ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BODY MODIFICATION & TATTOOING HISTORY
Americapracticed by a number of tribes...
Tattooing had been practiced in the United States by a number of Native American tribes since before Europeans arrived in America. For instance, many California coastal Indians tattooed decorative marks on women, often on the face; a common design was a series of lines extending from the lips down to the chin. Many Plains and Southwest Indians practiced tattooing as did a number of Southern and Eastern tribes.
Native American tattooing, however, probably had very little impact on the development of tattooing among Euro-Americans. Instead, tattooing in the United States can trace its origins to two related phenomena: the practice, started by Europeans, of sailors and other explorers bringing back from their explorations descriptions of tattoos, tattoos on their own bodies, and tattooed native peoples; and the display of tattooed natives and later, tattooed Europeans, at festivals and carnivals…
From at least the eighteenth century, and perhaps as early as the fifteenth century, European explorers brought home with them information about tattooing as it was practiced by many of the peoples that they encountered during their travels. These sailors began to get tattooed, probably influencing soldiers at home to get tattoos as well. In the United States, certainly since at least the Civil War, tattoos were an acceptable means for soldiers and sailors to demonstrate their love of their country as well as their feelings for the loved ones left behind. The first professional tattoo artist in the United States, Martin Hildebrandt, who opened his shop in New York City in 1846, tattooed many soldiers and sailors on both sides of that war. Hildebrandt also tattooed a number of tattooed attractions, such as his daughter Nora, who was said to have 365 tattoos (one for each day of the year).
[Being tattooed] separates me from
anybody else, no one else has any-
thing like what I have. I feel a little
bit different from Joe Shmoe on the
street, and I guess inside it makes me
Tattooed attractions were, alongside soldiers and sailors, the other major conduit for tattooing to enter mainstream American society. As American and European citizens clamored to see the tattooed natives being displayed at festivals and later World’s Fairs and carnivals, Europeans, and later Americans, got into the act, becoming tattooed themselves and traveling from place to place to earn money as an attraction. Starting in the 1870s, P. T. Barnum brought tattooed attractions into the American circus, and beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, tattooed people moved onto the carnival midway. Circuses and carnivals brought tattooed people from the cities (where they were previously displayed at dime museums) into the country, where most people had never seen a tattoo, influencing countless men and women to leave their towns, join the circus, and become tattooed.
With Samuel O’Reilly’s invention of the electric tattoo machine, the process of tattooing became faster and less painful. This development played a huge role in the rise of the American circus attraction, as more men and women clamored to tattooists like O’Reilly to get a full-body tattoo in order to earn a living. Through the circus, many tattooists were able to travel the country tattooing, making tattoos more common, if not more popular among respectable citizens.
With O’Reilly’s invention, which allowed the artist to use a number of needles at once for outlining as well as for shading (as opposed to the single needle used in old-fashioned American pricking), the true Americana style of tattooing was born: strong black lines, typically made with five (or more) needles, heavy black shading, and a dab of color (first black and red, and later, green and blue became available).
While tattoo forms were European, consisting of many badge-like designs arranged on the body with no obvious relationship between them, the designs themselves were influenced both by what was popular with European clients (military insignia, hearts, banners, roses, etc.), and by what was specifically relevant to U.S. citizens (primarily patriotic imagery). Asian designs (dragons, Chinese characters, “Suzy Wongs,” tigers, etc.) also became popular in the West as sailors received tattoos at Chinese and Japanese tattoo parlors before the Second World War.
American tattooists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were typically working-class men with no artistic training. Some were sign painters, some learned to tattoo on the circus or carnival circuit, and many answered ads in men’s magazines which promised easy money (“$500 in 5 days”) for tattooing. Other tattooists learned their trade by paying an older tattooist to teach them. Some artist/suppliers would sell poor quality machines to unsuspecting buyers only to then charge them extra to teach them how to properly fix and use the machines. Percy Waters, a tattooist and supplier from the early part of the century, offered not only instructions on tattooing for a dollar (“a dollar well spent”) but offered to help locate the new tattooist in a carnival or circus. And finally, new tattooists could learn to tattoo by serving an residentship with a tattooist. For little to no pay, the apprentice would trace flash, cut stencils, clean equipment, fix machines, make needles, and run errands.
I always wanted one so I got one
fairly small one, it was a bug (I was
already an entomologist), shortly af-
ter I finished my PhD … I’ve kind
of kidded people that the cicada is
just like me because it’s small, harm-
less and makes a really big noise
cause I’m always stirring up trouble.
Tattooing evolved in twentieth century North America in small spaces located alongside barbershops, in dirty corners of arcades, under circus tents, or on carnival boardwalks. While hidden away at the margins of society, the shops were nevertheless a home away from home for large numbers of men: sailors, carneys, drunks, laborers, as well as younger boys who would hang around hoping to learn the trade.
The classic American tattoo, whether the eagle or anchor of the sailor or the more universal vow tattoo (“mom” or a girlfriend or wife’s name), is a literal tattoo, or one whose meaning is readily understood and agreed to by members of the community who are literate in the system. The images were derived from popular culture, the placement was visible, the lines and color were bold, and the liberal use of alphabetic script in tattoos (the “word tattoo”) made them extremely easy to read.
Tattooing began to lose its popularity in the United States after World War II. The Pacific Ocean was no longer a hub of North American military activity, and many of the new enlistees were not planning on a career in the military. In addition, it was in the post–World War II period that saw many new restrictions placed on tattooing around the country, and in some areas, tattooing was banned because of concerns about Hepatitis and other health issues. The circus sideshow, too, which played such a major role in promoting tattooing to the American public, faded as well during this time, leaving heavily tattooed people without an occupation and removing the venue through which tattooists traveled the country.
As the nation’s military men returned to civilian life after World War II, the popularity of tattoos continued to decline as did the powerful influence that the military had on the forms of North American tattoos. While the new middle class busied themselves with marrying, having children, and moving to the suburbs, inner city and port town tattooing fell to its lowest levels of popularity. Traditional American tattooing was still practiced among many working-class men in most tattoo parlors, but a new form of confrontational, biker-style tattooing was developing on the streets. Tattooing in this period became a form of defiance, a challenge to both emerging mainstream middle-class values, as well as to the traditional form of patriotic and love-inspired working-class tattoo. Not only were tattooed outlaw bikers emerging as a sub-cultural group to be viewed with fear by the middle class in the late 1940s, but prisoners and Chicano gang members, already practicing homemade tattooing, moved into the public eye (especially after the zoot suit riots of the 1940s brought so much media attention to the tattooed Pachuco culture), contributing not only to an increasingly negative image of tattooing, but also to a splintering of the practice, wherein imagery, styles, and social practices became adapted to the individual subgroups.
As marginal groups began to wear tattoos in greater numbers (including, as well, hippies in the 1960s and punks in the 1970s and 1980s), tattoos themselves became the mark of marginality, a situation that would not change until the 1970s with the renaissance of American tattooing. This renaissance was led by Don Ed Hardy, Leo Zulueta, and a number of other influential artists (many of whom were influenced by the work of Sailor Jerry Collins), and aided by the spread of non-Western tattoo styles from Japan, Borneo, and other places, as well as the increasing professionalism of the trade…”(Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
BorneoBorneo is a tropical island in Southeast Asia...
Borneo is a tropical island in Southeast Asia, which is divided into three administrative and political units controlled by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Sultanate of Brunei. The third largest island in the world, it was controlled by the Malay Brunei Sultanate Empire from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and by the nineteenth century, was primarily under the control of the British and the Dutch. By the end of World War II, Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch and later, Malaysia from the British; both countries now control the bulk of the island. Today, the population of Borneo consists of Javanese, Sundanese, Malays, Dayaks (which includes Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs, and other indigenous tribes), as well as Chinese and Europeans.
Tattooing has long been practiced by many of the indigenous Dayaks, and for most, are spiritual and magical in nature; today, however, traditional tattooing is largely dying out in Borneo. A myth explains the origin of tattooing in Borneo by telling of a bird which fell into a bowl of ink and began to peck at a warrior, until his body was covered with tattoo designs.
Borneo tattoo techniques resemble Samoan techniques in that pins are attached to the end of a stick in a perpendicular fashion and are rested on the skin; a mallet drives the needles in at high speed. The ink is made of powdered charcoal or soot, and is thought to ward off evil spirits, especially when other sacred substances are mixed into the pigment. The tattooists could be men or women—among the Kayan, the women are the artists and inherit the position from their mothers, but among the Iban, men are the tattooists. In both cases, spirits govern the act of tattooing and the artist must call on the spirits for guidance. Some tribes use pattern blocks made out of wood to imprint the design onto the body before tattooing, whereas other tribes freehand the design. Design elements include plants and animals which have curative or protective powers, such as dogs, pigs, birds, flowers, and ancestral spirits.
A man without tattoos is invisible to the gods – IBAN proverb
Tattoos were worn by both men and women on shoulders, arms, hands (especially the fingers), legs, and feet, and were able to protect the wearer from harmful spirits, illness, and harm. In addition, like tattoos worn by many tribal peoples, they indicate social rank, as only the elites could wear certain designs, and in general, tattoos, because they had to be paid for with beads or pigs, were not easily affordable by all. They also represented prestige earned by head hunting for men, or weaving, dancing, and singing for women. Iban men who had participated in a headhunt could have their fingers tattooed with spirits, and women received geometric patterns on the fingers, and images of spirits on her wrists. Men also received tattoos—which also symbolize new beginnings—as a sign of manhood, during a rite of passage attended by other men in the community. Tattoos were also decorative.
