The story of tattoos is one of remarkable reinvention. The Latin word for tattoo is stigma, sometimes translated as “the markings on the snake.” Tattoos were first used in many cultures to mark slaves and prisoners—to shame the fallen in a painful and indelible way. Western missionaries who encountered flourishing tattoo cultures while abroad immediately began trying to eradicate tattooing as part of the “civilization” process. Ironically it was the missionary ships themselves that carried tattooed sailors back to their home countries, bringing foreign tattoo designs to Western cultures. The more Western societies hated tattoos, the more popular they became in certain circles. Tattoos were an affordable way to show connections between people working in the same trade or sharing the same problems, and many embraced them.
In many parts of the world, tattoos eventually began to shift from being the mark of a degenerate to something more valuable. For example, Japanese criminals who had been tattooed involuntarily on their arms and faces expanded these shameful markings into elaborate, decorative designs. In doing so, they transformed the meaning of their tattoos and began to redefine what it meant to possess them. Therein lies the magic of tattoos: they can make you either a hero or a villain, can be a symbol of distinction or one of intense shame, depending on the time, place, and design.
The departure of missionaries, the respect for national sovereignty, and other 21st-century improvements on the world stage have allowed for a celebrated resurgence of tattooing in many cultures, making it a great time in history to explore where the evolution of the practice stands at different points on the globe.
Germany is an inspiring example of a country that has overcome a historical prejudice against tattoos. After an early fascination with body art that eventually degenerated into the kind of disgust common in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany added a horrific and unique chapter to its tattoo heritage during the rule of the Nazi party. Between the marking of innocent prisoners and the Neo Nazi tattoo scene that flourished in post-World War II Germany, Germans have faced a daunting task in trying to redefine tattoos in their society. Yet Germany now has one of the highest concentrations of tattoo parlors in the world and a vibrant body art scene that is successfully attempting to bury its past through artistic creativity. Exploring that creativity and the sad history that drives it is a fascinating experience, not to mention a great example of a blueprint Americans could follow to rethink tattoos in our own culture.
Tattooing has been practiced in China for thousands of years but has had a bad reputation for the majority of that time. Many iconic tattoo designs that people associate with Japanese tattoo culture—such as the carp and the dragon—actually originated in China but are now rare following the 1949 Communist takeover, which outlawed tattooing. Most Chinese dislike tattoos and Ci shen (to punctuate the body) is still largely associated with low status and only done in cosmopolitan city centers. However, the practice is experiencing a very recent resurgence in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, despite the fact that tattoo artists still operate in a legal grey area. This sudden reclamation of China’s rich tattoo heritage makes it an exciting time to examine the Chinese tattoo scene.
Thailand has historically found itself in an interesting cultural schism in which the government and upper classes look down on tattoos while many in the very superstitious society at large believe deeply in their magical powers. Tattoos are only supposed to be applied by Buddhist priests who have been trained as tattoo masters and will only tattoo positive designs. Thai masters have even been known to consider the possibility that a man is too weak-minded for a certain magical tattoo and “dilute” the design accordingly. Unfortunately the separation of attitudes in Thai society affects the viability of the tattoo tradition. There are some encouraging signs, however, such as the Bangkok International Tattoo Convention and the tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chaisi, a tattoo festival so fascinating that it alone would be worth the trip to Thailand.
The British used Australia as a dumping ground for prisoners and deserters—many of them heavily tattooed—until 1867, a very poor foundation for Australian tattoo culture. This unsavory beginning has left Australia at a fascinating crossroads, unsure about which direction to take its native tattoo tradition. Some are electing to adopt foreign styles while others try to forge a uniquely Australian style based mainly on native plant and animal imagery. Despite being a highly developed country, Australia has something of a burgeoning tattoo scene—the Sydney Tattoo and Body Art Expo will be running for only the fourth time ever in 2012—providing travelers with a unique opportunity to see a tattoo culture in the midst of a profound transition.
It is well known that in Maori culture tattoos are considered signs of beauty and have historically been applied with great ceremony. Men without tattoos have traditionally been looked down on, while those who underwent full body tattooing were held in the highest esteem. New Zealand defies the Western stereotype that all indigenous tattoo cultures are crude and uncivilized; by the time James Cook explored New Zealand in the 18th century, the Maori had already mastered the use of a complex array of tattoo instruments with as many as 60 points. Missionaries severely disrupted Maori culture, however, and despite a celebrated rejuvenation of tribal tattoos in New Zealand, damage to the tradition has no doubt been done. In addition, the explosion of tribal tattoos on the American tattoo scene over the last decade makes a visit to a country that still practices an authentic form of the style very refreshing.
If you have some money to travel and think you can stand the pain, any of these destinations are intriguing stops on a tattoo enthusiast’s itinerary.