Tattoos : The Ancient Art of Tattooing
The Origins of Tattoos
Caught in a snowstorm while on a hunting trip in the mountains along the border between Italy and Austria, a Bronze Age man met his end. Little did he know that the discovery of his body in 1991, nearly 5,300 years later, would thrill the scientific community, anthropologists, and historians around the world by providing the oldest naturally preserved tattooed body ever found. Named after the Otz valley where his body was found, Otzi the Iceman has 57 ‘carbon’ tattoos in the form of stripes or crosses.
Tattooing is one of the earliest visual art forms and has served as a means of self-expression for thousands of years. The process was probably discovered when ash or dirt became embedded in an open wound, leaving an indelible mark when healed. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau,’ which means to mark something. The earliest known reference to the word was made by Joseph Banks, a naturalist aboard the Endevour, captained by Cook. Banks notes in his journal, "I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly; each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition."
By the 1700s, the word tattoo was in use in Europe. The term and knowledge of the practice was probably reintroduced to Europe by sailors returning from Polynesia. Anthropologists argue that the desire to make permanent markings on the body has profound, aesthetic, spiritual, practical, and universal origins. H.G Wells penned, “In all ages, far back in prehistory, we find humans have painted and adorned themselves.” Oscar Wilde observed, “One must be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
In this article, you'll find discussions of the tattooing traditions of...
- Southeast Asia
- and contemporary Western practice.
The Egyptians and Tattooing
- The Egyptian mummy, Amunet, priestess of Hathor, the Egytian Goddess of love, was found in Thebes bearing tattoos on her lower abdomen, thought to be linked to fertility. Her body is between 4040-3994 years old.
- All tattooed Egyptian mummies found to date are females. Statuettes known as ‘brides of the dead’ were decorated with similar designs and were buried with male mummies to arouse the soul’s sexual instincts upon resurrection.
- From Egypt, the art of tattooing was passed on to Crete, Persia, Greece. and Arabia.
The Art of Tattooing in Japan
- Figurines called ‘dogu’ dating back 3000 years are the earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan.
- They display similar markings to those found amongst the Ainu—the native people of Japan.
- The Japanese later embraced tattooing and took the art form to new heights.
- The Japanese bodysuit, a well-known cultural icon, was developed in response to the restriction that the only people permitted to wear ornate clothing were royalty. In an act of protest, middle-class men adorned themselves with extensive, colorful tattoos.
- The Tokyo Museum of Natural Art displays hundreds of tattooed skins, which were purchased under contract between collectors and the wearer prior to his death.
The Polynesians and Tattoos
As far back as 3,000 ago, the Polynesians applied tattoos with artistic verve. Historians suggest that tattoos were introduced by the Lapita, an ancient people that migrated throughout Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Evidence indicates that a flat, sharpened piece of bone was soaked in water and soot before marking the skin. In Samoa, judgmental Christian missionaries warned, “Tattooing is among the works of darkness…”
Impervious to Christian condemnation , the German Governor, Augustin Kramer, requested a tattoo, garnering great respect from the natives. He noted in his journal, “The tattoo artist must have good assistants when he works, for penetrating the crack between the buttocks takes great skill and perseverance, as does the tattooing of the anus, perineum, scrotum, and penis….this part of the procedure is very unpleasant.”
A Polynesian style of tattooing known as Ta Moko traditionally provided a visual history of a person’s achievements and served as a reminder of their responsibilities. Ta Moko is enjoying a revival amongst the Maori of New Zealand. Traditionally, an albatross bone was used to apply the Ta Moko.
Traditional Thai Tattoo & Cambodian Tattoo
Symbolic Tattoos of Southeast Asia
- The art of tattooing most likely arrived in Thailand through the Shan of Southern China.
- The Shan introduced the practice to the Burmese and Khmers who used tattoos as far back as the 1st century A.D.
- Thailand’s King Rama I used identification markers for slaves, including their hometown and their master’s name.
- The epic Thai love poem, Khun Chang Khun Paen, originated around 1500 and makes reference to soldiers wearing protective tattoos in battle.