Older Ngaju men who had attained wealth and stature were able to receive the most complete tattoo, which used images from nature such as palm fronds to cover the shoulder and arms and a great tree to cover the torso, and took days or weeks to complete, leaving the wearer, according to tribesmen, perfect, sacred, and complete…”(Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Celtscultures and languages of Ireland, Scotland...
The terms Celtic or Celt generally refer to the cultures and languages of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. The origin of insular (i.e., found on the British Isles) Celtic peoples and languages is controversial but most scholars feel that Celts are not indigenous to the British Isles but instead arrived from the European continent through centuries of trade and other contact, starting around the ninth century BCE. By the Roman period, however, most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Great Britain were Celtic in terms of language and culture.
The tribal [tattoo] ties back into the
old ways, the back to nature kind
of thing. The first people, the Celts,
were into tattooing, and I’m going
to get a Celtic cross over my heart
that’ll separate and divide my rain
forest. I’m just heavy into nature, I
guess I’m almost pagan, that’s why
I’m getting all this stuff.
Prior to the arrival of the Romans, some tribes of insular Celts most likely used tattooing to mark tribal affiliation and other salient social features. Caesar, for example, in 55 BCE, referred to body painting with woad among the Celts, but it may have been tattooing rather than painting that he saw. A quote from Herodian, a firstcentury Roman historian, noted that the Celts, who wore no clothing, “punctured” their bodies with pictures of animals. There is also evidence that contemporary cultures to the Celts, like the Scythians, who were known to have influenced Celtic culture, practiced tattooing.
The Picts, another Celtic tribe, are thought to have been given their Roman name (which means painted people) from the practice of painting or dying their bodies, or from the iron tool used to tattoo. In addition, “Briton” means painted in various colors. Roman conquerors describe the Britons that they encountered as having their bodies, faces, and, hands painted. But, again, painting could also refer to the practice of tattooing.
The Roman occupation of Britain led to a merging of Roman and Celtic cultural practices. Once the Celts came under Roman control and became Christianized, they soon adopted the wearing of Christian tattoos, as in the style of the Jerusalem souvenir tattoos. These tattoos were referred to in Medieval Celtic texts as stigmata, the term used to describe tattoos in the Christianized Roman world. This practice may also have been associated, as with the Roman practice, with the marking of slaves and criminals, but it was certainly used by Celtic Christians to mark devotion.
By about the fifth century as the Roman Empire collapsed, the Celts were pushed westwards by Germanic invaders, although it is unclear how much of Celtic culture survived to influence modern English culture and the English practice of tattooing” (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Chicanos1940s pachuco gang culture in the barrios...
Chicano refers to people of Mexican descent who live in the Southwestern states of the United States, primarily California. Chicano tattooing began with the pachuco gang culture of the 1940s and 1950s in the barrios of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Tattooing in this context was originally done by hand with a sewing needle wrapped with thread and dipped in India ink. Classic Chicano tattooing utilizes exclusively black ink, fine lines (because of the use of a single needle), and bold shading. Chicano and Mexican tattooists use color and professional machines for their tattoos, but many Chicano youth, prisoners, and gang members still wear the monochromatic, handpicked tattoos. Whether by hand or by machine, classic Chicano tattoos are immediately distinguishable from classic American tattooing by the thin lines, lack of color, and different imagery used. Images popular in Chicano tattooing include religious iconography like the Virgin of Guadelupe or Christ with a crown of thorns, long-haired sexy women, low-riders and other period cars, Aztec warriors and imagery, and the Old English lettered-loca, or gang or neighborhood of origin, usually tattooed across the back or the chest.
Chicano tattoo art is very similar to other forms of Chicano art such as mural and low-rider art, although certain images are limited to tattoos. Without a doubt the most classic Chicano tattoo is the small “pachuco cross” tattooed on the hand between forefinger and thumb. It was once used to identify members of gangs and to assert the solidarity of the group; to outsiders the cross represented crime and violence. To insiders, however, Chicano tattoos tend to represent loyalty to community, family, women, and God—very similar in theme to the nationalist designs seen among sailors, but stylistically, a world apart.
Freddy Negrete and Jack Rudy, two East Los Angeles tattooists, were possibly the first professional tattooists working in this style in the late 1970s. They, along with tattooist Charlie Cartright, perfected this technically difficult style, bringing it to mainstream prominence. Because of the use of single needles, this type of work was more finely detailed than traditional American tattoos, allowing the creation of finely shaded, “photo realistic,” portraits on the skin. Ed Hardy was impressed by the work that these men were doing, and bought Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland after Cartright quit tattooing. Later, Rudy and Negrete moved into a different shop together, still with Hardy’s support. Hardy liked the style so much that he opened Tattoo City in San Francisco’s (predominantly Latino) Mission District in 1975 in order to focus on just this kind of work. Rudy, who now runs the Tattooland chain, has since become world famous for his portraits, and is one of a number of “tattooists’ tattooists,” that is, tattooists who are sought out for work by other tattooists.
Today, because of the influence of Chicano tattooing, it is rare for a tattooist to use heavy needles for outlines, unless he or she is specifically trying to create an old-fashioned, traditional look (or a tribal tattoo). Chicano-style tattooing, and its fine-lined technique, now serves as the basis for many newer trends in mainstream U.S. tattooing. Indeed, it has made possible many of these newer styles of tattoo like circuitry-based tattoos. The only places where fine-lined tattooing is still not popular is in street shops that cater to military clientele. Most sailors and soldiers do not want this sort of work, and many old-time tattooists refuse to do it because they do not feel that it holds up over time.
Not only have the technical elements of Chicano tattooing been embraced by the middle class, but the imagery now has as well. The Virgin of Guadeloupe and the head of Christ have become favored motifs among the young middle class, and even the loca has been adopted by middle-class white patrons and is translated onto their chests, necks, and stomachs in a simulation of Chicano street life” (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Collins, Sailor Jerrystarted tattooing as a teenager...
Sailor Jerry Collins (1911–1973) was born Norman Keith Collins and started tattooing as a teenager originally using the hand-pricking method. In the late 1920s, Collins met Chicago tattooist Tatts Thomas who taught him how to use a tattoo machine. Under the tutelage of Thomas, Collins practiced on drunks brought in from Skid Row. He made his home in Hawaii in the 1930s, where he opened his first tattoo parlor, and also worked as a dockworker.
Collins developed an early interest in Asian imagery during his travels through the Far East (he served as a merchant marine in World War II and often tattooed at his ports of call), and through his peacetime exposure to other sailors’ tattoos, and incorporated dragons and other designs into his flash. He also had a strong interest in improving tattooing as an art form, and felt that most U.S. tattooists were greedy, talentless copycats. Early on he sought out and began a correspondence with tattooists like Paul Rogers and Brooklyn Joe Lieber who shared his interest in improving the art. At the same time, he spoke out against those who he saw as hurting the field through their shady business practices and lack of talent.
But it was not until 1960, when he opened his final tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown that his interest in the “Oriental style” of tattooing really blossomed. He developed a trade relationship with Japanese tattooist Horihide, and Hong Kong tattooist Pinky Yun, whereby he would exchange American machines and needles for designs and advice. He was especially impressed by the Japanese use of colors, shading, and their focus on the entire body as a canvas for sophisticated artistic expression. Ironically, while Collins developed a close business friendship with tattooists Horihide, Horiyoshi II, and Horisada, he also never forgave the Japanese for bombing Pearl Harbor and for what he saw as their economic takeover of Hawaii. In fact, by his own admission, Collins wanted to “beat them at their own game”: to create an American style that was based on what he called the “Jap style of tattoo,” yet one that reflected imagery from the United States.
What he did was borrow the Japanese aesthetic style—wind bars, finger waves, full-body tattoos—to represent the history and pop culture of Americana: General Custer at Little Big Horn, the Alamo, the Spirit of ’76, Rock of Ages, big busted mermaids, and other images inspired by the North American imagination. This was extremely innovative, and reflected Collins’ belief that what was exceptional about Japanese tattooing was not the central image, but the background. While other old-time tattooists had been doing large-scale pieces since at least the 1940s, Jerry was the first to achieve the unified look of the Japanese tattoo in the West, through the use of the wind and water in the background.
While most tattooists in the United States did not show an interest in Jerry’s work, resisting the Oriental influence, a few did. Cliff Raven and Ed Hardy, who would both be critical in the transformations of North American tattooing in the 1970s and 1980s, noticed his work in the late 1960s through tattooist Don Nolan, and all three developed important relationships with Collins aimed at learning more about the Japanese style of tattoo and incorporating it into their own work” (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Cook, Captain Jamesmade three voyages to the Pacific Ocean...
Captain James Cook (1728–1779) was an English explorer who made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean. He was the first European who explored Australia and Hawaii and circumnavigated Newfoundland and New Zealand. Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific was in 1766 when the Royal Society hired him to observe and record the transit of Venus across the Sun. He arrived in Tahiti in 1769 and brought a Tahitian named Tupaia with him who helped him reach New Zealand later that year. In 1770 he first reached Australia and had contact with Australian Aborigines.
Cook’s second voyage began in 1772 and was again commissioned by the Royal Society, this time to search for the mythical Terra Australis, which the Society felt lay further south than the actual island of Australia which he had already encountered. On this leg of the voyage the captain of one of his ships, Captain Furneaux, brought back with him a young tattooed Tahitian man named Omai. Another crew member, Joseph Banks, later displayed Omai as a human oddity throughout Europe. In 1774 on his return trip, Cook also visited Tonga (which he named the Friendly Island) and Easter Island (which he named because he landed on Easter Sunday).
