Despite Immense Popularity, The Practice Has Not Left Much Of An Historical Record
The etymological origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is believed to have two major derivations; the first is from the Polynesian word ta which means striking something and the second is the Tahitian word tatau which means ‘to mark something’. The use of tattoos is recorded to have begun thousands of years ago and its history is as varied, colorful and diverse as the people who carry them. From a simple scientific standpoint – tattoos are created the insertion of colored materials beneath the skins’ surface or epidermis. The first tattoos were most likely created unintentionally. Someone with a small wound or gash happened to rub it with a dirty hand that was covered with soot or ash. Once the wound had healed, they realized that the skin had healed over the ash and that the mark became a permanent addition
Our knowledge of tattooing in Europe really begins with the Ancient Greek and Roman historians. The only sources of information before this are archeological finds which are scare and, above all, open to interpretations. It is possible that tattooing cultures already existed in Europe before the last Great Ice Ace, 12,000 years ago. Bowls with traces of black and red pigments along with sharpened flint instruments were discovered in the Grotte des Fees (Fairy Grotto) in Chatelperron – France, 1867, and in caves in Portugal and Scandinavia. The shape and size of the tools suggest that they have been used for tattooing
Images of people decorated with what appear to be four tattooed horizontal lines on both sides of their noses have been found on prehistoric stone pillars in Aveyron and Tarn, France. Clay Cucuteni figures dating from 5,000 BC showing traces of tattoos have been found in the Romanian Danube region. Drawings and figurines discovered in a Thracian burial mound near Philippopolis may depict tattooed people, but considering the complexity of the decorations it is more likely that these represent body painting or finely worked figurines. The main reason for the disappearance of ancient traditions in many places was the ending of their almost total isolation. After centuries of living as more or less equivalent cultures indigenous populations were overwhelmed by the dominant European seafaring nations. The technological and militarily superior Europeans introduced their own value systems based on Christian beliefs. Like the Greeks and the Chinese before them the Europeans disdained the practices of the inhabitants of the newly discovered regions. It could not have escaped the notice of the natives that many of the mainly male adventurers found the permanent body decorations of the ‘otherwise so attractive’ women disdainful. Similarly, many Greenland Inuit women rejected the traditional facial tattoos, fearing that mainland men would find them unattractive
In 1991 ‘Otzi the Ice Man'... In 1948 - just over 200 kilometers... Various written manuscripts... The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan... From Southern China the practice spread... In pacific cultures tattooing has... The Maori of New Zealand... Borneo is a rare example... Hanuman in India was a popular symbol... The traditional tattoo of Thailand is called Sak Yant... In Africa, where people... The Roman tattoo culture derived... Were a tribal people who moved... In Peru, tattooed Inca mummies... Early Jesuit accounts testify to the... During the time of the old testament... It is very likely that the vikings were tattooed Explorers returned home with tattooed... In the 18'th century, many French... Often returned to port with tattoos... For hundreds of years the practice... The prevalence of tattooing during... As with other artistic mediums...
made the headlines of newspapers all over the world when his frozen body was discovered on a mountain between Austria and Italy. This is the best preserved corpse of that period ever found. The skin bears 57 tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys and numerous parallel lines on the ankles. For centuries the Berbers in mountainous regions of North Africa used this kind of therapeutic tattoo to treat rheumatic pains. Anthropologists believe a traditional healer made incisions in Otzi’s skin on the afflicted areas, placing medicinal herbs in the wound which were burned with the point of a heated metal instrument. The charred residue was incorporated in the resulting scar. An examination of Otzi’s tattooed skin tissue revealed that the scares to contain carbon particles. Probably a shepherd or hunter, he was middle aged at the time of his death. The copper ace found with him suggests he was a man of some distinction. Otzi, named after the Oztal where he was found, lived 5,300 years ago. He was probably murdered as an arrowhead was found in his back and his body shows traces of cuts and deep bruising. Encased in ice for thousands of years, Otzi and the objects found with him are remarkably well preserved (ii)
The Iceman has living relatives. Living links to the Iceman have now been revealed by a new DNA study. Gene researchers looking at unusual markers on the Iceman’s male sex chromosome report that they have uncovered at least 19 genetic relatives of Ötzi in Austria’s Tyrol region. The match was made from samples of 3,700 anonymous blood donors in a study led by Walther Parson at Innsbruck Medical University. Sharing a rare mutation known as G-L91, “the Iceman and those 19 share a common ancestor, who may have lived 10,000 to 12,000 years ago,” Parson said. The finding supports previous research suggesting that Ötzi and his ancestors were of farming stock. The study used Y-chromosome markers that are passed from father to son to trace the Neolithic migrations that brought farming to Europe via the Alps. Ötzi belonged to a Y-chromosome group called haplogroup G, which is rooted, like farming, in the Middle East. The study’s overall results fit the idea that the changes of the Neolithic Revolution spurred people westward into the Tyrol region, Parson said. He is nevertheless wary of any suggestion that Ötzi’s distant relatives might be a chip off the old block, either physically or in their liking for simple grain porridge.
He had several health issues. Since Ötzi’s discovery in an alpine glacier more than two decades ago, scientists have subjected his mummy to a full-body health check. The findings don’t make pretty reading. The 40-something’s list of complaints include worn joints, hardened arteries, gallstones, and a nasty growth on his little toe (perhaps caused by frostbite). Furthermore, the Iceman’s gut contained the eggs of parasitic worms, he likely had Lyme disease, and he had alarming levels of arsenic in his system (probably due to working with metal ores and copper extraction). Ötzi was also in need of a dentist—an in-depth dental examination found evidence of advanced gum disease and tooth decay. (See video: “Iceman Autopsy.”) Despite all this, and a fresh arrow wound to his shoulder, it was a sudden blow to the head that proved fatal to Ötzi.
He also had anatomical abnormalities. Besides his physical ailments, the Iceman had several anatomical abnormalities. He lacked both wisdom teeth and a 12th pair of ribs. The mountain man also sported a caddish gap between his two front teeth, known as a diastema. Whether this impressed the ladies is a moot point—some researchers suspect Ötzi might have been infertile.
The Iceman was inked. Ötzi’s frozen mummy preserves a fine collection of Copper Age tattoos. Numbering over 50 in total, they cover him from head to foot. These weren’t produced using a needle, but by making fine cuts in the skin and then rubbing in charcoal. The result was a series of lines and crosses mostly located on parts of the body that are prone to injury or pain, such as the joints and along the back. This has led some researchers to believe that the tattoos marked acupuncture points. If so, Ötzi must have needed a lot of treatment, which, given his age and ailments, isn’t so surprising. The oldest evidence for acupuncture, Ötzi’s tattoos suggest that the practice was around at least 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
He consumed pollen and goats. The Iceman’s final meals have served up a feast of information to scholars. His stomach contained 30 different types of pollen. Analysis of that pollen shows that Ötzi died in spring or early summer, and it has even enabled researchers to trace his movements through different mountain elevations just before he died. His partially digested last meal suggests he ate two hours before his grisly end. It included grains and meat from an ibex, a species of nimble-footed wild goat.
North of the borders between Russia and China – Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko began excavating a group of tombs, or Kurgans, in the high Altai mountains. At this site mummies, that date from around 2,400 years ago, were excavated. On their bodies were a wide array of tattoos said to represent various indigenous and mythological animals. Amongst them were griffins and monsters that were thought to have a magical significance yet some of these kinds of elements are believed to be purely aesthetic, decorative or ornamental. The tattoos of these mummies, when viewed together or as a whole piece, were believed to reflect the status of the individual bearing them (ii) Archaeologists made a stunning discovery in Russia when they uncovered mummies bearing intricate tattoos on their bodies. The mummified remains belong to members of the Pazyryk tribe. Originating in the Iron Age (600-300 BC), researchers speculate that the nomadic Pazyryk tribe used the tattoos for personal identification, and possibly so that others could identify a tribesman in another life.
The intricacy and details of the tattoos are stunning, and certainly mystifying considering the lack of technology during ancient times.The Pazyryk tribe lived in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, south of the modern city of Novosibirsk, Russia. They were horse riding nomads, traveling by horseback to trade goods with merchants in China, India, and Persia. Much of their culture has been revealed by findings from the same tombs where the tattooed mummies were found. These findings include felt hangings, Chinese silk, pile carpet, wooden furniture and other household goods, a fur bag containing cannabis seeds, an incense burner filled with stones, and the frame of an inhalation tent. The mummies and artifacts were well-preserved due to water seeping into the tomb and freezing everything into a solid block of ice. The most stunning find at this site was the discovery of the mummified bodies containing intricate tattoos. Two of the sets of remains are fairly well-known to this day. The first are the remains of an individual believed to be a Pazyryk chief. The man was believed to be about 50 years old at the time of his death, and was strongly built. The portions of the remains that had not decayed contained clearly visible tattoos. It is likely that the tattoos were created using fine needles, which the Pazyryk’s also used for embroidery. Many of the designs on the chief’s body represented great beasts, including a donkey, a mountain ram, two deer with long antlers, an unidentified carnivore on the right arm, two beasts resembling griffins, three damaged images believed to be two deer and a mountain goat, a fish, a monster, and four rams. Many of the images are intertwined. The chief also had several small, circular tattoos near his spine, which may have been for therapeutic purposes. The second set of remains that have demanded much discussion are the remains of the Ice Maiden. Otherwise known as the “Altai Maiden,” or Princess Ukok, the female remains have become famous. She had been given a ceremonial burial in a wooden chamber with six horses. She was a younger woman, with her head shaven, but wearing a wig and a headdress.
