The History and Culture of Tattooing

By | February 6, 2014

Recommended Products

I put off getting a tattoo for years because I was afraid of what others would think. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Once I started thinking about it I was already married and expecting our first child. Many things went through my head about what society expects of you and the stereotypes involved. I was worried that people would judge me my parenting ability on how I dressed, what jewelry I wore, how my hair was styled or if I had ink on my body.

I am one of those people that grew up during the punk revolution and I embraced it. My hair style was hardly ever what someone would consider “normal”. I wore safety pins in my ears. They were already pierced and to me it seemed a normal thing to do. The long and the short of it is I could never easily blend into a crowd.

Today things haven’t changed much. I still do strange things to my hair. In the last year it has been at least six colors, and only two of those could be considered normal hair colors. I still don’t dress in the popular fashion of “respectable” Generation X’ers. I have started to collect body piercings and tattoos. Surprisingly, it doesn’t embarrass my children. If anything it has taught them to be themselves and not give into peer pressure and follow fads.

What has surprised me though is the interest that I have taken in the history of tattooing. Yes, tattooing has a history and it’s a rather long and fascinating one that covers all cultures.

The tattoo dates back to 12,000 years before Christ and they were originally done for non-aesthetic purposes. In some cultures only the priests or nobility wore them, in other cultures they marked your place in society. A skilled weaver would have a tattoo on her forearm signifying this for men looking for a woman who was highly prized marriageable material. Other cultures would use tattoos as a way to ward off evil spirits or mark their accomplishments. In the Mediterranean, Greek spies communicated via their tattoos. Their markings indicated who the spies were and how high they ranked. Romans marked their slaves and prisoners with tattoos as well as gladiators for ease of identification. The reasons for tattoos are as diverse as the cultures that took up the practice.

In 1991, a five thousand year old ice man was uncovered between Austria and Italy. This was the best preserved corpse of that period that had been found. The ice man’s body sported fifty-seven tattoos that are believed to be applied for therapeutic reasons.

Archeology digs have uncovered mummies in Egypt that were tattooed as well as clay dolls with tattoo-like pictures on them. The mummified remains of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, dates back to between 2160 to 1994 BC. Her body displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body and aligned into abstract geometric designs. This particular art form was restricted to women only who were associated with ritualistic practice.

The Japanese body suit originated around 1700 as a response to laws regulating diet, dress and other forms of conspicuous consumption among the social classes. At the time only royalty was allowed to wear elaborately decorated clothing. The working class resorted to beautiful tattoo work, conforming to the shape of their body to by-pass the regulations. With the addition of a loincloth, a highly tattooed person was considered well dressed in the confines of his own home.

With all the cultural history of the tattoo, why is it still seen by some members of society as taboo? Probably because of the stereotypes involved in it’s evolution in the United States.

In 1961 in Western Europe, sailor and explorer William Dampier brought Prince Giolo, who was heavily tattooed, to London from the South Seas. The Painted Prince, as he became known, was put on exhibit and became the rage of London and a sure-fire money making attraction with his Polynesian tattoos covering his body. Polynesian tattoos have their own interesting history and are the precursors to the popular tribal tattoos of today.

In the late 1700s Captain Cook, brought back a similarly tattooed Polynesian man, Omai, who caused just a big of stir in London as he was put on display. Omai was seen as a noble savage and became the first “sideshow” exhibit. For a short time, this sideshow made tattooing popular in the upper class of London.

Around 1897, after the invention of the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, tattooing came to North America via France or England. At the beginning of this century tattooists worked in seedy sections of cities and towns that were frequented by sailors, traveling sideshows and circuses. In the 1930’s the Great Omi, another heavily tattooed man, toured the world.

World War I and II brought the demand for tattoo flash that depicted branches of the service, bravery and wartime images. Tattoo shops set up near military bases to accommodate the service men and tattoos became known as “travel marks”.

After WWII the tattoo culture changed and was embraced by those that wanted to rebel against society. Tough guys and delinquents began to populate the tattoo shops. The tattooists of the time practiced “dirty” business by displaying autoclaves and sterilization machines but not using them. Hepatitis and blood poisoning made church and city officials declare that tattooing was dirty and passed health regulations against tattooing. When the shops closed and moved so did the seedy element that went with them. Tattooing now had a bad reputation and became a stigma for illness, delinquency and the bad element of society.

1967 brought the hippies and the desire for tattoos again to make it again popular. The tattoos that were once considered travel marks were turned into sexy little designs, pretty pictures and political statements. Because tattoos were still somewhat of a mark to rebel against society, other sub-cultures in the 1970s adopted them including those in the gay community and bikers.

Today tattooing is considered another art form helped made vogue by celebrities sporting ink and competitions are held all over the world to decide on the best tattoo art. There are still religious fanatics that quote Leviticus 19:28 “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you” as argument against the practice of tattooing. This was a Biblical law that was made for a time to help separate the pagan cultures that used tattoos as part of their religious practice from the followers of God.

Needless to say, many Christians do not hold to this belief. Rosaries and crosses, images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are just as popular among those who want to immortalize their religious beliefs on their body as those people who have tribals, portraits of loved ones, and other images on them. People from all walks of life have tattoos. They are not just images found on sailors, bikers, criminals and delinquents. Celebrities, doctors, lawyers and teachers have tattoos. Tattooing has become mainstreamed with the ease that they can be given. No longer are they done by hand with crude instruments except in the cases of ritual Polynesian tattooing, but are done with an electric tattoo machine, saving time. Health regulations put in place to prevent blood borne illnesses make tattooing the safest it has ever been in history. Tattoo artists are respected and honored for their craft. It was recently made public that there are more paid subscriptions to the Suicide Girls website than there is to the subscription area of the Playboy website. What society considers beautiful and acceptable is constantly changing and it will be interesting to see what the next phase of history brings to the tattoo.

Recommended Products....