Tattoos: The History and Evolution of Human Body Art

By | January 5, 2014

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A person cannot go to the grocery store without seeing at least one person with a tattoo. In some cultures, having tattoos is an honor and in others it’s the mark of a criminal, while in other cultures it’s just a statement, an extension of one’s fashion. The body, like a canvas for an artist, has become a blank slate for a tattoo artist to create their art on.

The History of Tattoos

The earliest known tattoo was found on a man on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. After carbon dating testing was completed, it was determined that the man, referred to as Iceman, was around 5,200 years old. The tattoos found on Iceman were on the lower spine, right knee, and ankle joints; which, according to experts, suggested that the tattoos were for therapeutic reasons.

Before Iceman was found, Russian excavators found tattooed bodies that dated back 2,400 years in the mountains of Siberia. The tattoos the mummies had that the Russians found were in the shapes of animals, whereas the ones found on Iceman were merely dots and crosses found sporadically on the body. The tattoos found on the Siberian mummies were thought to be decorative or to show one’s status or rank.

Japanese Tattoos

The history of tattoos in Japan is rather interesting. Originally, tattoos were applied on clay figurines and placed in the tombs of the people that they resembled. It was thought that the tattoos had religious or magical importance. There have been some of these figurines found dating back to 3,000 B.C.

The first documented tattoo in Japan was in 297 A.D by the Chinese dynasty. In the Chinese text they describe the Japanese men, whether they be young or old, as having tattooed all parts of their bodies with different designs. The Chinese also mention the Japanese tattooing themselves in other parts of their history books; however, they always paint the tattooing in a negative light. The Chinese considered the Japaneses’ act of tattooing themselves as an act of barbarism.

The Evolution of Tattooing

Sailors have also been another staple within the tattooing community with their anchor tattoos or the bodies of beautiful woman forever etched into their skin. The link between sailors and tattoos began in the 1700s with Captain Cook when he discovered the tattooed natives of the South Pacific. The Captain’s sailors wanted a memento of their adventures and the exotic tattoo seemed the perfect souvenir, thus beginning the tattooing of sailors.

Centuries later the circus brought tattoos to the masses with their performers who were covered from head-to-toe with tattoos. People who came to see these performers were fascinated by these walking pieces of body art which resulted in people going out and getting tattooed themselves. In effect, the circus performers helped to spread out the popularity of tattoos.

Gang Related Tattoos

Another use for tattoos is to show a person’s gang affiliation, as well as their personal skills and accomplishments within their respective gangs. In each country around the world a specific symbol, whether it be a skull, spade, or rose can mean a different accomplishment has been achieved by the wearer.

In Britain, if a person has dot tattooed on the left cheekbone, it means that they spent time in Borstal prison. Therefore, a simple little dot tattooed on the cheek, within the criminal community, is a status symbol. In America, if someone gets a teardrop tattooed by the eye, it usually means that the person has committed murder or a friend was killer in prison. A tattoo of a clock with no hands symbolizes doing a life sentence.

Tattoos have been around for centuries for medicinal, decorative, and various other reasons. Presently, they are used more as an extension of a person’s sense of fashion or to show their religious or gang affiliations. Either way a person looks at it, the body is still a canvas for a tattoo artist to work his or her art on and now there is a lot of really nice artwork out there.

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