Cook made a third voyage in 1776 to locate the Northwest Passage, and to return Omai, bearing European gifts, to Tahiti. After returning Omai, Cook became the first European to visit Hawaii in 1778. From Hawaii, Cook traveled to Vancouver in North America, and returned to Hawaii in 1779, where he met his death at the hands of the Hawaiians.
“The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation” – Captain James Cook, 1779
It was thanks to Captain Cook that Polynesian tattooing was brought to Europe and later America, igniting a resurgence of Western tattooing. While tattooing had existed in Europe prior to the colonial encounters in Polynesia (Christian pilgrims, for example, had been receiving tattoos as souvenirs of their faith on pilgrimages to the Holy Land for centuries, the Celts had practiced tattooing prior to the Roman conquest, and tattooing was used as a form of punishment), it was through the early explorations of the Pacific that tattooing came into modern European consciousness, and eventually began its transformation from a mark of the underclasses.
It was Cook who gave the first accounts of Polynesian tattooing, first, in 1769 upon his stay in Tahiti. Also that year he visited New Zealand where he and his crew were the first Europeans to describe the Moko, and in 1778, when he first encountered Hawaiians and Hawaiian tattooing. Cook and his crew wrote and drew about the practice on subsequent voyages, and Cook was the first Westerner to use the Tahitian word ta-tu or tatau when describing the practice (prior to that time, tattoos were known in Europe as “pricks” or “marks”). Cook’s crew noted that Polynesian tattoos included lines, stars, and other geometric designs, as well as figures of animals and humans, and were worn by both men and women. In addition, at least as far back as 1784, Cook’s own crewmen started getting tattooed by the native people, and thus played a major part in bringing the tattoo to Europe.
Cook’s crew also played a major role in changing indigenous Polynesian tattoos. At the time of European contact, tattoos in Tahiti, for instance, were primarily linear and included as well representations of plants and animals. By the nineteenth century, later voyagers noted that the designs included, in addition to the animals and plants found earlier, rifles and cannons and dates and words commemorating the origin and death of chiefs. These newer designs were probably introduced to the Polynesians by Cook’s crew. Also by this time, Western ship artists, using native technology, were tattooing the Polynesians, again with introduced designs.
After the native people adopted Western weapons, their tattoos, now influenced by Westerners, probably became solely decorative, as tattoos would no longer need to serve their original magical and protective functions (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Criminalityin societies around the world...
In societies around the world, but especially in state-level societies, criminals have commonly been marked in some way by the state either either as punishment for their crime, to identify them as a criminal, or to stigmatize them throughout their lives. In addition, corporal punishment, in which the body is the site of the punishment via whipping, the removal of a limb, or even death, is another way that punishment is literally “marked” on the body.
Some trace the evolution of this practice to the biblical story in which God places a mark on Cain, the first murderer, to brand him as a criminal and social outcast, but corporal punishment had been practiced throughout the GrecoRoman and Egyptian world. In addition, all those cultures used tattooing and branding as a form of punishment and identification for criminals, practices which were continued throughout Western civilization in Europe and the Americas.
The first known societies to use tattoos in a punitive fashion were the Thracians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, all of whom marked runaway slaves and criminals. The Persians tattooed slaves and prisoners with the name of their captor, master, and sometimes the emperor, and Roman slaves were marked on the face with either the crime or the punishment (which was commonly being sent to the mines), until Constantine outlawed facial tattooing in the fourth century. The Greeks and Romans both called these tattoos stigmata, and punitive tattooing remained in the Roman world through ninth century.
Punitive tattooing and branding traveled through the Roman world to Europe where both practices were used in Germany, England, and France to mark slaves, prisoners, adulterers, army deserters, and the like. The American colonies inherited the practices as well. Slave masters in American and West Indian colonies also used tattooing and branding for the identification of slaves and to punish runaway or insubordinate slaves.
In India, another European colony, after 1797, criminals had their criminal status tattooed on them. The word for tattooing in Hindi later came to mean the marking of criminals in the nineteenth century. Indian criminals were sometimesalso branded with the English word for thug. Many Indian criminals attempted to cover, remove, or change their markings via wearing their hair longer or turbans over their faces. The Japanese used punitive tattooing as well. In Japan, tattoos moved from punitive to decorative as people developed elaborate designs to mask criminal tattoos. In fact, the modern practice of prisoners tattooing themselves in prison probably derived from punitive tattooing, when convicts turned their mark of criminality into a badge of honor.
Tattoos and brands were a preferred form of punishment in all of these cases because it was a dual-purpose punishment: one purpose was to inflict pain, but another was to permanently, and often very publicly proclaim the crime, either through the words or letters used, or simply the fact that forehead tattoos were associated with criminality.
Tattooing is most common among criminals. CESARE LOMBROSO, criminologist, 1895
Criminality is associated with the body in another way as well. European criminal scholars once thought that certain forms of body modification, particularly tattoos, could be linked to a tendency toward criminal behavior, and a great many books were written and studies conducted in order to test the link between tattooing and criminal behavior. These theories can be drawn from biological approaches popular in the nineteenth century that saw crime as being caused by inheritance, and that furthermore, a person’s physical appearance could indicate their disposition to crime.
The idea that a person’s character can be interpreted by looking at his or her face is derived from ancient times, but was codified into a scientific theory in the nineteenth century called phrenology, which postulated that the shape of the brain and the skull could reveal an individual’s personality and psychological development.
An Italian doctor named Cesare Lombroso was an advocate of this approach and examined the bodies of hundreds of criminals in the nineteenth century in order to ascertain the physical characteristics shared by criminals. Not surprisingly, he found that a number of traits, such as broad noses or fleshy lips, were found more commonly in criminals, and came up with a theory that said that these traits were associated with “primitive man.” Of course these traits were also found more commonly among Africans, a group he knew to be inferior to whites.
Lombroso also wrote about tattooing, which he associated with criminality. Again, this association is not surprising given the practice, since Roman times, of tattooing criminals. After conducting a study of prisoners, Lombroso felt that wearing tattoos would predispose a person to commit crime, and that criminals and tattooed people both had a higher tolerance for pain than others.
This association between tattooing and criminal behavior extends well beyond Lombroso. In India, for instance, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British colonial authorities noted the use of tattoos among many of the tribal groups. They also shared Lombroso’s theories that criminality was inherent and they thought that they could chart the use of tattoos by different groups in India to show their propensity toward criminality. Tribal groups were seen as especially crime-prone so their tattoos were especially scrutinized.
In Australia in the nineteenth century, convicts sent from England to the penal colonies there had their tattoos catalogued prior to leaving England, and again upon reaching Australia, as a way of identifying convicts in the days before fingerprinting, and as a way of apprehending escaped convicts. Because the convicts often tattooed themselves on the ship en route to Australia, perhaps out of boredom or collective suffering (and probably due to the proximity of tattooed sailors around them), their new tattoos were a way of subverting English authority in that their body markings would now differ from when they left England. This demonstrates a practice that was also seen in Roman times: of criminals self-marking themselves in order to erase or cover the criminal marks given to them, or even to highlight them, seeing them as a badge of honor.
Today, law enforcement agencies continue to track the tattoos on former criminals, gang members, and those who have been arrested for a crime (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Easter Islandknown as Rapanui to its inhabitants...
Known as Rapanui to its inhabitants, is a Polynesian island which is controlled by the country of Chile. The island was mostly settled between 300 and 600 CE by people who may have arrived from the Marquesas Islands. The first European explorer to arrive was Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen who arrived on Easter in 1772. Captain James Cook arrived in 1774. From 1860 to the late nineteenth century, the island’s population was decimated, thanks to the islanders’ overexploitation of native resources, and later, to the export of the native people to Peruvian slave traders. Those few hundred remaining islanders were forced, after slavery, to live on a reservation until the 1960s, because the island was rented to a sheep company that grazed their sheep over the island. Since that time, the people have been rebuilding their traditional culture.
Easter Island is famous for the giant stone statues, or moai, that cover the island—over 800 in all. These statues, which represent the heads and torsos of deceased ancestors and perhaps living chiefs, were carved between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, and most were knocked over by the time Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century.
Prior to the decimation of local traditions, Easter Island practiced a form of tattooing closely related to Marquesan tattooing, which was described by the early explorers, and is also seen on the moai, many of which have detailed designs on their back which appear to represent tattoo motifs of stripes, circles, squares, triangles, and other abstract designs. By the twentieth century, tattooing, however, had all but disappeared.
Both men and women wore tattoos, and tattoos were done on the face and head, which were considered to be the most sacred part of the body, but also included shoulders, upper back, arms, buttocks, and thighs. Facial tattoos for both men and women generally consisted of very heavy curved and straight lines combined with dots, which appear somewhat like Maori moko. Some of the facial markings on women may have been related to fertility, and facial tattoo marks are also seen on the barkcloth figures made by the native peoples.
As with other Polynesian cultures, tattoos demonstrated kinship and rank, and the chiefly and warrior classes wore tattoos most commonly. Tattooing was done in the classic Polynesian style, with a tool known as ta kona, carved out of bird bone into teeth, which was connected to a longer handled wooden implement and, after dipping it into pigment, was tapped into the skin with a mallet(Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Englandpracticed for perhaps two thousand years...
