The History of Tattooing

By | December 31, 2013

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Tattooing is a usually permanent form of body alteration with ink marks. “Tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “tattau”, for “to strike or hit”, referring to the pricking motion of the needle or bone that pushes the ink deep into the skin. Most cultures have a history of tattooing. Today, in the US, tattoos are becoming popular again: in 2004, no less then 32 percent of adults were sporting at least one tattoo.

Therapeutic

The earliest (known) tattoos were amulets protecting the wearer against pain or danger.

  • The oldest known tattooed human is

    Otzi the “Iceman”, a 5,200-year-old mummy found near frozen in the Alps near the Italian-Austrian border. Otzi wears 57 dots and small crosses over his lower spine and on the joints of his right knee and ankle. Because on these spots Otzi’s bones were strained and deteriorated, scientists speculate that the tattoos were applied there to alleviate and/or ward off pain.

  • In Egypt, tattooing was a female practice. Figurines from 4,000 B.C. and female mummies from 2,000 B.C. display tattoos conspicuously concentrated on the abdomen and thighs. They are probably not a prostitute’s protection against sexually transmitted diseases, but rather amulets for women during pregnancy and childbirth. Imagine a net of dark dots that, as the pregnancy progressed, expanded around the belly/baby. Other images are of the deity Bes, the protector of laboring women. It is not known if this was common among all women or reserved for the privileged.

Social status

Tattoos were also marks of high distinction.

  • The 2,400-year-old frozen mummies of a Scythian man and woman (found in Siberia) show elaborate tattoos of mythical creatures all over the body. In 450 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus explained Scythian and Thracian tattoos as marks of nobility, adding that the lack of tattoos betrayed low birth.
  • Ancient Nubian (south of Egypt) mummies from between 2,000-1,500 B.C. have blue tattoos. Slightly more recent representations of male Libyan war leaders show geometrical tattoos on arms and legs.
  • The ancient Briton tribes also wore tattoos of animal creatures as marks of high status. The Romans called one such tribe “

    Picts,” meaning “painted ones”.

StigmatizeTattoos could also be marks of lesser distinction and used to

ostracize.

  • During the Han Dynasty in China (220 B.C. to 220 A.D.), only

    criminals bore tattoos.

  • On the whole, the ancient Greeks and Romans used tattoos, which they called “stigmata,” to mark slaves with the sign of their owner and criminals with the mark of their crime.

Popularization

But soon tattooing became less laden with such heavy social messages, and more popular:

  • Roman soldiers popularized tattooing as an art form and with them it spread across the Empire.
  • The power of tattoos was demonstrated in the 4th century A.D. by Emperor Constantine, when he banned tattoos as unchristian and a disfiguration of God’s image.

Pre-Columbian American cultures too employed extensive tattoos: ancient Peruvian and Chilean mummies testify to this, as well as bodies of Greenland Inuit women. Native American tribes like the Cree wore war paint as protection in battle.

The Polynesians are perhaps the most famous tattooists:

  • In 1769, the people of Tahiti gave the West (in the person of Captain Cook) the word “tattau” (or “tatatau”). The Europeans who visited these islands spread the practice around the world.
  • Hawaiians often bear their family’s Aumakua, a family or guardian spirit, tattooed on their bodies. The picture accompanying this article shows a tattoo of 3 honu’s or turtles, representing one particular family’s Aumakua (courtesy of Samuel Cheney).
  • Especially the Maori, both men and women, of New Zealand are known for the ornate head tattoos called “moko”. These are unique marks of status, position, parentage, abilities, and rites of passage that the wearer has undergone. Despite the effort of Christian missionaries to stop the practice, it survived until very recently and is now being revived.

Main source: Smithsonian Magazine. A more extensive article can be found in National Geographic Magazine.

Related articles:

  • Tattooing: good reasons, bad reasons, meanings and responsibilities
  • Tattoo Tips, Resources and Facts
  • Tattooing for parents and teens

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