The History of Tattoos

Posted in Notebook

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 ‘Otzi 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).
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 sometime between 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 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. Their use of colors, perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole new angle. The classic Japanese tattoo, is a full body suit.
In Pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. The Polynesian people believed 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.
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.
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.
In Africa, where people have dark skin, it is difficult to make coloured tattoos. 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 a 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, these patterns often follow local traditions.
Ancient Greece and Rome
The Greeks learnt tattooing from the Persians. Their women were fascinated by the idea of tattoos as exotic beauty marks. 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.
North America
Early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of
tattooing among native Americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognized 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.
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.  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.
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 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.
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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