Tattooing has been practiced on the island of Great Britain for perhaps two thousand years starting with the Celts. Tattooing has been practiced on the island of Great Britain for perhaps two thousand years, starting with the Celts, one of the island’s earliest inhabitants. The term “Briton,” in fact, is derived from a word meaning “painted in various colors.” Caesar, for instance, noted that the Britons “dyed” their bodies with woad; he may in fact have been referring to tattooing. A quote from Herodian, a first-century Roman historian, noted that the Celts, who wore no clothing, “punctured” their bodies with pictures of animals. There is also evidence that contemporary cultures to the Celts, like the Scythians, who were known to have influenced Celtic culture, practiced tattooing.
Once the Celts came under Roman control and became Christianized, they soon adopted the wearing of Christian tattoos, as in the style of the Jerusalem souvenir tattoos. This practice may also have been associated, as with the Roman practice, with the marking of slaves and criminals, but it was certainly used by Celtic Christians to mark devotion.
After the fifth century when the Roman Empire collapsed, the Celts were pushed westwards, and it is unclear whether Celtic tattooing continued and was able to influence the English practice of tattooing. However, by the Middle Ages, we do know that tattooing was still being practiced in some quarters.
For example, Anglo-Saxons continued to practice tattooing, at least among the nobility and warrior classes. Pilgrims, for instance, received tattoos during their travels to the Holy Land, but religious tattoos were not the only tattoos that the English wore. Following the Battle of Hastings in the eleventh century, for example, King Harold’s body was identified only because he had “Edith” tattooed over his heart.
Also in the Middle Ages, tattooing was associated with occult practices. Some people tattooed astrological symbols by at least the seventeenth century in England. Temporary or permanent writing on the body was common in magical, medical, and religious practices in Europe, although it’s unclear how much of this involved tattooing rather than temporary marks on the skin. Corporal magic of this kind was seen as especially effective because it may not always be easy to get the rare ingredients needed for some magical spells. In that case, one can use the symbol of the ingredient or the symbol of the corresponding planet, and mark it on the body.
Tattooing in England was perhaps more prominent than it was in other parts of Europe because of the long tradition of sea exploration associated with the country. Since the early sixteenth century, British sailors and explorers had been traveling around the world on voyages of exploration, bringing back with them stories and illustrations of tattooing from Polynesia, the Americas, India, and elsewhere. They also brought back with them tattooed peoples and very early on started getting tattooed themselves. The explorations of Captain James Cook in the late eighteenth century were especially notable in the attention that they brought to tattooing in Europe (the word “tattoo” was brought back by Cook from his visit to Tahiti), but Cook was not the first explorer to uncover tattooing. Sailors would have had to be tattooed prior to Cook’s trip to Polynesia based on how prevalent tattoos were among sailors by the end of the eighteenth century; by the century’s end, British ports had tattooists providing their services to sailors. Sailors continued for centuries to wear tattoos, a practice that began in England and later spread to the United States.
Criminals too were being punitively tattooed in England, starting perhaps in the sixteenth and certainly by the seventeenth century, which led, as it has in other societies in which tattooing is a form of punishment, to selftattooing among criminals. By the nineteenth century when England was exporting convicts to penal colonies in Australia, criminals and the underclasses in general were becoming tattooed, and were tattooing themselves, in increasing numbers.
The first documented professional tattooist in England was D. W. Purdy, who worked in North London in the 1870s. In the late 1880s fashionable folks in England started getting tattooed. English tattooist George Burchett saw the trend beginning with Edward, Prince of Wales, who was tattoed in the Holy Land in 1862 with a Jerusalem Cross. Later, as King Edward VII, he acquired still more tattoos, and his sons (one of whom later became King George V) were also tattooed, both in Japan in 1882 and later in Jerusalem. After this, a great many elite men and women of English society began to acquire tattoos, both from the Japanese, who were widely acknowledged to possess the most sophisticated tattoo art in the world, as well as from local tattooists like Burchett.
A great many media reports at that time noted how fashionable Londoners (and later Americans) were getting tattoed, but tattooing never spread to the middle classes. Elites were tattooed by Japanese fine artists as well as newly professional British tattooists like Burchett, who provided a comfortable and relaxing studio for his customers. Burchett also used topical anesthetic and the newly invented tattoo machine to make the process less painful, and to create more detailed designs, often based on Asian images. Yet at the same time, sailors continued to get hand-pricked tattoos from port tattooists, which were crude, painful, and unsophisticated.
By the end of the ninteenth century, the upper-class tattoo fad notwithstanding, tattoos in England mostly were associated with criminals and sailors, as well as soldiers. In fact, in the nineteenth century, doctors noted a connection between tattooing and syphyllis, thinking the disease may have been passed in the military by infected tattooists spitting on the needles to mix in the ink.
Starting in the 1970s, as the English punk movement developed, tattoos began to gain prominence again. As the stylistic trappings of punk were appropriated and spread into mainstream society via fashion and music, tattoos began to move into the middle class, a process enabled by the renaissance of tattooing in the United States during that same period. In the twentieth century, tattooing continues to be prominently practiced among a variety of social classes throughout England (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Facial Tattoosdating back to the Greeks and Romans...
In the West, thanks to the tradition dating back to the Greeks and Romans of tattooing criminals on the face with a mark of their crime. In the West, thanks to the tradition dating back to the Greeks and Romans of tattooing criminals on the face with a mark of their crime, facial tattoos are traditionally the mark of a convict. Even without that explicit connection, facial tattoos are extremely stigmatizing in the nontattooed world. Most tattooists do not want to contribute to marking an individual for life as an outcast, thus many tattooists will not tattoo on someone’s face. For years, one could also not attend a National Tattoo Association convention with facial tattoos.
However, in recent years, facial tattoos have experienced a surge in popularity among the body modification community, especially among those who embrace modern primitivism, partly because of their extreme appearance, and partly because of their connection to “primitive” cultures. Facial tattoos are most well known among Pacific Island cultures such as New Zealand, the Marshall Islands, Tahiti, and Hawaii, as well as some tribes in New Guinea. A great many Native American tribes also practiced facial tattooing. The most well known and classic of all facial tattoos is the Moko, the black curvilinear tattoo worn by Maori men and women as a sign of status as well as affiliation.
Besides the primitivist connection, though, modern wearers of facial tattoos often use their tattoos as a sign of rebellion against society, thanks to the continuing taboo against them. Another reason for the increasing popularity of facial tattoos has to do with the mainstreaming of tattooing in general. As tattoos (as well as piercings) become more popular and thus more acceptable, those within the body modification community feel that they need to use more extreme versions of tattoos and piercings, in order to stay ahead of the rest of society.
Finally, for those who embrace primitivism or just want an extreme sign of their individuality, getting one’s face tattooed is one of the most public and permanent steps one can take, and represents a permanent commitment to one’s beliefs, especially given the reluctance of most employers to hire a person with facial tattoos.
Facial tattoos are also popular with the small population of those who transform their bodies into animals, such as Eric Sprague (the Lizardman), the Great Omi, Stalking Cat, or Katzen (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Freak Showsexhibition in order to shock...
A freak show is an exhibition of physically and visually different people in order to shock and sometimes educate, viewers. Traveling shows in which human oddities were displayed alongside exotic animals, deformed animals, musicians, jugglers, and other attractions have been popular throughout the Western world, going back to the Middle Ages. In the midnineteenth century, human oddities joined what became known as the freak show or ten-in-one, in which multiple attractions were joined together into one show, as part of a stationary or traveling exhibit. In the United States, these exhibits were found primarily in the dime museums (named because admission cost 10 cents) popular in the nineteenth century.
These museums were a combination of educational enterprise and entertainment. In 1840, P. T. Barnum became the proprietor of the American Museum, bringing the freak show to prominence. Here the freak show joined the growing popular amusement industry. In the dime museum, tattooed people were exhibited alongside people with disabilities, natural wonders like wild animals, native people, and “gaffes,” “hoaxes,” or manufactured fakes. Since people had never before seen any of these curiosities, the managers and showmen were able to concoct bizarre explanations for their origins, stories which were morally and socially uplifting, as well as “educational”
The showman was an essential component of the freak show. The exhibit, of course, could not be seen before a show and therefore needed the showman to market their particular attractions to the curiosity-seeking public. An essential part of the telling of the tale consisted of wonderfully and medically impossible reasons to explain to the audience the history of the person they were going to see. The most popular attractions were oddities with extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities.
P. T. Barnum was the most well known and most successful of all showmen, and the stories he told about his freaks, including the a slave who was supposedly 160 years old, the tattooed Prince Constantine, the Fiji Mermaid, Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese twins,” and the dwarf Tom Thumb, helped make him famous. Although the human oddities—made up of both “made freaks” and “born freaks”—were not originally the main attractions in these early museums, they quickly became more popular than the stuffed birds and dusty artifacts and provided acceptable entertainment (disguised as education), in an era where the church frowned upon frivolous fun. From 1870 to 1890, the freak show was the king of dime museum attractions. At the end of the nineteenth century, the dime museum began to decline, as the forms of entertainment previously granted legitimacy by the scientific cover now expanded into other venues, like circuses, carnivals, street fairs, and World’s Fairs. In 1880, the freak show appeared at Coney Island.
Dime museums were urban, but circuses went to rural areas where they, along with the county fair, were often the only entertainment. Single-freak attractions joined circuses in the early 1800s, but the organized sideshow didn’t get started till mid-century. The earliest traveling freak shows were traveling museums, and some museums joined traveling circuses as concessions. By the 1840s, though, the museum part of the circus finally became the circus sideshow, no longer independently owned and operated. By 1870s, most circuses had a freak show, and they gradually faded out in the 1950s and 1960s.
