroy the history one has made on their body. The removal techniques that have been invented include laser surgery, excision, and salabrasion. All of these techniques are costly, painful, and time consuming. Laser technology breaks up the ink into small fragments that are absorbed by the body’s immune system (Wilkinson 110). Laser treatment is very painful and breaks up the skin leaving it raw and bloody (110). Some lasers erase the color sequence, while others erase everything and this usually causes the skin to boil (110).

Another removal technique includes excision. This process is what dermatologists and plastic surgeons recommend people to get when removing a tattoo (111). In this process they cut away at the tattoo and replace the skinless area with skin from the thigh and buttocks (111).

The last technique is salabrasion and this is a process in which the surface of the skin is rubbed with a chemical that peels away the skin. Even with these removal techniques, scars and certain colors that are hard to get rid of like yellows and greens are left behind. Tattoos were meant to be permanent, not to be removed. If one decides to get a tattoo, one must be very careful in choosing a design and deciding where to get it.

Each culture contributed to one another in many different ways in tattooing with unusual designs, special meanings, unique styles, and bizarre techniques. With the sharing of ideas and communication among diverse civilizations, has formed what we view tattooing as it is today. Its extensive history is told throughout the world starting from the beginning of time leading to the present, told in different languages, through different cultures, each story told in its own way, celebrating the birth of tattooing.