Tattoos similar to those on the chief cover the body of the Ice Maiden, including beasts and animals. It is believed that the different animals and images were used to define an individual’s place in society. These represent some of the most complex ancient tattoos to date. In fact, so impressive are their designs, that many people today wear the tattoos of the ancient Pazyryk tribe. There has been some controversy surrounding the discovery of the Ice Maiden’s remains and their subsequent use as a museum display. Some say that it is highly disrespectful to place the women’s nude remains on display for all to see, no matter how old. Many Siberian villagers want the remains to be reburied, as they blame recent natural disasters on the disturbance of the Ice Maiden’s spirit. They believe that her body was placed specifically to block the entrance of the chamber to the dead, and that recent flooding and earthquakes are a direct result of the removal of her body. The Pazyryk culture gives us another tiny glimpse into a large part of ancient human civilization. With the sophisticated tools we have grown accustomed to today, it is hard to image how tattoos as intricate as those found on the Pazyryk chief and the Ice Maiden could have been created. While scientists can speculate as to how and why these tattoos were created, we may never know how accurate those speculations are. As beautifully visible as these tattoos are, the ancient secrets behind their purpose and creation may never be fully revealed.
actual physical remains and works of tattoo art pertaining to the Egyptian period had mostly been ignored by earlier Egyptologyists. Today however, we know that there were numerous bodies recovered dating back to as early Xi era that exhibited tattoos. In 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, at Thebes who lived some time between 2160 BCE and 1994 BCE. This female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body. The arrangement of these dots or dashes were aligned into abstract geometric patterns. This particular art form is believed to have been restricted to females and usually these women were associated with some kind of ritualistic practice. The Egyptians then carried the practice of tattooing throughout the then known world. The pyramid-building Third and Fourth dynasties of Egypt developed international nations with Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia. And by 2,000 BCE the art of tattooing had been extended all the way to Southeast Asia. The Ainu (Western Asian nomads) brought the practice of tattooing with them as they moved over to Japan. It is a sad fact that many tattoos’ original meaning are lost, not least due to the new generation’s lack of interest in their own traditions, a result of the advance of Western influences. It should be noted, however, that this interpretation is by no means accepted by every scholar who has worked with the papyrus nor should one assume that, because a prostitute wears a certain tattoo, piece of jewelry, or article of clothing, that those images, objects, and articles are synonymous with prostitution. Tattoos seem to have been worn by a number of different kinds of women for different reasons.
The first female mummies uncovered were thought to be members of a king’s harem and the others dancing girls or prostitutes. The male Egyptologists of the 19th and 20th centuries CE who were studying the mummies could not reconcile their understanding of a tattooed woman with one of high social standing and so tattoos were considered a mark of the lower classes. Even as recently as 1995 CE, the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, whose treatment of tattoos and women is usually cogent and precise, writes, “Tattooing seems to have been confined to lower-class women” (160). Even though elsewhere in her work she acknowledges the variation in purpose of tattoos, the old stigma of body art carries on in the modern day and prevents people (often males) from interpreting these marks correctly (ii) The art of tattooing goes back millenia, however, and was practiced in ancient Egypt at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE). In ancient cultures such as Greece and Rome the tattoo was worn as a cultic symbol dedicating one to a certain god, as a brand symbolizing servitude, as a mark of a certain type of profession (such as a prostitute) or to encourage fertility or afford protection. In these cultures both men and women were tattooed but, in Egypt, tattoos were seemingly only worn by women though possibly for many of the same reasons. An interesting difference, however, persists in the interpretation of Egyptian women’s tattoos as opposed to those of other cultures: the tattoos of Egyptian women were – and are – regarded, when they are not simply ignored, as a symbol of the lower class and the mark of a dancing girl or prostitute without considering other possibilities. Further, even when such options for interpretation are allowed, they must argue against this earlier understanding.
Early Egyptologists interpreted these tattoos according to their own understanding and prejudices concerning body art and, in examining the female mummies or feminine statuary, concluded that tattoos were worn by lower class prostitutes and dancing girls. Joann Fletcher, a fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York, explains the confusion caused by the assessment of these early interpretations: “Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of “dubious status,” described in some cases as “dancing girls.” The female mummies had nevertheless been buried at Deir el-Bahari (opposite modern Luxor) in an area associated with royal and elite burials, and we know that at least one of the women described as “probably a royal concubine” was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as revealed by her funerary inscriptions. And although it has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases, I personally believe that the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth”. As more evidence came to light of tattooed women who were obviously priestesses and members of the court, the interpretation of “low class” tattooed women was somewhat revised to include the concept of cultic tattoos identifying a woman with the worship of Hathor.
This understanding still carried with it a sense of eroticism and sexuality, however, which a present-day sensibility cannot seem to include in the definition of a priestess. Even in the modern-day “progressive” society, these ancient tattoos continue to be associated broadly with lower class members of society just as they were in the 19th century CE. Although the precise meanings of ancient Egyptian tattoos may be unclear, it seems evident that they had an array of implications and that women of many different social classes chose to wear them. Tattoos in ancient Egypt may date back to the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE) based on evidence suggesting priestesses of the goddess Hathor would have had themselves so marked at that time. This claim is purely speculative, however. The most conclusive evidence of Egyptian tattoos found thus far dates the practice to the Middle Kingdom. Scholar Carolyn Graves-Brown writes how, “in 1891, two ancient Egyptian female mummies were uncovered from Middle Kingdom Deir el-Bahri; they bore tattoos of geometrically arranged dots and dashes”. She goes on to note that the tattoos on these women were the same as those found on Middle Kingdom fertility dolls and that, further, other female mummies were later discovered with similar markings. The claim that tattoos were only worn by prostitutes, dancing girls, and “lower-class women” becomes even weaker when one considers the case of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor from the 11th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. The mummy of Amunet, discovered with the others in 1891 CE by Egyptologist Eugene Grebaut at Deir el-Bahri, shows patterns of tattooed lines on her arms, thighs, and lower abdomen.
These tattoos are interpreted by some scholars as fertility symbols and this claim is strengthened by other statues and mummies of tattooed women with the same kinds of marks on their body. These tattoos are thought to have been worn by a priestess to honor Hathor who, among her many duties, was also goddess of fertility. They were worn by other women as symbolic protection of a child in the womb and during child birth (although these are not mutually exclusive since priestesses could marry and have children). It has been noted that, as a woman’s pregnancy developed and the belly swelled, the tattoos would have formed an intricate net design from one’s lower back to just below one’s navel, thus creating a distinctive protective barrier between the world and the unborn child. The protective aspect of the tattoo is further suggested by the figure of the protector-god Bes which women had tattooed on their inner thigh. Joann Fletcher notes “This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts, and would also explain the specific types of designs, in particular the net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. During pregnancy, this specific pattern would expand in a protective fashion in the same way bead nets were placed over wrapped mummies to protect them and “keep everything in.”
The placing of small figures of the household deity Bes at the tops of their thighs would again suggest the use of tattoos as a means of safeguarding the actual birth, since Bes was the protector of women in labor, and his position at the tops of the thighs a suitable location. This would ultimately explain tattoos as a purely female custom”. No written work on the subject of tattoos survives from ancient Egypt and so interpretation is always speculative but it seems likely these tattoos were not simply adornments to make a woman more attractive to a man but served a higher purpose and, further, this purpose differed in different eras. Graves-Brown write “Much confusion also arises from the conflation of New Kingdom depictions of Bes on dancers’ legs, with Middle Kingdom marks on the bodies of elite women and `fertility dolls’.
All the evidence suggests that the only Egyptians in Dynastic Egypt to have tattoos were women and that these women would be elite court ladies and priestesses of Hathor perhaps decorated to ensure fertility, but not for the simple amusement of men. The origins and precise meaning of the tattoos, however, remain unclear”. Bes was primarily a protector god of pregnant women and children but was also associated with sexuality, fertility, humor, and joy in life. His image on a woman’s thigh, therefore, could have many meanings within that context and should not be interpreted narrowly as only pertaining to sexual attraction. Tyldesley writes “Some New Kingdom entertainers and servant girls displayed a small picture of the dwarf god Bes high on each thigh as a good luck symbol and a less than subtle means of drawing attention to their hidden charms. It has been suggested that this particular tattoo may have been the trade mark of a prostitute, but it seems equally likely to have been worn as an amuletic guard against the dangers of childbirth, or even as a protection against sexually transmitted diseases”. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch also makes a point of the many ways in which Bes tattoos could be interpreted, writing, “Bes amulets and figurines were popular for over 2,000 years. Some women even decorated their bodies with Bes tattoos to improve their sex life or fertility”. It does seem clear that prostitutes wore tattoos based upon engravings and images such as those on the Turin Erotic Papyrus. The Turin Erotic Papyrus is a badly damaged document dating from the latter part of the New Kingdom (the Ramesside Period c. 1186-1077 BCE). Interpretations of the images range from claims it depicts a brothel, is a satire on sexual mores, or shows the sexual practices of the gods. The brothel interpretation goes directly to the Bes tattoo as a mark of prostitutes in that one of the women in the images is shown with the tattoo on her upper thigh.
is found in clay figurines with painted or engraved faces representing tattoos. The oldest of these clay figurines have been recovered from tombs dated to 3,000 BCE or indeed before this time. Numerous other such figurines have been found in various tombs dating from the 2nd and 3rd millennia BCE. These figurines served as ‘stand-ins’ or substitutes for living individuals who symbolically accompanied the dead on their journey into the afterlife. It is commonly held that these tattooed marking held strong spiritual significance. The very first written record of the Japanese practicing the art of tattooing is found within a Chinese dynastic history compiled around 297 CE.