Carnivals were the rural, and lower class, equivalent of amusement parks and they grew out of the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Early on, the freaks were exhibited as single-pit shows, and were often second rate like geeks (who bit the heads off of animals) and wild men (who were supposedly from dangerous countries like Borneo but were often just disabled Americans). Around 1904 carnival ten-in-ones developed.
In the twentieth century, with the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, the rise of modern science, and the eugenics movement, born freaks began to be understood from a biological and cultural perspective and this began to adversely affect the attendance at the freak show. Notions of pity, humane impulses, and the desire to lock away all undesirables led to its decline, as well as the rising middle class and their aversion to corporeal entertainment such as this. The use of the physically disabled in freak shows finally ended in the 1960s when the American Civil Liberties Union brought attention to the situation of displaying the physically disabled in circus freak shows and caused their demise; many U.S. states now prohibit the exhibition of deformed or disabled people for entertainment. Many former sideshow freaks ended up in institutions or on welfare once the freak show had died. But even before that time, the display of freaks began to die out, as early as the 1930s, partly due to the effects of the Great Depression on America’s spending habits.
In Germany, freak shows were restricted or banned as early as 1911, and especially after World War I when clean-cut showgirls emerged as a new form of entertainment. By the dawn of World War II, tattooed performers, the disabled, and most other freak show acts were banned. Some freaks fled the country, but others were most likely euthanized as part of the Nazis’ program to clean up the country’s hospitals from 1939 to 1941 when an estimated 100,000 physically and mentally disabled people were killed.
A modern version of the old circus and carnival freak show is the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which employed, during the 1990s, performers who took old sideshow acts like sword swallowing and fire eating and blended them with modern physical oddities like heavily pierced, tattooed, and implanted people. Many of the acts were geared to shock the audience, and included Mr. Lifto, who lifted heavy weights from his piercings, the Enigma, who ate slugs and could put a power drill up his nose, and the Tube, who swallowed tubes and pumped liquids into and out of his stomach. One modern freak show that still shows “born freaks,” or people born with physical abnormalities, is the 999 Eyes of Endless Dream Sideshow, founded by Ward Hall, which includes a half girl, an elephant man, a giant, a lobster girl and a dwarf, as well as bug eaters, fire eaters, a man tattooed like a leopard, deformed animals, and the like. Finally, the Internet has created an entirely new audience for freaks, through Web sites that display (either for fetishistic purposes or for shock value) photos of human abnormalities | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Greco Roman Worldcivilizations of the ancient Mediterranean...
Tattooing was widely practiced among the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean primarily as a form of punishment for criminals, leading to the modern Western association of tattoos, criminality, and the underclass. Originally, the Greeks did not use tattooing and saw it as a barbaric practice. Contempories of the Greeks who did use tattooing included the Thracians (of Bulgaria and western Turkey), the Egyptians, the Syrians, and the Persians. Tattooing for these groups probably served multiple purposes. The Syrians, for instance, wore tattoos on their wrists that had a sacred significance, and runaway slaves who received sacred designs were considered to now serve the divinity rather than their former masters and were freed of service. Thracian tattoo usage, found on both men and women, could have been decorative as well as serving social purposes. Egyptian tattoos were worn by women and were both decorative and used for ritual purposes. The Persians tattooed slaves and prisoners of war, and this was perhaps the source for later Greek tattooing.
The Greeks picked up the practice of tattooing in the fifth century BCE and began following the Persian practice of using tattoo marks for punitive purposes. The Greeks tattooed both prisoners and runaway slaves on the forehead, usually with a mark demonstrating their crime. The term stigmata was used to describe tattoo marks by the Greeks and later the Romans.
The Romans inherited punitive tattooing from the Greeks, and later began marking soldiers as well. They also used branding to mark animals (as did the Greeks) and human slaves, as did the Egyptians. Like the Persians, who often tattooed slaves and prisoners with the name of the king, the Romans sometimes marked slaves with the name of their owner. Prisoners of war and soldiers alike were tattooed with the name of the emperor (and soldiers were sometimes marked with a series of dots which may have represented their unit) and many criminals were marked with the sentence rather than the crime (such as being sent to the mines).
Because Christians were widely persecuted by the Romans, Christians were commonly marked with tattoos signifying the crime of being Christians, or, again, the punishment given to them. Eventually the stigma of being a persecuted Christian became a badge of honor among Christians, leading to the practice, starting about the fourth century, of Christians voluntarily tattooing themselves as a sign of faith and group membership. When the Roman Empire later converted to Christianity under Constantine, Constantine banned facial tattooing, but he allowed it on the hands and calves of criminals, although it was no longer forced upon Christians.
Both the Greeks and Romans also pierced the ears, and elites of both societies wore elaborate earrings and other jewelry made of fine metals and precious stones. Roman men pierced their nipples as well as a sign of virility, and Roman gladiators pierced their penises in order to tie them back as protection during their fights | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Hawaiitraditional Polynesian tattooing...
Polynesian islands in the North Pacific, well known for the traditional Polynesian tattooing. The islands were most likely populated by people from the Marquesan Islands some time between AD 800 and 1000, who most likely brought their tattooing traditions with them. First visited by Captain James Cook in 1778, he named the islands the Sandwich Islands in honor of one of his expedition sponsors.
The Hawaiian word for tattoo, kakau i ka uhi, means to “strike on the black,” which explains how it is done. Hawaiian tattooing as it was practiced in Cook’s time was done by dipping a prepared tattooing implement—a comb made of sharpened bones or teeth, connected to a turtleshell or seashell and hafted to a handle—into a black dye. The tattoo artist placed the instrument on the skin, striking it with a mallet or other hammer-like implement. The dye used for tattooing was derived from the burnt remains of the kukui nut mixed with sugarcane juice.
Hawaiian tattoos, at the time of Cook’s first visit, were primarily made up of lines, stars, cross-hatching, triangles, chevrons, arches, checkerboard patterns, and lizards. Tattoos probably served as protective devices for warriors, in that warriors’ and chiefly tattoos were worn on the front of the body, the spear throwing arm, the legs, and the hands; areas which needed protection during fighting, because, unlike the rest of the body, they were not covered by a cloak or helmet. This protective function later disappeared as guns were introduced to the island through trade with Europeans. Tattoos also protected the wearer against other kinds of dangers such as shark bites. Women also wore tattoos on the hands, arms, chest, and other areas, primarily for decorative purposes.
Men’s facial tattoos were made up of straight lines, rather than the curvilinear facial tattoos of the Maori, and chiefs did not wear facial tattoos.
European explorers often noted that Hawaiian tattoos were not as finely executed or aesthetically pleasing as those found on other Polynesian islands. Because of the protective function for warriors, Hawaiian tattoos were largely asymmetrical, unlike Maori, Marquesan, or Marshallese tattoos, in which the body is broken up into a series of symmetrical zones.
Tattoos were also used to note a person’s geneology, and for mourning. This was especially seen when high-status members of the family or chiefs died, and men and women both got tattooed to commemorate the loss and to remember the person forever. (The Tongans, on the other hand, cut off a finger joint when a chief died.) Initially, mourning tattoos were done on the tip of the tongue, and the excessive pain was justified by comparing it to the love felt for the dead. Starting in the nineteenth century, Hawaiians began to tattoo the name of the chief and the date of his death in English characters on their bodies.
Tattoos also denoted the village a person came from, their ancestors, and the gods to whom they prayed.
As the traditional functions and meanings of tattooing disappeared, tattoos became more decorative, and also, probably, more symmetrical, although this may have also been due to the influence of European artists who were tattooing native people. Goats, for example, emerged as a decorative motif by at least 1816, and were found on both men and women. Also at that time, rifles, helmets, English names and dates began appearing as tattoos.
At least as far back as 1784, Cook’s own crewmen started getting tattooed by the native people, and thus played a major part in bringing the tattoo to Europe. By at least 1816, ship artists on subsequent expeditions began tattooing the Hawaiians themselves, using native technology, introducing rifles and cannons and dates and words. Jacques Arago, who visited in 1819, even tattooed Ka’ahumanu, wife of the chief Kamehameha. It is interesting to note the relative ease with which the British sailors and explorers were willing to acquire Polynesian tattoos, and also the apparent enthusiasm of the Hawaiians to augment their own tattoos with British designs. Without this early cross-fertilization, it is doubtful that tattooing would have been reestablished in Europe or seen as anything more than a primitive oddity.
Tattooing in Hawaii began to disappear in the nineteenth century thanks to missionary efforts, although the process was slow and incomplete. For instance, travelers reported in the 1830s and 1840s that very few people were tattooed, yet by the 1880s, a new style of tattooing had developed of tattooing the outside of the legs with stripes and diamonds. Eventually, however, tattooing was eliminated.
Later, Hawaii became well known for tattooing when Sailor Jerry Collins settled in Hawaii, opening his first shop there after World War II. Collins was instrumental in bringing Japanese-style tattooing into the United States, changing the way tattooing was practiced in the West forever.
Like many other Polynesian communities, traditional tattooing has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity since the 1970s, as native Hawaiians want to embrace their Hawaiian heritage and culture. Because traditional Hawaiian tattooing was no longer practiced, Hawaiians who were involved in reviving the tradition needed to learn techniques from Samoans and other Polynesians who still tattooed in the traditional styles.
