History of Tattoos and Body Piercing

By | December 28, 2013

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They come in all shapes and sizes ranging from the delicate to the outrageous! Why do people in so many disparate cultures permanently ink their skin with symbols and unique designs? What is the allure of tattoos and body piercing?

Tattoos and body piercing date back in history more than 5,000 years. They most likely began as cultural rituals. Some tribal tattoos were and are perceived as a sign of beauty. Others serve as class distinction, or to ward off illness and disease.

Professor John A. Rush in his book “Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding, and Implants” sees the physical alteration of the body as a rite of passage, a group identifier, or a mechanism of social control. Slaves have frequently been branded over the course of history to establish ownership. The Romans punished early Christians by tattooing their foreheads. Jews were tattooed during the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps during World War II for identification purposes.

In modern times, tattoos and piercing are often seen as a way to express individuality or rebellion. Vanity also plays a part. A tattoo strip around a man’s biceps can make them appear larger. A tattoo or piercing will call attention to various parts of the female anatomy, especially on the lower back and around the belly button.

Tattooing is also sometimes used to create permanent makeup that resembles eyeliner, eyebrows and lipstick. Tattoos can be used to disguise scars and white spots on the skin, and are also useful in enhancing the areola after breast surgery.

In prison or gang cultures, body art is used to show defiance, independence, or belonging to a particular group. The ink gives them an identity, which profoundly affects their lives. Skull and crossbones tattoos, and body art slogans, such as “Born to Ride,” first became popular with Biker gangs in the 1950s.

The Hippie generation of the 1960s also transformed the history of tattooing. “Flower Power” reigned. Ying yang symbols, peace signs, and butterflies were the predominant tattoos displayed during that time. If a girl had her ears pierced before the Hippie movement, she was considered to be a slut by many main stream conservatives. Tattoos and pierced ears became more acceptable as time moved on and Hippies took prominent jobs in traditional society.

Celebrity tattoos and piercing have been instrumental in making the ancient art more acceptable as well. British royalty in the 19th century became the first celebrities to indulge in adorning their body with permanent markings. The Prince of Wales visited the Holy Land in 1862 and had the Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm. In later life, he became King Edward VII. His sons, the Duke of Clarence, and the Duke of York, who later became King George V, acquired tattoos when they visited Japan in 1882. Winston Churchill had a tattoo of an anchor on his arm and his mother, Jenny, had a tattoo of a snake on her right wrist. In today’s world, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Johnny Depp are just a handful of the many celebrities who sport tattoos.

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