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A Brief History Of Tattoo Essay Research


The art of Tattoo has been around for many thousands of years.The styles and

reasons for it have varied from individual to individual as they have from society to

society.Some tattoos were done for simple adornment, others done for religious

beliefs,and others still for reasons only their owners will understand.Tattooing has

existed in one form or a another across the globe since before recorded history , and the

popularity of this unique form of expression will most likely continue for centuries to

come.Although the basic concept of tattoo has been a constant throughout the history of

mankind the styles and reasons for it have evolved along with mans own evolution.

Five thousand years ago,a man fell dead on the slopes of the Italian Alps.Five

thousand years later when his well preserved body was discovered,something remarkable

was found.Across his back and behind both knees were several simple line tattoos.The

significance to these tattoos , if there was any other then to decorate the body, are

unknown.Some speculate that they were done for medicinal purposes.The pigments used

may have been a certain type of berry know to have curative effects for different

ailments. (1,3)

The oldest tattooed mummy on record is the Lady Amunet,who was a priestess of

the Goddess Hathor.She lived in Thebes around 2160 B.C..Her tattoos consisted of

curling blue lines and dots scattered across most of her body.Historians don?t know if

there were specific reasons or meanings associated with the markings themselves,or the

placement,however, the current theory is that they are somehow related to a hieroglyphic

image of a woman covered in tattoos.These images of tattooed women , found in the

tombs of Kings , are known as the Brides of the dead.It was thought that these brides of

the dead would lead the dead Kings to the after life and there rejuvenate them.Amunet ,

perhaps,was a living representation of this religious belief.Eventually Egyptian tattooing

began to move past simple abstract symbols and into more representational art.The only

specific design found,was that of the God Bes.Bes protected the home,everything in

it,and also women who were giving birth.Done as a simple outline,this tattoo has been

found on the thighs of dancers? mummified bodies.(1,5)

The ancient Romans were vehemently against marking the body in any way.The

belief being that we are created in Gods image and to desecrate that was sacrilege .In

Rome at this time,tattoos were grounds for banishment.Further more Romans used

tattoos in order to brand criminals. However,while fighting on foreign fronts Roman

soldiers encountered warriors of the British Isles who wore tattoos as a badge of

honor.Perhaps in admiration or sympathy with these fierce foes, these Roman soldiers

adopted the practice of tattoo.As these Roman soldiers returned home the market for

tattoos grew in the heart of Rome.Doctors,whose tools could be adapted to the practice of

tattooing quickly took up the art and began to perfect the trade, becoming tattoo artists in

their own right. (4)

Here we begin to see how the individual has always persued the tattoo even

though it runs counter to the beliefs and values of the society in which they live.This was

never more true then in the early days of Christianity.It was at this time that tattoos were

forbidden under the guise of religion .?Thou shalt not make any cuttings in your flesh for

the dead,nor print any marks upon you ? Leviticus 19:28.Despite this, many early

Christians had themselves tattooed with a cross to signify their permanent allegiance to

Christ.Some of the power of a tattoo comes from its permanence once placed on the

body.If found by the Romans,these early tattooed Christians would surly be put to death.

In 325 A.D. tattoos again came under fire as Emperor Constantine took up

Christianity.The pagan Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.Constaninte

decreed the body sacred and was not to be defiled by man.This effectively drove

tattooing under ground.By the 4th century tattooing was nearly non existent in

western society. (3,4)

Tattoo carries a radically different meaning from one culture to the next.We see

this clearly in a sect of Egyptian Christians called the Copts.The Copts continued to

tattoo their inner wrists with small crosses.This was the beginning of some of the most

elaborate religious tattoos ever seen. (3)

During the Holy Wars of the 11th and 12th century warriors often marked

themselves with the Jerusalem Cross,fearing that if they died in battle the cross would

mark them for a proper Christian burial.Once the Crusades were over the practice of

tattoo largely disappeared in the west once again. (3)

The impulse to tattoo the body is universal and finds expression in every

culture.Japan may have had the most complete and exotic of devotion to tattoos.The art

flourished in Japan mainly do to a repressive government edict allowing only the royal

and wealthy to wear elaborately decorated kimonos. The merchant class began to aquire

tattoos. Full and elaborate body suits were the style.The only parts of the body not

tattooed were the face,hands,and the 3 – 4 inch seam that ran from the neck to below the

navel.The imagery was mostly taken from the classic literature at the time.These suits

would consist of stories of conflict and courage.Sword wielding samurai doing battle

with mythical dragons would adorn many men in one form or another as an act of

rebellion.In 1870 the Japanese government outlawed this practice for fear of how of it

would appear to western eyes.Again tattoos were driven underground.This made tattoos

more enticing to the criminal elements .Unfortunately for the image of tattooed people

for years to come,these men were mostly members of the Yakuza,or Japanese Mafia.This

became a badge of membership for the Yakuza,although tattoos were also popular with

the upper class men as well.(2,6)