White artists working in Hawaii have also played a role in the Hawaiian tattoo revivial. For instance, tattooist Mike Malone created a tattoo style in the 1970s called the “Hawaiian Band” which is a tribal-looking design made to wrap around an arm (there are now Hawaiian legband tattoos as well). While this tattoo is not an indigenous style, many Hawaiians have embraced the design as a native Hawaiian design, and it has even appeared in a painting depicting precontact Hawaiians | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Indiawidely practiced on the Indian subcontinent...
Tattooing, piercing, and the use of henna are widely practiced on the Indian subcontinent, among tribal peoples as well as among caste Hindus. Women in India have practiced tattooing since at least the fifteenth century and probably before. Indigenous tribal groups use tattoos to mark tribal identity, individual identity, marriageability, and sometimes ritual status. Designs include symmetrical patterns, birds, and animals, and tattooing was also seen as a purely decorative practice, used to beautify the individual. Men sometimes wore tattoos as well, but this is far more common today than it was in the past. Among the Mers, for example, girls are tattooed starting at seven or eight, starting with their forearms and hands. Later, their feet, calves, neck, and chest are tattooed. Dots and lines are used to create gods, animals, domestic images, and plants.
Among the Naga of Northeast India, women were tattooed on the back of the knee if they were married, and men wore facial tattoos that demonstrated their achievements in warfare and headhunting.
Tattoos are also used by some caste Hindus; this probably derives from Hinduism as both Krishna and Vishnu wore tattoos, and one theory explains women’s facial tattoos as a way of identifying women who were captured by Muslims in the Middle Ages. Hindus also saw tattoos as evidence of earthly suffering, so wearing a tattoo could act as penance for one’s sins and get one entry into heaven. The Bhils, on the other hand, saw tattoos as evidence of good deeds that also could ease entry into the afterworld. Women in the Gujarat region see the tattoo as the only items that stay on her body after her death, so her tattoos are used to identify her in heaven. Finally, Christian Indians had birds tattooed on their arms and thighs as symbols of the Holy Ghost.
In any case, tattoos for Hindus were certainly used to mark status, especially for women. Forehead tattoos were common, and higher caste women had fewer tattoos. Also, tattoos implied chastity and fidelity for a woman, and most women were tattooed prior to marriage, since tattoos were often a sign that she was marriageable.
Traditionally, tattoos were created on women by women, using three needles, wrapped together, and dipped in ink, and primarily utilized abstract designs. While they were not applied in a ritual context, they still were seen as an important rite of passage for a woman. Today, however, some men, often from the Waghari tribe, work as itinerant tattooists, traveling around the country tattooing at festivals and markets with an electric machine, and sheets of Indian flash with peacocks, gods, flowers, watches, and other local symbols.
The Newar of Nepal also practiced tattooing, and lowstatus women were both the principle wearers and artists. Women at one time did their own tattoos, or asked family or friends to help them. The technique was very simple and involved pricking the skin with a needle and rubbing pigment, made of ashes mixed with kerosene, directly into the wound. Tattoos were most commonly placed on the back of the calves, and the designs, made up of dots, included scrollwork, flowers, the peacock, and window screens. Gods like Krishna were also tattooed, but only on the right arm or forehand. While tattoos were not seen as a rite of passage or needed for marriage, most girls tattooed themselves prior to marriage, in order to beautify themselves, and also for luck.
In the nineteenth century, British colonial authorities saw that the tribal groups used tattooing, and because some of the groups were thought to be more criminal prone than others (during the nineteenth century a common theory in criminology was that criminality was inherent), officials began tracking which groups used which tattoos. They thought that by tracking the tattoos, they could keep track of crimes.
After 1797, criminals in some parts of India had their criminal status tattooed on them by the colonial authorities, a practice that was entirely new to India. The Hindi word for tattoo, godna (to prick, puncture, dot, or mark) came to mean the marking of criminals starting in the ninteenth century. Criminals were branded or tattooed, often with the word “thug” on their forehead. Since the forehead mark was so prominent, it precluded them from rejoining society, so some criminals wore their hair long or their turbans low to cover the marks. Punitive tattooing was not used in all localities, so authorities in some areas were frustrated that other areas, such as Bombay, did not tattoo, as they thought that criminals could move freely from province to province without the tattoo.
Henna, or mehndi, is a form of temporary body adornment like tattooing, used throughout India. The patterns of mehndi are typically quite intricate, including branches, flowers, and scrollwork, and are predominantly applied to brides before wedding ceremonies in India. The use of henna in this context acts as a prayer for a successful marriage. A common belief is that the deeper the color of the henna, the longer the love between the couple will last. In northwest India, the grooms wear henna too.
Nose piercings are very commonly worn by Indian women, a practice which was brought to the region by Muslim invaders in the sixteenth century. The most common location is the left nostril, which is associated with the female reproductive organs; this is supposed to make childbirth easier. Both studs and rings are worn in the nose, and sometimes the jewelry is joined to the ear by a chain. Occasionally, both nostrils are pierced. Nostril piercings are used to make a woman beautiful, and also to mark social status, and are still very popular in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Tribal peoples in Nepal, Tibet, and some parts of India also have had their septums pierced | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Japanone of the most sophisticated in the world...
Not only is Japanese tattooing known to be one of the most sophisticated in terms of imagery, style, and technique in the world, but it is one of the oldest tattooing traditions in the world as well, dating back to the hunter-gatherers of the Jomon period (10,000 BC–300 BC). Archeologists have found clay human figures called dogu that have marks around the eyes, cheeks, forehead, and lips that may indicate tattooing, which was being practiced in other cultures during this period as well. In addition, the women of the Ainu, an ethnic group living on an island at the northernmost end of Japan, have worn upper lip tattoos for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Tattoos were worn as well by farmers in the Yayoi period (300 BC–AD 300), the period that saw the emergence of Japanese culture, as a marker of status, like many Polynesian cultures. In addition, the tattoos used religious symbols to ward off evil spirits. Again, clay figurines from the period show facial tattoos.
As in other stratified societies, such as in the Greco-Roman world, tattoos in the Kofun period (AD 300–600), during which modern Japanese political organizations emerged, became associated with criminality and were used not only to punish and identify criminals (often with the mark of their specific crime) but to identify untouchable classes as well. Chinese attitudes that associated tattooing with barbarism helped to further stigmatize tattoos during this period, given that China governed the region at this time. On the other hand, punitive tattooing may also be linked to the origins of decorative tattooing because, as in other states in which tattoos were used punitively, members of the underclass often modified those tattoos in order to disguise the original meanings, perhaps creating decorative markings in the process.
It wasn’t until the late Edo period (1804–1868), however, that what we know of as modern decorative tattooing, or horimono, developed in Edo (now Tokyo), which was experiencing a cultural revolution of sorts. Prior to this time, lovers, courtesans, and prostitutes would often have the name of a lover written on the upper part of the arm, with the kanji or character for inochi (life), symbolizing a pledge of eternal love, added. These pledge tattoos probably derived from earlier “love dots” or small moles tattooed on the hand. But the major influence on the development of the sophisticated Japanese tattoo form were the wood-block print, or ukiyo-e, artists whose colorful and complex designs would later be seen in tattoos.
The most important of the ukiyo-artists in terms of the development of tattooing in Japan was Kuniyoshi, whose 1827 illustrations of the Suikoden, a Chinese novel translated into Japanese, included heavily tattooed warriors with mythical heroes,legendary battle scenes, and animals like koi, dragons, and tigers tattooed on their bodies. These images were surrounded by highly stylized waves, wind, and flowers, including cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and peonies. The pictures from this novel, and from the wood-block prints of nineteenth-century Ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai and Yoshitoshi, came to form the iconographic vocabulary for modern Japanese tattooing.
Furthermore, the ukiyo-e artists of the time became some of the first decorative tattooists of the period, who developed the technique still utilized by some Japanese masters today called tebori (“to carve by hand”) in which bundles of steel needles at the end of bamboo rod are pushed into the skin, without the use of a mallet as in Polynesian techniques.
The modern Japanese full-body tattoo—encompassing the front and back of the torso (with an untattooed “river” down the front where an unbuttoned shirt or happi coat would hang open), and the arms and legs—finally developed at the end of the Edo period. This type of tattoo, called irezumi, took from two to five years to complete, and cost the equivalent of $20,000–50,000. Images ranged from traditional themes and heroic characters to stylized and symbolic images such as carp, dragons, floral designs, and religious icons, all of which had symbolic meaning in Japan.
Tattooing at this time was practiced by a large element of the lower classes, and in particular, firefighters, and was strongly disapproved by Japanese authorities. Firefighters used tattoos as signs of masculinity and group solidarity.
While tattooing was growing in sophistication and popularity (at least among the working classes), the government of Japan was cracking down on it. Partly because of its history going back to the Kofun period of being a mark of the underclasses, and partly because of the Chinese influence, tattooing was frequently banned by the government, although it continued to be practiced.
As Westerners started to arrive in Japan during the Meji era (from 1868 to present), tattooing was once again forbidden so that Japan would not seem backward to the outside world, although gamblers, outlaws, and the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) continued to wear them. Ironically, it was also during this time that Japanese tattooing began to attract international attention, as Westerners— primarily sailors and other foreign travelers—began to receive Japanese tattoos, which were far more beautiful and finely executed than Western tattoos. It was also ironic that Japanese sailors, unlike sailors throughout the Western world, did not wear tattoos. Japanese artists were now being asked to give tattoos to the very foreigners whom the authorities sought to protect, and even European elite like King George V and Nicholas II of Russia got tattoos from Japanese artists.