The Japanese were interested in he art mostly for aesthetic or decorative uses – in contrast to their earlier spiritual significance. The Horis – the Japanese tattoo masters – were the undisputed experts of tattooing in their time. Their use of colors, perspective and imaginative designs moved the practice in a completely different direction. The classic Japanese tattoo is a full body suit (ii) Punitive tattooing eventually fell out of favor, but tattoos remained associated with criminality even as decorative and pictorial tattooing began a resurgence. In 1805, a Japanese translation of the Chinese novel Suikoden was released. It was illustrated with lavish color woodblock prints of its heroes, who were tattooed with elaborate motifs of flowers, animals and mythical figures. The novel was tremendously popular, and spurred a demand for similar tattoos. Despite this popularity, tattooing was officially outlawed for being deleterious to public morals. This was strictly enforced in the Meiji era, when it was feared that tattoos would make the Japanese appear barbaric to Westerners.
But many Japanese continued tattooing in underground parlors, and the art became associated with yakuza gangsters for whom receiving a painful and illegal tattoo was considered evidence of one’s courage and loyalty to the outlaw lifestyle. Far from viewing them as barbaric, many Westerners became fascinated by the local tattoos. On visits to the country, the future King George V and Czar Nicholas II both received dragon tattoos on their arms. Though tattooing is no longer illegal in Japan, it remains a thorny subject. Many still associate it with criminality, and public baths and hot springs often turn away tattooed customers.
along the silk-route. There have been a few periods in the history of the Far East when tattoos were accepted. Tattooing was mostly associated with the lower classes or the underworld. Though practiced in China for thousands of years, civilized and sophisticated Chinese showed nothing but disdain for it throughout this period. The practice become completely discredited after the Communist takeover in 1949. It was also held in contempt in Japan then greatly influenced by China in this regard
This changed in the 18’th century when artists became interested in the art of tattooing. For a period tattoos were very fashionable particularly among workers. The Japanese tattoo style even became the international trendsetter. Prominent Westerners were attracted to the Japanese style and even traveled to Japan to receive the artwork. The introduction of the Japanese style to the west contributed greatly to the short-lived vogue of tattooing among the Western elite at the end of the 19’th century
There are many parallels in the histories of tattooing in China and Japan. Firstly, both countries included peoples with rich tattoo traditions living beyond the direct influence of the center of power. In the 3’rd century CE, Chinese sources mentioned the Wa people who tattooed their bodies to ward off evil dragons. Until recently, the women of the Ainu people who still live on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, had remarkable mouth tattoos. Tribes with their own tattoo culture have also long been a feature on the margins of the Chinese empire. Secondly, the practice of punitive tattooing, the public humiliation of offenders, occurred both in China and Japan. This punishment was essentially a life sentence as people marked in this way were condemned to a life on the margins of society. Thus a vigorous tattoo culture gradually developed within society’s underbelly. The third common factor was the boost that the art of tattooing received in both countries generated by the immense popularity of the novel Suikoden, in which the most important characters are tattooed
In ancient China people lived according to strict Confucian moral codes. 500 years before the birth of Christ, Confucius preached that civilized people should honor and respect their parents and ancestors. Any mutilation of the body, a parental gift, conflicted with these basic tenets and brought shame upon the family and the community. Cultivated Chinese viewed tattooing, like eating raw meat and shaving body hair, as barbarous. These activities characterized wild, uncivilized tribes living beyond or on the borders of the Chinese empire. The first report of a tattooing culture appears in Chinese writings dating from around 200 BCE. It describes the Yue people who decorated themselves with mythical figures to protect themselves from dragons and sea monsters when fishing
a huge historic significance. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. Polynesian peoples, believe that a person’s mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. The vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies. Elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body. In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘tatau’, by hand, has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendancy to a leadership role.
The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The first Europeans who set foot on Samoan soil were members of a 1787 French expedition. They got a closer look at the natives and reported that ‘the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed, although they are almost naked’. the mythological origins of Samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history of tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of New Zealand, and later disseminated into various international subcultures from Auckland to the Netherlands. The Hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art, known as ‘kakau’. it served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being. Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced mens arms, legs, torso and faces. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue. The arrival of western missionaries forced this unique art form into decline as tattooing has been discouraged or forbidden by most Christian churches throughout history (ii)
There’re still debates about the origins of Polynesian culture (debate details can be found by searching “Polynesian Culture” in wikipedia), but one thing we can ensure is that Polynesia is not a single tribe but a complex one. Polynesians which includes Marquesans, Samoans, Niueans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and Māori, are genetically linked to indigenous peoples of parts of Southeast Asia. It’s a sub-region of Oceania, comprising of a large grouping of over 1 ,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle that has New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island as its corners. People who live in these islands are regarded as Polynesians for their similar traits in language, customs, society and culture. Some people’s question about the differences between Polynesian and Samoan, Marquesans, Tongans or Tahitian tattoos (e.g.) can be answered here: They are just a branch of Polynesian Tattoos and each branch has its own subtle features. However few people know or realize the differences among them today.
The tradition of Polynesian tattooing existed from 2000 years ago. In 18th century this operation was strictly banned by the Old Testament. In early 1980’s, tattooing started to get a renaissance. Since then many lost arts were retrieved by Polynesians. But due to the difficulty in sterilizing the traditional tools, the Ministry of Health banned tattooing in French Polynesia in 1986. Although many years passed, tools and techniques of Polynesian tattooing have changed little. For a strictly traditional design, the skill gets handed from father to son, or master to disciple. Each tattoo artist, or tufuga, learned the craft over many years of serving as his master’s apprentice. They vertically passed their knowledge and rarely spread it widely because of its sacred nature.
Tattoo was a way delivering information of its owner. It’s also a traditional method to fetch spiritual power, protection and strength. The Polynesians use this as a sign of character, position and levels in a hierarchy. Polynesian peoples believe that a person’s mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. Almost every Polynesian got a tattoo in ancient times. Tattoo masters are the most crucial people because they bear the meaning of symbols and motifs in memory and know how to combine them to create a meaningful work of art to each person. For example, sea creatures are very common Polynesian symbols, like mantas, sharks, bonitos and sea urchins. Each of them has a meaning related to its inner nature and embodies the meaning by tattooing it on to the body. Polynesian tattoo masters can express varieties of meanings by combining different Polynesian symbols and motifs together.
Polynesian tattoo style can vary from island to island. It depends on the degree of evolution of various traditions from the original common tattoo designs, like Lapita, which is a former Pacific archeological culture. Ancient original styles mainly consist of some simple patterns, like straight lines, repeating on the body. These geometrical styles can be found in Hawaiian and Samoan tattoo traditions, or in tattoos from Fiji, Palau, Tonga, etc. Because the age is too far from nowadays, the meanings of these patterns are almost lost, or debatable. The most used styles nowadays, which instead consist of rounded patterns, are from Marquesas Island.Tattooing is a sacred ceremony in Polynesian culture. The tattoos and their location on the body were determined by one’s genealogy, position within the society and personal achievements. According to the culture of Maori, all high-ranking Māori were tattooed, and those who went without tattoos were seen as people with lowest social level. On the basis of mythology, human learned the art of tattooing from the 2sons of the God of Creation Ta’aroa. Tattooing was operated by high trained shamans (tahua) in the religious ceremony, who was an expert in the meanings of the tattoo and skills of the art. Before getting tattooed, a person should experience a long period of cleansing. During this period one would fast for a fixed length of time and abstaining from sexual intercourse or contact with women. The tattoo practice generally marked both rites of passage and important events in a person’s life. The addition of tattoos also made a warrior much more attractive to women.