- Until about 50 years ago, the Lao Pong Dam people of Laos and men from north and northeast Thailand tattooed their bodies from the navel to their knees at puberty as a rite of passage. Referred to as the ‘pants tattoo,’ opium was smoked to reduce the intensity of pain. No self-respecting girl would consider marrying a man who was not tattooed in this fashion for he could never be considered a real man. You can still occasionally see a man from a village in SE Asia with this style of tattooing.
- At Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple in Thailand, a very old and important tradition of tattooing exists. Monks use a long metal stylus to inject the ink, which is traditionally a mixture of palm oil, herbs, ash, and some say snake venom. The tattoos typically depict Buddhist texts, numerology charts, mythical creatures, animal motifs, as well as symbols of Hindi mythology. The tattoos are thought to endow the wearer with supernatural powers. Every year a festival takes place at this temple with as many as 7,000 Thais showing up. Participants ‘lose themselves,’ and allow the spirit power of their tattoos to take them over.
History of Tattoos in Europe
- Ancient Greeks learned of tattooing from the Persians, and as well as applying tattoos for decorative purposes, they also used them for secret communications and identifying the rank of spies with the relevant tattoo hidden somewhere on the body. The Romans later identified slaves with tattoos.
- The first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, banned tattos in 787AD.
- Tattooing thrived in Britain up until 1066, when it virtually disappeared from Western culture. The art was rejuvenated when explorer William Dampher returned to London from the South Pacific with a Polynesian man called Giolo in 1691. Giolo was of Polynesian royalty and his tattoos became the talk of the town, being dubbed ‘the painted prince’. It would be another century before tattoos gained social acceptance. By the early 1800s, tattooing was thriving in England, particularly in the navy.
- The Prince of Wales was first tattooed in 1862, requesting a Jerusalem Cross. His sons, the Duke of Clarence and Duke of York (later to become King George V), received tattoos from the master Japanese tattooist, Hori Chiyo.
- The 1900s saw a noticeable decline in the reputation of tattooing and the practice fell from popularity. Tattooing went underground for most of the century. The cultural view of tattooing further deteriorated after WWII, with newspapers focusing on stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and the transfer of deadly diseases ensuing from a failure to adequately sterilize equipment in parlors. Tattooing was generally thought to be the domain of delinquents.
Tattoo Culture in the West Today
Tattoos are now more popular in the West than at any other time in recorded history. Over 39 million North Americans and untold millions around the world have at least one tattoo. The stigma that pursued tattoos throughout the better part of the last century (being associated with criminals, motorcycle gangs and sailors) has been steadily eroded throughout the previous two decades. Improved methods of tattooing as well as high profile music and film idols flaunting their tats have brightened the image of tattoos and led to greater acceptance within mainstream culture.
Is the recent renaissance of tattooing motivated by the same primal urges that were instinctive to the ancients or is the desire to get a tattoo merely an extension of fashion in a world obsessed with vanity? Some sociologists suggest that people going under the gun today are motivated by, “a desire to disaffiliate from conventional society and to symbolically affirm their personal identity.”
When putting the question “Why did you get a tattoo?” to the tattooed at a local club I received the following responses: “They’re sexy,” “they have symbolic power,” “I enjoy the whole ritual, including the pain,” "it’s a message of non-conformity,” “they look cool,” and "it’s a personal thing.” A tattoo artist explained, “You have at least two meters of usable canvass on your body and it’s an individual’s right to place what they think is beautiful art on it.”
Fisher, Jill A. (2002). Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture. Body & Society
Sanders, Clinton R. (1989) Customizing the Body: the Art and Culture of Tattooing. Philadelphia: TempleUniversity Press
Gustafson, Mark (1997) "Inscripta in fronte: Penal Tattooing in Late Antiquity," in Classical Antiquity, April 1997
Lombroso, Cesare (1896) "The Savage Origin of Tattooing," in Popular Science Monthly
Robley, Horatio (1896) Moko, or, Maori tattooing. London: Chapman and Hall
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.