In 1948, under the U.S. Occupation Forces, tattooing was finally legalized in Japan for Japanese citizens as well as for foreigners; yet by this time, it was so far underground that most decent Japanese citizens would not consider becoming tattooed. In fact, the law was changed largely due to the demand from U.S. military personnel. Many wanted souvenirs of the Far East, and because of this clientele, Japanese tattooists created smaller, badge-style designs unlike those that they gave to Japanese clients.
It was also this same time period, the postwar period, that saw the introduction of Japanese tattoo imagery, style, and use of the body into the United States, changing American tattooing forever, largely thanks to the work of people like Sailor Jerry Collins. In 1960, Collins opened a tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown and developed a strong interest in Asian tattoo styles. He developed a trade relationship with Japanese tattooist Horihide, and Hong Kong tattooist Pinky Yun, whereby he would exchange American machines and needles for designs and advice. He was especially impressed by the Japanese use of colors, shading, and their focus on the entire body as a canvas for sophisticated artistic expression. Collins was one of the first Americans to borrow the Japanese aesthetic style—a central image surrounded by clouds, wind bars, finger waves, and rocks—as well as the use of full-body tattoos, and blend it with American images.
The introduction of Japanese tattoo aesthetics into U.S. tattooing is critical to the development of tattooing in the United States. While Asian designs like dragons, Chinese characters, cheongsam girls, and tigers had long been popular in the West through the naval practice of receiving tattoos in Eastern ports of call, these tattoos were executed in the Western style: as a series of small, independent, badge-like designs placed haphazardly on the body. Before Sailor Jerry, American tattooists had never created tattoos that utilized the full body and which were thematically and stylistically consistent as well.
The second major reason why Japanese tattooing has been so influential in contemporary North American tattooing has to do with the fact that it is seen as the polar opposite to U.S. tattooing. Unlike traditional American tattooing, which is seen as folksy and primitive, Japanese tattooing is thought to be modern, sophisticated, and linked to the more spiritual and refined East. At a time in the United States when tattooing was at its lowest point in the public eye, interminably linked with bikers, Skid Row, and criminals, the Japanese tattoo offered not only a new repertoire of images, but new hope.
Ironically, while Japanese tattooing was becoming popular in the United States and changing the face of American tattooing forever, it remained taboo in Japan. It wasn’t until Japanese people began to catch on to the American tattoo trends that tattooing experienced a resurgence in Japan, for Japanese people.
Traditional Japanese tattooing is still not acceptable among the middle class in Japan, but many Japanese youth are now wearing Western (or what they call “onepoint”) tattoos, received by American tattooists or at the many one-point tattoo studios in Japan, as a part of a larger movement in favor of all things American. For the most part, however, tattooing has a long way to go before reaching mainstream status in Japan. Most Japanese people who do wear tattoos hide them under their clothing in order to escape the heavy stigma placed on them.
Today, partly because of the international interest in Japanese tattooing, the Japan Tattoo Institute is the first organization devoted to preserving and encouraging the traditional Japanese art of hand-tattooing. Established in 1981, the Tattoo Institute publishes books, videos, and CD-ROMs about Japanese tattooing and Japanese tattooists | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Magic & Occulttattooing has long been associated...
Magic refers to the use and manipulation of supernatural forces in order to achieve a desired goal. In order for a society to believe in magic, there must exist a magical worldview in that society, that is, an idea that there are natural forces that people can access, and that people can control those forces and essentially shape the world to their liking through divination, curses, cures, luck charms, love spells, protection spells, and other magical means.
Magic is a part of religious systems around the world, in traditional societies in which spiritual forces (in the role of ancestors, spirits, gods, demons, and the like) are seen to exert a great deal of force over the lives of humans, as well as in contemporary Judeo–Christian contexts.
Tattooing has long been associated with the magical practices of a number of people. In many traditions, the use of magic words or magical symbols is said to have the power to command spirits or to enact change. These symbols can magically take on a physical quality of the phenomenon or object that they represent. Thus by tattooing magical symbols or words onto the body, practitioners hoped to be able to make something occur in life.
My tattoo is on my lower back and
is a half moon/half sun, with stars
around the outside. I am bipolar and
to me my tattoo is a symbol of living
with such a difficult situation. Some
days are like night and day which
is symbolized by the sun and the
moon. Stars to me are like blessings
and it’s been a blessing to learn to
live with being bipolar.
The practice of tattooing (or writing) magical symbols and words was common in Medieval Europe among occult practitioners and lasted through the seventeenth century, when the tattooing of astrological symbols was common. This type of magic was seen as particularly useful because when it’s difficult to get the rare ingredients needed for some magical spells, one can use the symbol of the ingredient or the symbol of the corresponding planet, and mark it on the body.
At the same time, European pilgrims were traveling to the Holy Land to pick up Christian tattoos, themselves seen as both souvenirs and magical forms of protection. European sailors, too, practiced magical tattooing, wearing certain tattoos for protection. For instance, a pig on one foot and a rooster on the other acted as a charm that would keep a man from drowning at sea and the words “hold” and “fast” could be tattooed onto the knuckles of the hand to help the seaman to better hold the ship’s riggings. Propellers on the buttocks would also “propel” the wearer to shore. British sailors also hoped that wearing a scene of the crucifixion of Jesus on their backs would either elicit sympathy during a whipping, or perhaps may protect them from undue pain. Coptic Christians often tattooed a cross on their foreheads, as both a sign of devotion and also to protect themselves from evil spirits.
Other cultures use tattooing for magical purposes as well. Burmese tattooists create love charms in the form of tattoos made with magical ink, and tattoo parrots on the shoulder for good luck. Tibetans use tattooing for magical and medicinal purposes, tattooing mantras to achieve inner harmony and tattooing acupuncture points with herbal dyes, and Hindus tattoo certain gods onto the body to relieve pain. Perhaps the culture with the best-known tradition of magical tattooing is Thailand.
In Thailand, tattoos are traditionally given by monks and those who were trained by monks, and the tattoos, once properly blessed, are said to be able to protect the wearer from harm, even making him invincible to guns or other weapons. Tattoos can also give the wearer special powers, and a person can even become possessed by the tiger, dragon, or other creature living on their body.
In the twentieth century, with the revival of magical beliefs in the West with neo-paganism, Wicca, and goddess religions, magical thinking and the use of magical symbols are once again incorporated into tattooing. On the other hand, some neo-pagans use tattoos not as spells but to express their religious values. Magical symbols popular today include runes, astrological symbols, symbols from alchemy, Egyptian symbols, and Masonic symbols. Some Western tattooists also specialize in what they call magical tattooing, or transformative tattooing, and feel that they are providing their customers with the power to transform themselves through their tattoos | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Marquesasknown for their tattoo traditions...
The Marquesas Islands are a group of Polynesian islands originally settled by Samoans between the first and fourth centuries. Like many other Polynesian islands, the Marquesas are known for their tattoo traditions, which were most likely brought to the islands by the first inhabitants. First explored in the late sixteenth century by Spanish navigator Álvaro de Menda ˜na de Neira, and later visited by Captain Cook in 1774, the islands were later claimed by France in the nineteenth century. Cook’s visit, and his reports of tattooing traditions, were significant in that they played a major role in the exposure of Polynesian tattooing to the Western world, and also in the change and destruction of those same practices.
As with other Polynesian tattoo traditions, Marquesan tattooing was used to mark important features connected with status, wealth, and gender, but unlike other islands, the tradition was not restricted to chiefs and their families. Tattoos marked one’s affiliation with any number of groups such as warriors, graded associations, or entertainers called ka’ioi, as well as his genealogical position. Because the tattoo recipient had to pay for the tattoo, wearing a tattoo demonstrated one’s wealth, and for men, the ability to withstand pain. For women, tattoos were a sign of beauty, and for men and women they also served other purposes such as protection against evil and the marking of important events, and receiving a tattoo was a rite of passage for young men and women. Tattoos ultimately represented both individual and group identity, and allowed for the participation in important social and religious rituals.
Tattoo tools were similar to those on other Pacific islands, and included the primary tools, made out of wood, with sharpened bone combs of different widths protruding from the end. This tool would be tapped into the skin after being dipped into ink by a mallet, inserting the ink into the skin.
Tattoos were first given to boys and girls in their teens, but for men especially, could continue throughout their lives, as men were tattooed far more extensively than women. Women’s tattoos were typically on the face, the lips, the ears, the feet, and the hands, while men’s tattoos could eventually cover their entire bodies.
As in the Marshall Islands and among the Maori of New Zealand, the male body is divided into a number of zones, each of which is further subdivided. Tattoo designs are then created for each zone, with the result being an overall symmetry in design. Designs are primarily made up of straight and curved lines in a very abstract pattern, which together often gave the impression of fine black lace. Each individual had a different overall set of tattoos, and no two people looked the same.
Tattooing in the Marquesan Islands, as in the rest of Polynesia, was strongly influenced by European contact. For example, Marquesan tattooing at the time of first contact was based on abstract fine lines and other patterns, yet after European contact, lines became darker and broader, somewhat closer to the Maori style. Also, tattoos progressively became more a mark of prestige, losing some of their magical and religious connotations.
Marquesan tattoos also influenced Western tattooing, as well as Western understandings of “primtive man.” The Frenchman Jean Baptiste Cabri and an Englishman named Edward Robarts were tattooed on the Marquesas after deserting a British whale hunting expedition at the end of the eighteenth century. Found by a Russian explorer in 1804, Cabri ended up traveling to Russia where he displayed himself as the first European tattooed attraction, ushering in a new career for many men and women, and bringing tattooing to people who had never before seen such a thing.