Generally, the head was considered the most sacred part of the body, and because tattooing caused blood to run, the tattoo craftsmen, or “tohunga-ta-oko”, were very tapu persons. The full faced tattoo was very time consuming, and a skilled tattoo craftsman would carefully study a person’s bone structure before getting his art process start. Generally, the women were not as extensively tattooed as the men. The position of tattoo on women’s body was limited to hand, arms, feet, ears and lips. One saying is that girls at the age of twelve would get tattooed on their right hands, and since when they were permitted to prepare the meals and join in the process of rubbing of dead bodies
had created one of the most impressive tattoo cultures of all those in Polynesia. Their distinctive style of tattooing, known as moko, reflected a refined artistry. The Maori tattoos used their woodcarving skills to transfer this craft into the carving of skin. The full-face moko was amongst the highest marks of distinction and communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. The tattoos also recalled the wearer’s exploits in war and other major life events (ii)
According to Māori mythology, tattooing commenced with a love affair between a young man by the name of Mataora (which means “Face of Vitality”) and a young princess of the underworld by the name of Niwareka. One day however, Mataora beat Niwareka, and she left Mataroa, running back to her father’s realm which was named “Uetonga”. Mataora, filled with guilt and heartbreak followed after his princess Niwareka. After many trials, and after overcoming numerous obstacles, Mataora eventually arrived at the realm of “Uetonga”, but with his face paint messed and dirty after his voyage. Niwareka’s family taunted and mocked Mataora for his bedraggled appearance. In his very humbled state, Mataora begged Niwareka for forgiveness, which she eventually accepted. Niwareka’s father then offered to teach Mataora the art of tattooing, and at the same time Mataora also leant the art of Taniko – the plaiting of cloak borders in many colours. Mataora and Niwareka thus returned together to the human world, bringing with them the arts of ta moko and taniko.
According to archaeological evidence, tattooing came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesian culture. The bone chisels used for tattooing can be found in archaeological sites of various ages in New Zealand, as well as in some early Eastern Polynesian sites. Although the Māori practiced tattooing, there is no evidence that the Moriori people did. In New Zealand, It is in the early sites that the widest chisel blades are found, and this lends evidence to the theory that there was possibly a preference towards rectilinear tattoo patterns in earlier times. The head was considered the most sacred part of the body, and because tattooing caused blood to run the tattoo craftsmen, or “tohunga-ta-oko”, were very tapu persons. All high-ranking Māori were tattooed, and those who went without tattoos were seen as persons of no social status. Tattooing commenced at puberty, accompanied by many rites and rituals. In addition to making a warrior attractive to women, the tattoo practice marked both rites of passage and important events in a person’s life. There were certain prohibitions during the tattooing process, and for the facial tattoo in particular sexual intimacy and the eating of solid foods were prohibited. In order to overcome this, liquid food and water was drained into a wooden funnel, to ensure that no contaminating product came into contact with the swollen skin. This was also the only way the tattooed person could eat until his or her wounds healed. The full faced tattoo was very time consuming, and a good tattoo craftsman would carefully study a person’s bone structure before commencing his art.
The tattoo instrument was a bone chisel, either with a serrated or an extremely sharp straight edge. The first stage of the tattoo commenced with the graving of deep cuts into the skin. Next, a chisel was dipped into a sooty type pigment such as burnt Kauri gum or burnt vegetable caterpillars, and then tapped into the skin. It was an extremely painful and long process, and often leaves from the native Karaka tree were placed over the swollen tattoo cuts to hasten the healing process. Wars were frequent, and the warriors had little time for recuperation. During the tattooing process, flute music and chant poems were performed to help soothe the pain. Although the tattoos were mainly facial, the North Auckland warriors included swirling double spirals on both buttocks, often leading down their legs until the knee. The women were not as extensively tattooed as the men. Their upper lips were outlined, usually in dark blue. The nostrils were also very finely incised. The chin moko was always the most popular, and continued to be practiced even into the 1970s.
The Moko is similar to an identity card, or passport. For men, the Moko showed their rank, their status and their ferocity, or virility. The wearer’s position of power and authority could be instantly recognized in his Moko. Certain other outward signs, combined with a particular Moko, could instantly define the “identity card” of a person. For example, a chief with Moko and at the same time wearing a dog cloak could be identified as a person of authority, in charge of warriors. These were undeniable signs of the “identity card”. It would be considered a great insult if the person was not recognized as the chief he was, and this could lead to “utu” – vengeance. The male facial tattoo – Moko – is generally divided into eight sections:
Ngakaipikirau (rank) The center forehead area
Ngunga (position) Around the brows
Uirere (hapu rank) The eyes and nose area
Uma (first or second marriage) The temples
Raurau (signature) The area under the nose
Taiohou (work) The cheek area
Wairua (mana) The chin
Taitoto (birth status) The jaw
Ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally (but not always, depending on the tribe) the father’s side, while the right hand side indicates the mother’s ancestry. Descent was a foremost requirement before a Moko could be undertaken. If one side of a person’s ancestry was not of rank, that side of the face would have no Moko design. Likewise if, in the centre forehead area there is no Moko design, this means the wearer either has no rank, or has not inherited rank
of where traditional tribal tattooing is still practiced in just the same way as it has been for thousands of years. Indeed up until modern times, many of the inland tribes had little to no contact with the outside world. As a result, many aspects of their traditional way of life, including tattooing, have been exquisitely preserved. Borneo designs have seen an enormous surge in popularity – today they are most commonly referred to as ‘tribal’ and assimilated into a staggering array of tattoo designs (ii)
Tattoos are created by artists who consult spirit guides to reveal a design. Among Borneo’s Kayan people, women are the artists, a hereditary position passed from mother to daughter. Among the Iban, the largest and most feared indigenous group in Borneo, men apply the tattoos. These tattoos are blue-black, made of soot or powdered charcoal, substances thought to ward off malevolent spirits. Some groups spike their pigment with charms—a ground-up piece of a meteorite or shard of animal bone—to make their tattoos even more powerful. For the outline, the artist attaches up to five bamboo splinters or European needles to a stick. After dipping them in pigment, he or she taps them into the skin with a mallet. Solid areas are filled in with a circular configuration of 15 to 20 needles.
Traditionally, Dayak tattooing was performed in a sacred ritual among gathered tribe members. Among the Ngaju Dayak, Krutak said, the tattoo artist began with a sacrifice to ancestor spirits, killing a chicken or other fowl and spilling its blood. After a period of chanting, the artist started an extremely painful tattooing process that often lasted six or eight hours. Some tattoos were applied over many weeks. For coming-of-age tattoo rituals, the village men dressed in bark-cloth. This cloth, made from the paper mulberry tree, also draped corpses and was worn by widows. Tattooing, like other initiation rites, symbolized both a passing away and a new beginning, a death and a life.
One Dayak group, the Iban, believe that the soul inhabits the head. Therefore, taking the head of one’s enemy gives you their soul. Taking the head also conferred your victim’s status, skill and power, which helped ensure farming success and fertility among the tribe. Upon return from a successful head-hunting raid, participants were promptly recognized with tattoos inked on their fingers, usually images of anthropomorphic animals. Head-hunting was made illegal over a century ago—but even today, an occasional head is still taken.
In past times, just as Iban men were tattooed to recognize their prowess in hunting or warfare, Iban women were adorned for accomplishments in weaving, dancing, or singing. Adolescent Kayan girls were tattooed at puberty to render status as an adult, to attract men, and to provide protection against evil spirits. As they grew older, women were often covered by a weave of inked images spreading around their legs, across the tops of their feet, forearms, and fingers. But only very wealthy Kayan women sported these intricate tattoos, Krutak said—”only aristocracy who could pay with a sword, a gong, pigs, or old trading beads.” Only aristocratic women were allowed to use particular designs, because only these women were powerful enough to resist any negative magic associated with the designs themselves, he said. Slaves were forbidden to tattoo.
Tattooing was done in stages over many years and was governed by various taboos. Once a Ngaju man had acquired some wealth and reputation, his shoulders were adorned with a star and his arms decorated with rooster wings and plant patterns. “But later in life, perhaps at the age of 40, only ‘perfect’ men would be allowed to receive the complete form of Ngaju tattoo,” Krutak said. These were men who had distinguished themselves by living their lives according to ceremonial law, participating in head-hunting expeditions and the offering of a human sacrifice—and who had acquired wealth. This “complete” tattoo was applied over many days. The man’s arms were covered with images of areca palm fronds that were said to protect him from malevolent jungle spirits. Then his torso was tattooed with a design of the Tree of Life, an everlasting symbol of strength and divinity that protected him from his flesh-and-blood enemies. He was then considered godlike, perfect and sacred, and it was believed that in the next world he would receive a golden body. Among the Iban, the chests and backs of older, venerated warriors were completely decorated with a collage of powerful images. The hornbill was a favored motif because the bird was seen as a messenger of the war god Lang and also marked rank and prestige. Other favorites were the scorpion and the water serpent, which protected the wearer from evil spirits lurking in the jungle. But in Borneo, and among many other indigenous groups around the globe, this practice is fading. “Many traditional forms of tattooing are dying out,” Keane said
of strength on arms and legs. The mythical monk is still today one of the most popular creations in Thailand and Myanmar. They are put on the human body by monks who incorporate magical powers to the design while tattooing. Women are excluded because monks are not allowed to be touched by them and because Thais believe women do not need the extra boost as they are already strong enough on their own (ii)
For hundreds of years, the tradition of tattooing was venerated across the agrarian and forested landscapes of India. The ancient maze-like carvings on prehistoric rocks were copied by tribal communities on their bodies. They called the process gudna (burying the needle in Hindi)and flaunted the markings as jewellery – the kind of jewellery no one could take away from them even if they were to lose all their worldly possessions. Most of India’s tattooed tribes lived in the remote hinterlands of the country, where stealing of women by rival tribes was a common occurrence.
