Brief History of the Tattoo

By | January 2, 2014

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The tattoo has been around for thousands of years. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word ‘tattau’, which means to strike or hit. Tattoos have been used as status symbols, amulets, religious symbols, decoration, and punishment. The earliest tattoos were found on female mummies in Egypt. The mummies were believed to be from approximately 2000 B.C. However, there is evidence that women had tattoos even earlier from figurines that were believed to be made around 4000 B.C.

It appears that primarily women received tattoos in ancient Egypt. It was first believed that women with tattoos were of low status. However, these female mummies were found in an area where the elite and royalty were buried. It is possible that the designs were meant to be amulets during pregnancy and birth. For the most part, the tattoos are concentrated on the abdomen, thighs, and breasts. The deity Bes was often tattooed on women’s thighs. Bes was considered to be the protector of women during labor and birth.
Archaeologists discovered a sharp point that was set in a wooden handle in Egypt that is believed to have been used to make tattoos around 3000 B.C. Bronze instruments from 1450 B.C. that are thought to have been used as tattooing tools were also found. These tools were very similar to tattooing tools that were used in the 19th century.
In Egypt, a tattoo was primarily made of dotted patterns that consisted of diamond shapes and lines and, as mentioned above, small figures of the god Bes. In order to make the dots typically a dark pigment, such as ash or soot, was placed in the pricked skin. While Egyptian tattoos were usually dark, other cultures, such as the Inuit, used lighter colors along with darker pigments.
There are many other early cultures that used tattoos. The people of the Altai Mountain region marked their skin with ornate tribal tattoos. A male body was found in the ice in 1948. His arms, legs, and body were covered with tattoos of animals. In 1993, a woman’s body was found in a tomb in the Altai Mountains. She had a tattoo of a mythical animal on her shoulders and more tattoos on her wrists and thumb. It is believed that the tattoo was a mark of nobility. The culture of early Britain also used tattoos as a mark of status and royalty.

Among the Romans and Greeks, the tattoo was used mostly to mark someone as part of a religious sect or to part someone as a criminal. The use of tattoos spread through the Roman Empire until Christianity began to emerge. Tattoos were then considered a pagan practice that disfigured the body and were banned by Emperor Constantine.
Some Native American cultures, such as the Cree, used tattoos to mark their faces with delicate and detailed patterns. The Japanese began tattooing their skin with intricate designs at the end of the 3rd century. Polynesian cultures also used elaborate tattoos that featured geometric designs that often covered the entire body.
The Maori culture of New Zealand used elaborate facial tattoos to mark individuals of high status. Each design was unique to that individual and represented specific information, such as rank and skills that have been mastered. Warriors were given their tattoo in stages in order to correspond with various stages in their lives.
Modern tattoos are amazing works of art that use many different colors and span all cultures. The tattoo artists of Samoa create their tattoos as they did in ancient times, without modern equipment. Many modern African cultures also use tattoos, from the facial tattoos of the Wodabe to the fine dotted marks used by the Berber in Algeria.
Although the tattoo is used in many different cultures, for the most part, their use seems to have begun independently in each. Both ancient and modern cultures use tattoos for therapy, protection, fashion, to mark people from different groups or religions, or simply a form of self expression.

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