Tattoos Display Social, Cultural and Psychological Truths

By | December 19, 2013

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From the Samoan word ‘tatau’, a tattoo is indelible ink inserted into the dermis skin layer changing the pigment. On humans, it’s mainly for decoration, though may make other significant behavioural statements too, including ownership if the person was a slave; on animals it’s a mark of ownership.

Indigenous peoples of Japan wore facial tattoos, Berbers in North Africa, Arabic peoples in East Turkey and the Inuits join tribes in Borneo, Philippines, North and South America, Cambodia, Borneo, Taiwan in tattooing for religious, defence, fashion/cosmetic, mating or still unknown reasons. In New Zealand’s Maori culture, the human head took markings indicating status, rank, ancestry and abilities: a facial passport id.

The History

An early record of body marking was in the naturalist’s diary, aboard Cook’s ship, Endeavour, in 1769: ‘I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each so marked by their humour or disposition’. However, history suggests tattooing was widespread and earlier than that.

According to Cate Lineberry, on Smithsonian (2007): ‘Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs — sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal — served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious belief, adornments and even punishment’. Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians broadly agree.

Tattooing has cultural significance stretching back 5000 years BC in different cultures across the globe right up to the early 21st century, where it has seen a revival. The reasons are still cultural, but more to do with image, body-obsession and trend-setting. The Romans named an ancient northern Britons’ tribe, The Picti, (Picts), ‘painted people’.

Cate Lineberry and Professor Dan Brothwell of York University believed tattooed dots and small crosses on lower spine, right knee and ankle joints of the Ice Man discovered on Austrian/Italian border in 1991, indicated therapeutic pain relief, rather than status-display. Female mummies, tomb scenes, figurines suggested many Egyptian women had thigh tattoos. Early discoverers assumed they were prostitutes, but Cate Lineberry reckoned tattoos round thighs and abdomens to be childbirth protection amulets.

Sharp points set in wooden handles and bronze flattened needles have been found. Tied together, similar implements prick the skin in desired patterns, not unlike modern skin graphic equipment. Black pigments like soot, animal blood, ground ash produced strikingly colourful decorations.

Greeks and Romans enjoyed widespread use of tattoos, called ‘stigmata’, until Rome became Christian, when tattoos, which disfigured ‘that made in God’s image’ were banned. Ancient Chinese tattooed criminals; Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates.

Famous People With Tattoos

In 2010 Tattoo Designs decided people would be interested in celebrity lists featuring ‘desirable’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘hottest’, according to the tattoos that adorned them. ‘Celebrity female singers, actors, and models have been sporting tattoos for years’. They added athletes, wrestlers, models hip-hop artists to celebrities popularizing tattoos.

The tattooed included Angelina Jolie (more than a dozen), Johnny Depp, Christine Aguilera (who also has piercings), Mike Tyson (who calls his ‘power personal totems’), Nicole Richie, rapper 50 Cent, Britney Spears and Eminem. UK soccer star David Beckham, Drew Barrymore, Pamela Anderson while musicians Travis Barker and Tommy Lee are among proud tattoo wearers.

Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Curt Cobain, Prince, Geri Halliwell, Jim Morrison, Cher, Bjork and Jon Bon Jovi are a selection from the living and the dead, identified at least in part by their body-painting statements.

Tattoos in the Arts

The Illustrated Man (novel 1951, movie 1969), was about a woman who covered a man almost entirely with tattoos, each of which hid a futuristic story, which the watcher experienced. Waterworld (1995), a post apocalyptic, flooded world story featured a child, who had tattooed on her back, a map to the mysterious ‘Dryland’.

In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick (movie 1956), the narrator talked of a Polynesian harpooner whose face and body were tattooed by a ‘seer of his island’ who wrote on him ‘a complete theory of the heavens and the earth’, that was unintelligible. Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes ‘made a small study of tattoo marks’, in The Red-Headed League (1891).

The Electric Michelangelo (2004), was described by Publishers’ Weekly as Sarah Hall’s ‘mellifluous coming-of-age story about an apprentice tattoo artist from the north coast of England who reinvents himself in Coney Island, N.Y.’, and by Booklist as set in the ‘bacchanalian world’. Blackie, the Electronic Rembrandt by Thomas Gunn (1994) was ‘a tattoo poem’, reinforcing the view by some that indelible body painting is high art.

Rae Schwarz of Bella Online described 1981’s movie Tattoo as ‘mild thriller, featuring a loner who falls in love with a fashion model and decides to save her from her life of decadence’. It was about obsession and power; using a woman as canvass to paint the fantasies/demons that many people live with. Irezumi (Spirit of Tattoo) (1985) was a Japanese movie about a woman consenting to her lover’s desire to tattoo her.

In Treasure Island (1883), a mysterious sea captain’s tattooed arm signified his past and future adventures. The psychotic vengeful ex-criminal in Cape Fear (1991) was covered in religious tattoos that added to his fear-inducing abilities. The tattoo of a butterfly, a ‘papillon’, gave the title to the 1973 escape movie. The Blues Brothers (1980) had their names tattooed on their knuckles.

Red Dragon (2002) featured a dragon tattoo based on a William Blake painting. An eye on the left ankle was the hallmark of a secret organisation in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). A preserved corpse in the murder mystery The Grave Tattoo bore tattoos that revealed clues.

Movies

The Tattooed Stranger (1950), Double Exposure (1987), The Jigsaw Murders (1989), Lethal Weapon (1987), Man Against the Mob: Chinatown Murders (1989), Night of the Hunter (1955, 1991), Once Were Warriors (1994), The Phoenix (1992), Poison Ivy (1992), Raising Arizona (1987), Romper Stomper (1993), Sonny Boy (1990), Tattoo Chase (1989) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) all used, exploited or featured tattoos.

They are personalized statements that others either love or hate. Many regret youthful choices of markings, and try to remove them later. The fact that they are virtually forever, makes them even more of a social comment on people’s psychology and history.

Sources:

Smithsonian Web 4 Dec 2010.

Faqs.org Web 4 Dec 2010.

Bella Online Web 4 Dec 2010.

Tattoo Designs Web 4 Dec 2010.

Celebrity Tattoos Web 4 Dec 2010.

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