The Apatani tattooing procedure involved using thorns to cut the skin and soot mixed in animal fat to fill in the deep blue colour. The wounds were then allowed to get infected so that the tattoos became larger, darker and clearer. The Indian government put a ban on this in the 1970s but the practice lives on in some of the untouched interiors of the northeast. Another tribe, the Singhpo of Assam and Arunachal, had distinct rules for each gender. The married women were tattooed on both legs from the ankles to the knees, while the men tattooed their hands. The unmarried Singpho girls were barred from wearing tattoos. Also prominent among the tattooed tribes of the northeast were the headhunting Konyaks of Nagaland who tattooed their faces to indicate their prowess in battle and headcount. Tattoos also helped in establishing tribal identity in the region, besides enabling recognition after death in a war or fatal accident.
In Southern India, permanent tattoos are called pachakutharathu. They were very common, especially Tamil Nadu, before 1980. The nomadic Korathi tattoo artists travelled the countryside in search of clients. The kollam, a sinuous labyrinthine design believed to ensnare evil beings, is inked on bodies to permanently keep them safe and secure until reunited with deceased ancestors in the afterlife. Central India also has a long and barbaric tradition of tattooing. The Dhanuks in Bihar believe tattoos deglamourize women – this helps them evade the eyes of influential sex predators. Due to the prevalence of purdah, women from lower castes had to have visible parts of their bodies tattooed to signal their inferior status. On the other hand, the Munda tribe in Jharkhand, which values courage, uses body art to record historic events. The Mundas thrice defeated the Mughals and, to commemorate these victories, Munda men even today tattoo three straight vertical lines on their foreheads. The Gonds of Central India, one of India’s largest tribes, traditionally left much of their bodies exposed. The bare skin was covered with kohkana (Gondi for tattoos) to ensure they looked decent.
The Santhal tribes of Bengal and Jharkhand have different tattoos for each sex, for different parts of the body and for different life stages. The men inscribe tattoos called sikkas on their forearms and wrists, named thus because they are usually the size of coins called sikka in the Santhal dialect. The number of these tattoos is always odd, because odd numbers signify life and even numbers symbolise death in Santhal cosmology. Floral patterns are painstakingly inked on the bodies of Santhal women, including their faces. It is believed the painful experience prepares a girl for motherhood and gives her the strength to face the challenges of life. The chati godai, for instance, is a tattoo inscribed on a girl’s chest when she attains puberty and, if not then, when she gets married. On completion, the tattoo is washed with soap-nut water to cool it and decrease the pain. Even among the tribes of western India, the craft of tattooing is revered, with tattoos having a close relation to secular and religious subjects of devotion. The Rabari women of Kutch have practised tattooing for decorative, religious, and therapeutic purposes for hundreds of years. A traditional Rabari tattoo kit is simple: a single needle and gourd bowl to hold the liquid pigment, which is made by mixing lamp soot with tannin from the bark of local trees. A small quantity of turmeric powder is also added to brighten the colour and to prevent swelling.
The Kothari women generally begin the task of elaborate tattooing by bestowing blessings on their subjects while the Rajput women bear the emblem of Krishna’s crown on their arms as a mark of aristocracy. Despite the wails of pain, the ladies are always perfect in their designing of the symbols and figures. Tattoos are also used to strengthen the marital relationship between couples, with the symbol of Moon protecting his favourite wife and Lord Vishnu’s tools like wheel and lotus being marked on the wife’s palms to keep her secure. The tattoo motifs preferred by the Mer tribe of Gujarat also include holy men, popular gods and symbols derived from nature. A Mer woman’s most favourite tattoo design is called hansali, which extends right from her neck to the border of her inner feet. The temporary tattoo art of mehndi also has a deep rooted cultural connect with India, with the use of mehndi and turmeric being described in the earliest Vedic ritual books.
While body art has been practised for centuries in many Indian communities, it’s only over the past few decades that tattoos have become a fashion statement among urban Indian youth. Tribal adaptation of popular designs like the dragon and tiger and abstract art are gaining popularity among the youth. Memorial tattoos, which commemorate the death of a dear one or a much-loved pet, spiritual tattoos, and tattoos with the name of the significant other, are hugely popular too
These tattoos are associated with both Buddhist and animist beliefs and were popular in Thailand before the arrival of Buddhism. Sak Yant dates back to Angkor times 3,000 years ago and the art is greatly influenced by Khmer culture. The specific script used for yantra tattoos is a mixture of ancient Khmer script or Khom and the original Buddhist Pali script.Tattooing with bamboo has long been practiced in Buddhist temples where monks would receive religious texts tattooed by grand master monks. Throughout Thai history, soldiers would visit temples to be tattooed by monks and receive spells for protection, strength and invisibility. Thailand legend has it that the country has never been occupied as Thai soldiers are warrior ghosts who cannot be seen or killed by the enemy due to their protective tattoos (ii)
The belief is not only that the designs are potent, but also the chanting of prayers that accompany it. The implement used for the tattoo is nearly a metre long and as the monks do their work, the chanting begins until the tattoo is finished. One hand directs the needle, cradling the tip as one would a pool cue, while the other hand drives the needle in and out of the skin at around two to three times per second. The series of dots in the skin connect to resemble a tapestry. Bamboo tattooing is extremely painful but considered worthwhile to make the bearer invincible. Another technique involves the tattooist rubbing ink into the wound after the needle has penetrated the skin, while at the same time a prayer is said to impregnate the charm with its spiritual power. Thai monks have to undergo months of training to find the mystical place within them-self a place where they won’t be distracted. Only when they have found this place within can they orchestrate their mind, body and heart in the necessary performance of tattooing.
Thai traditionalists warn tattoo enthusiasts that ordinary ‘decorative’ tattoos have no power to protect or bless them. In the traditionalist’s eyes they are executed using modern electric machines in the hands of tattooists with little true feeling. Consequently the tattoos lack authority and integrity and are perceived to lack magic. Such tattoos would have little power to act as a protective amulet or talisman or to bring good fortune to the wearer. Quite often, the tattoo will not be recognisable as it will be a Thai script reproducing prayers and sometimes it will be a ‘yantra,’ a pattern which is less graphic than an animal and composed merely of dots. Each component of each yantra, right down to a single dot, has specific and significant meaning. The traditional Buddhist tattoo is of a geometric design based on images of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, the Lotus or some other type of Buddhist symbol that is said to attract luck, wealth and blessings as well as providing insurance against evil spirits.
Another Thai tattoo that performs more or less the same functions is a Hindu Sanskrit tattoo that is based on the fearsome Hindu gods and deities such as the four faced Buddha, the Holy Eagle, the Heavenly Dog, Hanuman the Monkey God, and a Wealth Deity which make the evils spirits retreat. Many tattoos are of animals, the most popular being the tiger. The tattoo of a tiger represents the tigers’ spirit and the lower back is a favoured location as the tiger spirit will be in control of your life. Angelina Jolie submitted to the classical tiger treatment at the hands of venerated tattoo master, Ajarn Noo Kanphai in 2004.
A special Thai tattoo to improve your interpersonal and relationship skills called the Golden-Tongued Bird ‘Sha Li Ka’, is to improve your confidence and speaking skills, and it must work because it is seriously painful as it is applied to the tongue. The tattoo inked on the top of the head is intended to ‘flood your head with blessings to protect your soul’. This is called the ‘Yuan Shen Guan Ding’ tattoo. It is said that the soul resides up there, right alongside one’s store of good luck, and also any potential for success in business and relationships. The placement of the tattoo on the body has great significance in Thai tattooing, the closer a tattoo is to the head, where the soul is thought to reside the greater the power of the tattoo. For attracting special wealth, there are hand tattoos. Pieces of 24K gold flake inscribed with the wearer’s personal data are hand-pricked into the palm. Could his be the origin of the ‘golden handshake’?
have dark skin, it is difficult to make coloured tattoos as we know them. But they want to be tattooed anyway, so they have developed another technique – they make scarifications (this is not really tattooing, but it is related to tattooing) made by lifting the skin a little, and making a cut with a knife or some other sharp thing special sands or ashes were rubbed in to make raised scars in patterns on the body, it can be felt like braille lettering… These patterns often follow local traditions (ii)
Except for the 5000 year old man recently discovered in ice, the first evidence of tattoos leads back to the mummies in Egypt. The oldest tattoo was found on the mummy of Amunet, a priestess of the Goddess Hathor, during 2160-1994 BC. The mummy’s simple tattoos were parallel lines on her arms, legs, and an elliptical pattern below her navel. Interestingly, no male mummies found in Egypt had their body adored with tattoos. Egyptologists, today, are of the opinion that these designs symbolized fertility and rejuvenation in women. However, male mummies that have been found in other parts of Africa, such as Libya, have tattoos of images relating to sun worship, on their body. In the tomb of Seti I, dating back to 1300 BC, tattoos symbolizing Neith, a Fierce Goddess, who led warriors into battle, were found on men. The first known tattoo of a person was discovered on Nubian female mummies, dating to 400 BC. The tattoo image portrayed the God of Sex and overseer of orgies, Bes. Another form of early body ornamentation was ‘cicatrisation’. The word cicatrisation was derived from the French word, cicatrices, which mean ‘scar’. This form of body ornamentation was common among the darker-skinned people of Africa, so that their original color of skin would not show.
