From Angelina Jolie to the teenager working at the local supermarket everyone seems to be sporting tattoos. But where did this fad originate and what makes thousands of people want to adorn their body with art? Currently tattooing is the sixth fastest growing business in the United States following the internet, bagels, computers, cell phones, and blogs. The Pew Research Center states that 36% of women ages 18-25 have tattoos and 40% of the 26-40 group is adorned. In 2008, there were over 23,000 parlors in the US alone.
Historical Evidence of Tattoo
Because skin does not preserve well there is very little archaeological physical evidence that prehistoric people engaged in tattooing although a few artifacts have suggested that our ancestors decorated themselves with art. One such artifact monopolized headlines in 1991. Otzi the Iceman, a five thousand year old mummy, was discovered by hikers as snow started to melt in the Alps. Along with the many artifacts he had around him, a bow, daggers, copper, and tools, researchers also discovered he had 57 tattoos. His many tattoos consisted of a cross, a fish, and numerous bands of lines that ran above his kidneys and around his ankles. These lines were assumed to medicinal in purpose because of their locations. Since early tattoos were deemed very painful, primitive man assumed the process to be sacred.
Besides medicinal reasons like Otzi, tattoos have also been used as a form of funeral art. Ancient Egyptians applied tattoos to help the spirits pass into the afterlife undisturbed by evil forces. Today many people use tattoos to brand a memorial in ink on their body. RIP, initials, and hearts with loved ones names can be considered funeral art.
There are also Roman documents that give evidence to the fact that the ancient British and Scottish people tattooed themselves before going to fight. Stones from Gaul show leaders with tattooed faces. Woad a plant that produces a dark blue pigment was used during this time to stain the skin.
Pilgrim Influence on Tattoos
It was the Pilgrims with their strong Christian traditions that stopped much of the early tattoos. They used the book of Leviticus and the Bible verse “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh… nor printnay marks upon you “ to prevent tattoos. This Bible verse and the strong Christian ethic caused the art of tattooing to go underground for over two thousand years.
Written documentation of tattooing in the US is noted in an ancient sailors log from
early in the 19th century. It was called “pricking” and the sailors used a needle to “prick” the skin before applying ink and ash to the wound. It is believed that sailors learned this from the American Indians.
Samuel O’ Reilly’s Invention
The increase in modern tattooing in the United States can be traced directly to the invention of the electric tattooing machine. The machine was invented by Samuel O Reilly during the end of the 19th century. It shortened the time in getting a tattoo from hours to minutes. This invention also allowed for more sanitary conditions to prevail. The years that followed also brought great improvements to Samuel’s machine and led to the prototype of the tattoo gun that is still used today.
Celebrities have also increased the popularity of tattoos. As a fad or just a separate way to express their individuality the list of celebrities with tattoos is endless. It can be a simple design like the praying angel that Beyonce has on her left thigh, or something quite elaborate like the dragon emblazoned on Angelina Jolie’s back but either way the popularity is on the rise. The massive amount of tattoos has also spawned an off shoot industry with Tattoo removal shops popping up on every corner. Removing a tattoo is often painful and not without scarring. Some people choose to simply change the tattoo. Johnny Depp who had his love for Winona Ryder inked onto his arm, later changed it to “Wino Forever” when he found their love was not as eternal as he previously thought.
The government recognizes tattooing as not only as a profession but also as an art form. Many tattoo designs are the subject of art shows and are exhibited in museums not only in the United States but also in Canada and Europe.
Where tattoos were once considered the identifiers of bikers, felons and sailors, their cultural status is now advanced and considered a trendy fashion statement. The high quality of tattooing has led many people who might normally sneer at the thought of putting a permanent drawing on their body to “get ink”.
- Kennedy, Eric. The Progression of the Tattoo. Trincoll Journal. 1995