Starting in the 1840s, Protestant and Catholic missionaries arrived and began to stamp out tattooing, along with other cultural traditions, and while the tradition was not wiped out entirely, it changed forever. Today, some Marquesan Islanders still get tattooed, but with a tattoo machine and in a context entirely divorced from traditional practices | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Marshall Islandsgroup of Micronesian islands...
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a group of Micronesian islands whose people are well known for their tattooing. Settled by other Micronesians between three and four thousand years ago, the first European to explore the Marshall Islands was English navigator John Marshall who arrived in 1788, after whom the islands are named. At the end of the nineteenth century, the islands came under the control of Germany, and was briefly also controlled by Japan and the United States. Early in the nineteenth century, the first descriptions and depictions of Marshallese tattooing were made by a Russian expedition, and later, German administrators and missionaries published a number of studies of the practice.
As with other Pacific Island tattoos, Marshallese tattoos were linked to status and rank, with chiefs being the only members of society to receive head and neck tattoos, which consisted of black horizontal bands running around the neck to the hairline, with tight vertical lines that run in a narrow band from the eyes to the jaw. Chiefs also exclusively wore the penis tattoo.
Tattoos also indicated rank in the sense that the tattoo needed to be paid for, both in gifts to the gods, from whom the tattoo was seen to come, as well as for the tattooist. Wealthier individuals could therefore afford more elaborate tattoos. Tattoos also served a protective function, and were used to beautify both men and women. In addition, as in many other cultures, tattooing especially for men was seen as a rite of passage, marking his initiation into manhood, as well as a test of his strength and endurance.
Tattoo motifs were abstract, as in many of the Pacific Islands, with lines serving as the primary design element. Because fishing was the major form of subsistence, and much of Marshallese culture revolved around sea travel and the exploitation of marine life, oceanic elements such as fish, shark’s teeth, and shells, as well as canoe parts, were also represented symbolically in tattoos. It was said that because fish have stripes, humans should have stripes, linking even the omnipresent lines to fish. Jewelry, too, was derived from the sea and included armbands and necklaces made of shells, fish teeth, and the feathers of sea birds.
For the purpose of tattooing, men’s bodies are broken into a number of zones, as we saw with Marquesan and Maori tattooing, and those zones are subdivided into a number of smaller zones. Each zone, such as the upper chest, stomach, or shoulder, would be tattooed with a different design. The entire torso, front and back, could be tattooed, as well as the arms and, less frequently, the legs, and many men were almost completely covered with tattoos, which from afar, looked to observers like a suit of chain mail. Arms were commonly tattooed with zigzag bands encircling the arm, and thighs and sometimes calves often had the same band patterns. Men also could be tattooed on their lower torso including the buttocks and genital areas, similar to the Samoan pe’a. The zigzag represented shark teeth.
Women were tattooed as well, and their bodies, like the men’s, were divided into zones. As in Polynesian tattooing, women’s tattoos were also less extensive than men’s, and were primarily limited to the arms, legs, fingers, and shoulders. The most common configuration for a woman was to have both arms completely tattooed, along with both shoulders across the top of the back and across the top of the chest beneath the neck. Zigzag bands were common motifs for women as well as men, and finger tattoos, like neck and face tattoos for men, were only worn by women of chiefly status. The finger tattoos were perhaps influenced by the European practice of wearing rings on the fingers. Because both men and women kept their upper bodies unclothed, much of a man’s tattoo, and all of women’s tattoos, were exposed to the public.
Tattoo implements are similar to other Pacific island cultures. The main tool is a comb, either narrow or wide, made of fish or bird bones, lashed at right angles to a stick; the comb is dipped into pigment and tapped into the skin with a wooden mallet. Getting tattooed was an important ritual event, with the tattoo seen as a gift from the gods, for which gifts of food or woven mats were exchanged, and a prayer prior to the procedure would be uttered. The tattooing took place often in utter silence, in tattooing houses which were located in sacred locations on the islands. Men could take a month or longer (longer for chiefs) to be fully tattooed, although many men received their tattoos in stages, and during the tattooing, the man’s face was covered with a mat. Scarification was also practiced to a limited extent, a practice probably borrowed from other locations such as the Gilbert Islands.
Because of missionary activity, tattooing began to decline in the second half of the nineteenth century, although it was still practiced, primarily by women. However, by that time, foreign elements were appearing in Marshallese tattooing, both from other Micronesian islands, as well as, later, from European sources. During the Japanese occupation during World War II, it was banned entirely, and traditional tattooing is no longer practiced at all on the islands | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Medical Tattooingsince the early days of plastic surgery...
Tattooing has been used in the medical field since the early days of plastic surgery, when doctors realized that they could use tattoo techniques to cover scars or birthmarks and to camouflage the effects of injury or surgery on the body. Today, the use of tattooing during reconstructive surgery is very common. Known as micropigmentation, it is essentially a form of cosmetic tattooing in which tattoo ink is tattooed into the skin to camouflage scars or recolor discolored as in the case of vitiligo. In the case of breast reconstruction surgery, not only are the surgical scars covered by tattoos (using ink colors to match the patient’s skin tone), but tattooing is used to color the reconstructed aureola. In addition, men and women experiencing alopecia can get their scalp tattooed to resemble hair, stretch marks that stem from childbirth or weight loss can be camouflaged, and burn damage can be corrected as well.
Medical tattooing is also used during radiation therapy for cancer. Because certain types of cancers must be very carefully irradiated, generally over a period of months, tattoos are sometimes used to mark the locations that the radiation needs to target, so that the same location can be precisely targeted during each treatment.
In 1955, the Assistant Secretary of Defense suggested that all U.S. citizens have their blood type tattooed onto their bodies in anticipation of a military attack on the United States, and many citizens evidently complied, getting their blood types tattooed on an arm or leg. Some Americans also got their social security number tattooed on them | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)
Meso-AmericaOlmec, Teotihuacan, Mayans and Aztecs...
Prior to the arrival of Columbus in Central America, Meso-America refers to a number of cultures found throughout central Mexico, southern Mexico, and along the Yucatan Peninsula, including the Olmec, the Teotihuacan culture, the Mayans, and the Aztecs, all of whom used a number of forms of body adornment and modification.
The Olmec lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico from about 1200 BC to about 400 BC. The Mayan civilization thrived for almost three thousand years on the Yucatan Peninsula from about 1000 BC to AD 800. The Aztecs were primarily found in central Mexico and thrived from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, until the arrival of the Spanish.
When Hernándo Cortés and his Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they were shocked to find that the natives of the area not only worshipped what the Spanish considered devils, but also marked these images onto their skin. Because the Spanish had never seen nor heard of tattooing, they considered the practice to be the work of the devil.
The Aztecs, who the Spanish ultimately conquered, used tattooing to mark warriors, as both a sign of courage and also to commemorate his accomplishments. Early Aztec tattoos helped identify the rank of a warrior and the deeds he had accomplished. The tattoos may also have been thought to be important in guiding the dead to the afterworld.
We know from archaeological evidence that ancient Meso-Americans pierced their ears, noses, and lower lips, and such practices continue to be popular amongst indigenous peoples in these regions.Jewelry-making developed five thousand years ago in Central and South America. Because gold was easily accessible, the Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayans created bracelets, pendants, necklaces, earrings, nose ornaments, lip plugs, and ear spools using gold as well as materials like jade, silver, bronze, obsidian, and copper. Found materials like shell and jaguar teeth and claws were also utilized in jewelry.
Pierced lips and the wearing of labrets, or lip plugs, was reserved for male members of the higher castes of Meso-Americans. These elaborately designed pieces were inserted into the hole in the lip such that the decorated end, which could resemble a bird, serpent, or another animal, would emerge from the lip opening.
Among the Aztecs, only nobility wore gold jewelry, as it showed their rank, power, and wealth. The main purpose of Aztec jewelry was to draw attention to the wearer, with richer and more powerful Aztecs wearing brighter, more expensive clothing and jewelry made out of gold and precious stones. Commoners, on the other hand, had to wear plain clothing, and either no adornments, or simple adornments made out of bone, wood, shell, or stone. Aztec men and women also painted their bodies the color of the banner of their chief.
The Olmec and Mayans not only wore earrings in their pierced ears, but stretched their earlobes and wore gold, jade, shell, and obsidian ear spools in the enlarged holes. An ear spool is a large cylinder that fits through the ears with a large disk or decorative sheet on the front side. It is thought that ear spools were inserted into the ear by first slicing the ear open, inserting the spool, and as the wound heals, the spool is sealed into place. As with the labrets, only high-status Mayans could wear the larger ear spools. In fact, throughout the Americas, the elaborately large ear spools were used as a sign of high status.
Mayans also pierced their bodies for more than decoration. They practiced bloodletting as a form of religious sacrifice, in which Mayan rulers would cut or pierce their ears, cheeks, tongues, and genitals; each body part was cut for a specific reason. For example, a man would pierce his penis and let the blood drip out to symbolize and encourage fertility. Women participating in bloodletting rituals would often pull a rope covered with thorns through a piercing in her tongue.
The Mayans also practiced head shaping, by wrapping infants tightly with cloth to a cradleboard, a process which could last for years. Heads shaped like cones were thought to signify nobility, although it is clear that more than the nobles flattened their heads, since the majority of all skulls found from the period were flattened.
Upper-class Mayans also filed their teeth, and sometimes etched designs onto the surface of the teeth as well, a tradition that has also been found in Africa and contemporary Central America. They also drilled holes into the teeth for the purposes of inserting jewels, a practice which would have been limited to the elites | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)