Even though Quran does not support the idea of engraving on the body, tattooing as an art form and cultural aspect has survived in the Islamic societies of North Africa. Strict Muslims from the society considered tattooing as unoly as it was considered to be a cause of injury to the body, making the body, a gift of the god, as imperfect in the eyes of Allah. Tattoo was also seen as an obstacle in letting the water penetrate through the skin, hampering the ritual of purification in Islam. But there was a sect of Moroccan women that considered tattooing as a legitimate practice. There are also written documents from the early 20th century, stating that tattooing existed in the Arabic world at the time of Prophet Mohammed. Many traditional forms of tattooing exited in parts of North Africa like, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, etc.
When Europeans were exploring Sub Saharan Africa, they discovered that the indigenous people of this region practiced a cultural practice of scarring the skin. The Sahel is the region in Africa that stretches from the country of Senegal to the Red sea. The largest tribal group inhabiting the Sahel region is called Fulani. It is also the most heavily tattooed tribes of the region.
While contemporary tattoos involve puncturing the skin for inserting pigment, Cicatrisation involves cutting the skin more severely to create wounds, which results in a decorative pattern of scar tissue. This popular technique for scarring involves two steps – piercing the skin and then, rubbing the wound with ash. The latter step is primarily done to inflame the skin, which later heals to form a raised scar. The wounds are periodically re-opened, and inserted with a pebble or pearl, in order to enhance the raised effect. This process used to be carried out on young boys who were about to hit puberty. It was continued until they entered the adulthood. Each tribe had its own individualistic style. Other African body altering traditions involve extreme forms of body piercing. The basic purpose of the art is to exaggerate body forms by ornamentation. Lips are pierced and objects are implanted inside, causing the lip tissue to elongate and conform to the shape of the implanted object as the flesh heals. Coming back to tattooing, African tribes are still seen with tattoos on their body. Available in numerable designs and forms, tattoos are mainly impressed to portray the symbols, which are unique to their group. This helps them to recognize people of their group and also those that belong to other groups
Ancient Greece & Rome
from that of the Greeks, a pattern common to many aspects of Roman culture. Despite the widespread decorative tattooing among neighboring peoples, the Greeks did not adopt the practice. They viewed their neighbors as barbarians whose customs were to be eschewed. However the Persians introduced the Greeks to an alternative use for tattoos. In 512 BCE King Darius led the Persians into Thrace. Herodotus informs us that the Persians marked their slaves, convicts and prisoners of war by tattooing letters onto their foreheads. We can assume that the Greeks adopted this practice from them since they also tattooed their slaves’ faces, making it impossible for a runaway to go unnoticed. In his dialogue on Greek law, Plato refers to the marking of desecraters caught plundering treasure from the temples. In their writings, the Greeks use the word stigma for tattoos
Roman writers such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed. Tattooing specific groups with clearly visible signs made monitoring their movements easier. A legal inscription from Ephesus indicates that during the early Roman empire all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words ‘tax paid’. Greeks and Romans also used tattooing as a punishment. Early in the fourth century, when Constantine became roman emperor and rescinded the prohibition on Christianity, he also banned tattooing on face, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators. Constantine believed that the human face was a representation of the image of god and should not be disfigured or defiled (ii)
The practice was so feared and despised by the Greek citizens that it appears in many Greek texts. Well-known Grecian authors and philosophers discuss the act of marking the unworthy in their works, detailing the atrocity that was Greek tattooing. Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived from 484 to 426 BC, wrote of those who received tattoos in Greece, describing criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war. On occasion, his writings tell us, individuals would be tattooed as a way of relaying secret messages through enemy lines. This, however, was the only acceptable form of voluntary tattooing. The Greeks had a firm belief that anyone who participated in the act of voluntary tattooing was a barbarian – such as the Thracian (Maenads) women, whose name roughly translates to the “Mad Women” or “Raving Ones.” Many other writers of the period discussed the use of tattoos in a disciplinary sense, as well. Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aelius Aristides, Aeschines, and Herodus have all mentioned the process in their works. Still there were some, like Plato, who encouraged the practice. He once wrote that thieves should have their offense marked on their hands and face, and those who were found guilty of sacrilege should be branded with a mark and banished from society. The historian Zonare wrote of a particularly nasty tale in which the Greek Emperor Theophilus used tattoos to punish two monks who publicly disparaged him. His drastic retaliation included having eleven verses of vulgar iambic pentameter inked across their foreheads and faces.
The Grecian method of tattooing as punishment was replicated in Roman society – but, as Romans tended to do, in a much larger fashion. They continued to ink their marks into slaves, criminals, and others deemed unfit by the Roman government. Slaves being exported in trade, for example, would have the words “Tax Paid” marked upon their foreheads. Many Emperors have been documented as participating in this most dire form of punishment, including Julius Caesar, Cicero, Galen, and Seneca. However, it was Emperor Caligula that perhaps took this heinous act to the next level. Suetone, one of the early writers of the Roman Era, detailed events in which the sadistic, mad Emperor would erratically take it upon himself to tattoo members of his court – as if some form of past time or hobby. Punitive tattooing continued into the war waged between Romans and Christians. A passage in the Biblical Book of Revelation refers to the “Whore of Babylon” who, as a slave of the Empire, had her undesirable habits tattooed across her face. There are also mentions throughout historic text that speak of Christians surviving Roman imprisonment and returning home where their tattoos were worn as badges of honor as they were upheld as heroes by their community.
As most injustices do, tattooing the face as punishment did finally reach its end when Rome entered into Emperor Constantine’s rule. As Rome’s first Christian Emperor, Constantine – who ruled from 306 to 337 AD – banned tattooing stating that man’s face was crafted in God’s image, and it was a sacrilege to deface it, regardless of the merit of the individual. Tattooing, when done of one’s own free will, can be therapeutic and/or exhilarating, but when unwanted ink is placed upon one’s body, it can be a permanent reminder of horrors that have been inflicted upon that individual. While tattooing is now widely accepted, beloved, and almost obsessed over – and was once thought to be used for pain relief and protection – the practice during the Greek and Roman Era was considered to be the most horrific form of punishment inflicted upon those who were allowed to live. Tattoo culture has undergone many unique challenges and changes over its 5,000 year history, but its ghastly use during the Roman and Greek Eras should be considered some of the practice’s darkest days.
across Western Europe in times around 1200 and 700 B.C. They reached the British Isles around 400 B.C. and most of what has survived from their culture is in the areas now known as Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Celtic culture had a long history of body art. Permanent body painting was done with woad, which left a blue design on the skin. spirals are very common, and they can be single, doubled or tripled. Knotwork is probably the most recognized form of Celtic art, with lines forming complex braids which then weave across themselves. These symbolize the connection of all life. Step or key patterns, like those found in early labyrinth designs, are seen both in simple borders and full complex mazes. Much in the way that labyrinths are walked, these designs are symbolic of the various paths that life’s journey can take
When Julias Caesar invaded southern Britannia in 55 BCE he wrote that the Britons colored their bodies blue in order to appear more fearsome on the battlefield. Based on this story, the 19’th century Irish historian William Betham has concluded that the name Britannia was actually derived from an ancient Celtic word meaning ‘land of the painted people’. After Caeser landed on British soil the Romans conducted many campaigns against the northern tribes that raided their empire in the ensuing centuries. With ancient roots, tattooing in Europe has a fascinating history. It is a tale of uneven development. The continent was repeatedly affected by influences that washed like waves over the land and then retreated, sometimes leaving pools behind. From a social perspective the meaning of tattoos has varied. At times a decorative tattoo was a status symbol of the upper classes while at others, it was a stigma associated with convicts and deserters (ii)
Christianity deplored the decorative tattoo as bodily mutilation and prohibited it. Yet the Middle Ages saw the emergence of the pilgrim tattoo that proudly proclaimed the completion of a pilgrimage. These polarized reactions are doubtlessly related to the severity of the act of tattooing itself. Europe has always been influenced by cultures beyond its borders.