As generations passed the reasons for getting tattoos evolved.Once an act of

rebellion body suits became works of art and expression of religious faith.?These people

liked getting tattooed for the beauty and the raising of spirituality that being tattooed can

bring to an individual.Getting tattooed can have a transformational effect on the

recipient.?(6). Such is the power of tattoo.In a nation that honors a homogenous culture it

is ironic that the most colorful and elaborate tattoos developed in Japan. (6)

By the early 18th century sailors from Europe found the South and Central Pacific

Islands.In 1716 Captain James Cook landed in Tahiti and the word tattoo entered the

English language.In Tahiti a girls buttocks were tattooed completely black when she

reached the age of sexual maturity.Tattoos here had flourished and spread between the

islands.In Hawaii three dots tattooed on the tongue was to signify mourning.In Borneo an

eye was tattooed on the palm of the hand to serve as a spiritual guide to see them to the

next life.The Samoan men wear what is called a Pe?a.It is a series of lines beginning at

the kidneys,continuing down to the knees.The women wore a Malu.This covered them

from thigh to knee.While visiting missionaries tried to wipe out the practice among the

natives the sailors adopted the practice and spread it with them through their

travels. (1,3)

In New Zealand Cook found the Mouri,now famous for their complete facial

tattoos.These facial tattoos had very specific meanings for the Mouri.Each section of the

face and each design spoke of their heritage and standing in the community.When Cook

returned to England in 1775 he brought with him a native named Omhie.Omhie was

completely tattooed and being quite a civilized and dignified man ,changed the image of

the tattoo from something only savages had to the prize of the complete European

gentleman.Once again the tattoo takes on a new form.?The tattoo is so malleable and

flexible that it is able to embody so many different meanings , even through the course of

one persons lifetime his tattoos can change and grow in meaning.? (5).European royalty

began to get tattoos,not the images of the Mouri facial tattoo but symbols of royalty and

power from the English mind set. (3,5)

Even in the 1860?s in America the art of tattoo was prevalent , but still somewhat

primitive.Relegated to sailors and circus sideshows , tattoos still had a foot hold on

American society.Only 30 years later,in 1890,Samuel O?riely,seeing a blueprint for

Thomas Edisons electric engraving pen,modified it,making the first electric tattoo

machine.The principle is still the same basic design for todays modern tattoo guns.This

was the beginning of modern tattooing. (2)

The Tattoo Renaissance began circa 1960.At this time,less then 500 tattoo artists

were practicing in the U.S..These were mainly by military bases and amusement

parks.With improved tools and techniques it was no longer a struggle to get the ink into

the skin.Now the artist became more concerned with mathematical principles of

balance,harmony,and prospective.Also just around this time,collectors and artist began to

throw off the idea that they were criminals or mentally disturbed individuals.(2)

Today with modern techniques and attitudes,tattoo is more accessible and

acceptable then ever before.The only limit on this art now seems to be our own

imaginations.Brightly colored or black and gray inks hold their shape and shade better

then ever before.As the styles become more diversified,more people,young and old,are

able to find something in tattoo that appeals to their own sensabilities.As we see in

todays popular culture,tattoo is the thing to do.For those who say it?s a fad,they may be

right.However,it?s a fad with highs and lows that have stretched from before the

beginning of mans? history, to the limits of his imagination.


1. Arcadia. ?Ancient Art – A Tattoo Timeline?

Tattoo Feb. , 1997 : Issue 78

2. Michelle Delio. ?The Tattoo Renaissance – A Revolution in

Thought and Form?

Tattoo May , 1997 : Issue 93

3. Steve Gilbert – ?Tattoo History?

Tattoo May , 1998 : Issue 105

4. Alan Govenar -? Stoney Knows How – Life as a Tattoo Artist?

Tattoo Revue January ,1995 : Issue 39

5. Margo DeMello – ?Body Art?

Tattoo Gallery January 1997 :Issue 4

6. Horiyoshi – ?Traditional Tattoo ?

Tattoo Feb. ,1998 : Issue 102

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