Celtic artwork has been around since at least 700 B.C. in Central Europe, the earliest recorded settlements being at Halstatt in what is now Austria, and in the 5th century B.C. centred around Lake Neuchatel in what is now Switzerland, the home of the early La Tène (see below) style of Celtic art, with its curving lines and spirals, sometimes combined with cross-hatching, mainly produced on metalwork. The Celtic tribes gradually spread all over Europe, taking their art style with them. As the Roman Empire expanded and absorbed the conquered Celtic Lands of Europe, continental tribes migrated to the isles of the Britons to join the residents of those relatively safe havens, and took their artwork skills to those islands. In these isolated isles of the ancient Britons and Irish, at the end of the known world of that time, Celtic artwork and culture survived better than on the continent. The ancient Celts revered nature and the elements, and worshiped the sun, moon, the stars and the Earth Mother, with a wide range of goddesses and gods. They celebrated their deities, ancestors, life, the natural world and its creatures, and the changing of the seasons through their music, poetry, story telling and art. Their poets and musicians, the Bards, and their wise holy men, the Druids, were very high up in the social hierarchy of the tribe, training for many years in their orally learnt crafts, as nothing was written down. Their artisans were also well respected, and were stone carvers, wood and metal workers. They created fabulous works of art in the form of stone monuments, also metal jewelery, weapons and armour, often inlaid with bright enamels.
Their art normally had a purpose, often to impress neighbouring tribes. The stone carvings as monuments, memorial stones, or boundary markers, and the jewellery, weapons and armour to decorate the bodies and clothing of the Celts and their horses. An often over looked art was that of tattooing, although we have no records of exact designs, we do have contemporary descriptions of tattooed Celtic warriors, written by Roman observers, who made a distinction between permanent tattoo symbols, and the also common use of blue woad as warpaint. Go to the bottom of the page for an article on ancient tattoo. The number three was sacred to the ancient Celts, symbolic of life, death, and re-birth which was a matter of fact to them. They worshipped a triple-aspected goddess, the Morrigan, seen as Morrigan, Macha, and Badb. Many of the ancient burial mounds contain 3 chambers, and their art often used configurations of three, a common ancient symbol being the triscele. The triple aspect of the mind, body and spirit is still represented today in many religions.
From the 2nd century A.D., the new religion of Christianity appeared in the islands of Britain and Ireland, and over the next few centuries spread through the Celtic Lands, monks journeying across the islands to convert the people. Many years later, these men and women became the Christian Saints. Interlaced knotwork art probably originated about 1500 years ago in the stonework of the Picts in what is now called Scotland. With the expansion of the Celtic Christian church, the Irish and Scots monks of early medieval times refined it in fabulous illuminated manuscripts, versions of the Gospels, and while converting the ancient people to their new religion, founded monasteries and spread their amazing artwork through the Celtic Lands of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany, and Galicia. These Celtic monks also built beautifully carved stone High Crosses, focal points of medieval communities, which can still be seen all over Ireland and Scotland.
These scribes used knotwork, spirals, diagonal key patterns, and stylised human and animal figures (also interlaced) to illustrate their manuscripts. They probably worked in harsh conditions, presumably for hours by candle light, using primitive materials. They painted on vellum (streched and scraped-smooth calf skin), using feather quills and coloured pigments and inks. The inks were made from local and exotic sources. From close to home:- black from lamp soot, brown from oak apples and iron sulphite, orange from red lead, yellow from orpement (sulphite), green from verdigree (copper), blue from indigo and woad, white from lead and vinegar, and purple from the folian plant. From further afield :- cobalt blue from lapis lazuli, ultramarine from the Himalayas, and red from kermes (insect eggs from the mediterranean) and vermillion (cinnibar – mercuric sulphide). Many of the above materials are considered dangerous to use today. Egg white, or albumen, and gum were used to hold the pigments together for better painting. The artwork was sometimes tiny, and the museums displaying these works today, often have magnifeid viewers. Some of the original artists, hundreds of years later, were destined to be made Saints by the Christian Church.
A few of the amazingly detailed volumes of illuminated manuscripts have survived to this day. The “Book of Kells” is one of the oldest books in the world, from around A.D. 800. It was probably made by Colm Cille (St.Columba) and his monks on the holy island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Due to Viking raids the monks moved to Kells in Ireland with the book in the early 800s. The “Book of Kells”, the “Book of Durrow” (even earlier from 675 A.D.) and the “Book of Armagh” are on display in Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Another ancient book, from 698 A.D., the “Lindisfarne Gospels” is on display at the British Library in London. Many other Celtic treasures, including religious relics, ceremonial objects, jewellery, weapons and armour, can be seen in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the British Museum in London. The Vikings arrival influenced Celtic artwork, by adding their flair to it, creating a hybrid style. Celtic knotwork remains a special artform of those Lands, a link between widely spread descendants of Celtic people around the world. Tribes and languages have come and gone, but the artwork survives as a link to our ancestors, representing a continuous, unbroken circle of life
Central & South America
dating to the 11th century have been found. 16th century Spanish accounts of Mayan tattooing in Mexico and Central America reveal tattoos to be a sign of courage. When Cortez and his conquistadors arrived on the coast of Mexico in 1519 they were horrified to discover that the natives not only worshiped devils in the form of statues and idols, but had somehow managed to imprint indelible images of these idols on their skin. The Spaniards, who had never heard of tattooing, recognized it at once as the work of satan. The sixteenth century Spanish historians who chronicled the adventures of Cortez and his conquistadors reported that tattooing was widely practiced by the natives of Central America (ii)
In 1920, archaeologists in Peru unearthed tattooed mummies dating from the 11th Century AD. Not much is known about the significance of tattooing within the culture of pre-Incan peoples like the Chimú who tattooed, but the elaborate nature of the designs suggests that tattooing underwent a long period of development during the pre-Inca period. According to Lars Krutak (Cultural Anthropologist and our Technical Advisor): “The Chimú of Pre-Columbian Peru applied tattoo pigments with various types of needles (fishbone, parrot quill, spiny conch) which have been found in mummy burials. The technical application of tattooing was a form of skin-stitching, and it has been suggested that women were the primary tattoo artists.
Paleopathological studies of Chimú mummies (1100-1470 A.D.) indicate that the practice of tattooing was quite common among both males and females. In some coastal settlements, it has been estimated that at least thirty percent of the population may have been tattooed.” Later, during the Incan period, nobility NEVER tattooed because it was believed that the Sun God already gave them perfect bodies. According to Lars Krutak: The Gran Chaco is a vast arid plain located at the center of the South American continent. Tattooing in the Chaco has been largely replaced by less painful and infective forms of body-painting in the modern-era, it had “magical” implications in the past and nearly all indigenous groups practiced it. In 1750, the Jesuit missionary Martin Dobrizhoffer provided a rare account of the actual ritual among the now-extinct Abipón. His observations are said to have been typical of all Chaco groups that practiced tattooing in the past
widespread practice of tattooing among Native Americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognised by their tattoos. among the Ontario Iroquoians, elaborate tattoos reflected high status. In North-West America, Inuit women’s chins were tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity. The first permanent tattoo shop in new york city was settled up in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing military servicemen from both sides of the civil war. Samuel O’reilly invented the electric tattooing machine in 1891 (ii)
American tattoo art’s initial function as a sort of patriotic act inspired many styles that would come to define it. Artist Paul Rogers, owner of a trailer that came to be known as the Iron Factory, got his start tattooing soldiers with eagles and other winged creatures. He’d go on to influence Ed Hardy and others, both with his technology and his aesthetic, which included American flags, plump hearts and buxom women. And, although the U.S. Navy disapproved of pinup tattoos for a period, they were still popular among its members. Those would-be soldiers with tattoos that were deemed inappropriate due to nudity would go so far as to add clothes to their preexisting inked ladies.
While wartime America was keen on tattoos, in less-wealthy urban districts and overseas the art was mostly confined to a small clientele. Like most aesthetic trends, tattooing didn’t make its way to rural America quickly. Small-town introductions to body ink came via the circus, where those with body art were billed as bizarre attractions. In 100 Years of Tattoos, author David McComb digs into the fascinating underbelly of the industry. He discusses the gender divide among tattooed circus performers, and provides elucidating captions for images of women covered head-to-toe in body art. A picture of a totally inked woman, then employed as a sideshow act, depicts her posing proudly, covered in religious iconography and regal, historical portraits. Women participated in the bubbling tattoo industry, which still remained beneath the surface of popular culture through the buttoned-up 1950s and early 60s. Notably, their inked art was at times an act of submission, especially among biker gangs. One spread in McComb’s book pictures a girl showing off a growing sleeve of hearts, with “Property of Alan” scrawled above it. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when what the author calls “the macho world of ink” was opened to women in new and empowering ways, that more feminine designs such as subtle shading and floral imagery became popular. Still, by 1979, female tattoo artists such as SuzAnne Fauser, whose depiction of a powerful pirate donning a stern expression and thick tresses can be seen below, struggled to make their mark in the industry. McComb meticulously explores these corners of the industry, highlighting everything from the significance of tattooing within prisons to the impact of the Western-influenced ban Japan placed on tattoos at the end of the 19th century.
much of the Pagan world was practicing the art of tattooing as a means of deity worship. A passage in Leviticus reads: ‘ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you’. (19:28) This has been cited as biblical authority to support the church’s position. Biblical scholar M.W. Thomson suggests, however, that Moses favored tattoos. Moses introduced tattoos as a way to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt (ii)
Although the oldest mummy discovered to have tattoos was found in Europe, it’s believed that the ancient Egyptians are largely responsible for spreading the art of tattooing throughout the world. Before tattooing was en vogue among all Egyptians, only high priestesses were tattooed. One of the oldest Egyptian mummies with tattoos was that of Amunet, the ancient Egyptian priestess of the goddess Hathor who lived between 2160 and 1994 B.C. Her tattoos were comprised of dots and dashes in abstract geometrical patterns. It was common for women like Amunet to get tattooed only for ritualistic purposes early on, but by the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties, tattoos were common among other Egyptians, too.
At the time the pyramids were built, Egypt was heavily engaged in trade with Greece, Persia, Arabia, and other surrounding areas. Those the Egyptians traded with admired their tattoos, and the art form quickly spread to other cultures. However, in the Middle East, it was mostly only nomadic tribes like the Bedouins who engaged in tattooing. Many Middle Eastern people are Muslim, and strict Muslims view tattooing or carving the body in any way as unholy, much like devout Christians who adhere to the Bible’s instructions to honor one’s body like a temple. However, even during the Prophet Mohammed’s time (570-632 A.D.), a sect of Moroccan women and people in parts of North Africa engaged in tattooing. Some of the Middle Eastern people of that time who got tattooed did so for decorative purposes, but it was much more common for people to get tattoos to protect themselves from evil spirits, as symbols of their bravery, or to mark major life milestones.
In the years after the Prophet Mohammed lived, tattooing in the Middle East was typically only seen among nomadic people like the Bedouins and Amazigh for many centuries. They wore tattoos as protective amulets, marks of beauty, tribal signifiers, and even to deter unwanted attention from men. Within a tribal community, women with facial tattoos were deemed beautiful, but those same tattoos often made them undesirable to men outside their tribes, thus protecting them from lustful outsiders. Recent studies of ancient Iranian remains also show that the practice of tattooing was popular in Iran historically, although the timeline is a bit hazy. Iranian women would get beautiful tattoos of birds, flowers and other natural elements to enhance their beauty. Tattoos under the breast and on the lower abdomen in particular were believed to enhance a woman’s sex appeal. Iranian men would get tattoos that illustrated their strength and masculinity; sometimes their tattoos were images, but verses from poems were also popular.
At around year 1100 the Arab Ibn Fadlan described a meeting with some vikings. He thought them very rude, dirty – and covered with pictures (ii)
An Arab writer, Ibn Fadlan, was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars in the Middle Volga area of Russia. While there in A.D. 921, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, Swedish Viking traders, who had brought slaves to sell at the markets. Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus and at one point he mentioned that all the men were tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks. The tattoos were dark green figures of trees and symbols. It is likely, however, that the tattoos were probably dark blue, a color that comes from using wood ash to dye the skin. While Ibn Fadlan describes the tattoos as trees, he could have see the Vikings trademark gripping beast or other knotwork patterns of which the Vikings were fond. This is rather slight evidence on which to state categorically that Vikings tattooed themselves. The Arabic word used in the original text for “tattoo” was more commonly used to describe mosque decorations rather than actual tattoos. Also, tattoos are not mentioned in any of the sagas or poetry, although these literary works describe many other physical characteristics such as scars or hair color.
Unfortunately, human skin does not survive centuries of burial. However, a Scythian chieftain was found in Siberia who had been buried circa 500 B.C. He had been buried beneath the permafrost, so his skin and tattoos survived. While this find predates Viking traders in Russia by 1300 years, it is possible that Vikings could have met the descendants of the Scythians while on trading missions in Russia and learned the tattooing art from them. The Scythian warrior’s tattoos had Scythian art styles, of course. If Vikings did have tattoos, it is likely they would have used Norse designs and symbols found in their other artwork on bone carvings or jewelry.
Many tattoo artists have designed Viking tattoos, which can be easily found in many places online. Popular Viking tattoos include the compass tattoo, called the Vegvisir. This symbol is not from the Viking Age, however; it dates to the 17th century, from an Icelandic book on magic. Another popular Viking design for a tattoo is the Helm of Awe or aegishjalmur. This symbol allows the wearer to strike his enemies with fear and confusion. It is also thought to grant magical powers to its wearer
Polynesians to exhibit at fairs, in lecture halls and in dime museums to demonstrate the height of European civilization compared to the ‘primitive natives’. After Captain Cook returned from his voyage to Polynesia tattooing became a tradition in the British navy. By the middle of the 18th century most British ports had at least one professional tattoo artist in residence. In 1862, the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, received his first tattoo – a Jerusalem cross – on his arm. He started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when he was tattooed before ascending to the throne. In 1882, his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York were tattooed by the Japanese Master tattooist, Hori Chiyo (ii)
Consisting of the British Isles, the ancient Britons were a fierce people. Tribal in nature, there were many different tribes – including the Celts, the Gauls, the Goths, the Teutons, the Picts, and the Scots. Much like the Thracians, what little is known about this race of earthly tribal communities has been recovered from writings of the ancient Romans, who invaded the Isles for the first time in 55 BC. In 50 BC, the infamous Julius Caesar wrote, “All Britons paint themselves with woad, which turns the skin a bluish-green colour, hence their appearance is all the more horrific in battle.” Sound familiar? Of course it does – I’m sure the image of Mel Gibson, full kilt, sword raised above his head screaming “They will not take our Freedom” has surfaced in your head. And, despite some minor theatrical alterations, this image is exactly what Caesar described. The Britons were ferocious warriors – destined to battle for their land to the death, as they had done for many, many years. In fact, historians surmise that some of the tribes in the ancient Briton culture had survived from 7000 BC to around 875 AD. During this time, they became quite pride – donning their signature knot-work in ink format on their bodies. They used a substance called woad, which left a blue-green pigment to the skin, and marked intricate designs consisting of knots, braids, spirals, and other labyrinth like designs. These designs were often believed to simulate life – the connections, patterns, and steps that appear within a single life form.
Within these complicated designs, one could find representations of animals of every kind. Despite there being many different tribes across the Isles, they all were extremely in-tune with nature, the Earth, and the life cycles of all animals, plants, and people. This devotion to the Earth and its creatures makes a clear imprint on the forms of tattoos the tribes utilized. Herod of Antioch, during the third century, described these body markings, stating, “The Britons incise on their bodies colored pictures of animals, of which they are very proud.” This boastful attitude towards tattoos was a shock to the Romans and Greeks who visited, as they believed that tattooing was for penile punishments only and should not be looked upon with pride. To create the indigo ink, the ancient Britons would collect the leaves from the woad plant, a member of the cabbage family. While yellow flowered at bloom, once dried, powdered, and fermented, the leaves provided a rich bluish green tint. The process of fermenting the leaves involved diluting with water and urine. The resulting powder essentially becomes insoluble in water and alcohol. Thanks to modern testing of this material, we now know that it is also insoluble in ether and diluted acids; however, the most shocking discovery is that the crafted powder actually contains antibiotic properties, which explains how such a crude method of tattooing, with little to no sanity methods involved, was able to be carried out with minimal infections and the tribes were able to cover much of their exposed bodies in copious amounts of art.
Unlike many tribal communities before them, the ancient Britons employed tattooing as a national pastime as such – think baseball, but much more hardcore. In fact, the name Pict, which was used to reference the northern tribes in the region now called Scotland, translates loosely to ‘to paint.’ Given to them by the ancient Romans, the original title was ‘Pictii,’ which means ‘The Painted Ones’ in Latin. This method of tattooing entire bodies was so popular that the original name used to describe the country, Britannia, stemmed from a word used by the Celtic tribes translating to ‘Land of the Painted People.’
Of course, entire Isles full of brightly colored tribes were quite shocking to those who visited the country and references to the Painted People of the British Isles have appeared across history. Aside from Julius Caesar’s references in the Gallic Wars manuscript, word of the inked tribes have appeared in such places as Amores, a series of poetry books written by Roman poet, Ovid in 23 BC. “It’s as though I’m not at Sulmona – on the farm where I was born, but far away in Scythia, wild Cilicia, woad-painted Britain, or perched on Prometheus’ murderous crag.” Amores, Ovid. They appear in De Situ Orbis, penned by Pomponius Mela – a Spanish born geographer – in 44 AD. In this work, he details the process, but states no clear reason as to why he believes they partook in such activity. The painted Britons appear fifty years later in the longest Latin poem ever written to date, the Punicorum. The 12, 000 verse poem is an extravagant depiction of the Hannibal’s exploits, military accomplishments, and the many tribes encountered during the famed second Punic War. Of the ancient Britons, the author – Caius Silius Italicus – had this to say “Even so the woad-stained native of Thule drives his chariot – armed with scythes round the close-packed ranks in battle.”
These feared, inked tribes of ancient Briton go on to appear in many, many works of text across the world throughout history. Their infamy, which stems both from their gruesomeness in battle and the eccentricity of their full body art, resonated across the world – giving tattoos their first recreational feature and the Britons a startling reputation. These stunning people still appear in modern cinema and text, as well as continuing to arise in historic bodies of work being discovered and translated every day
sailors returning from travels to the South Pacific often arrived back in port tattooed. By 1861 a French naval surgeon, Maurice Berchon, published a study on the medical / health complications said to arise from the receipt of a tattoo. After this paper, the navy and army temporarily banned tattooing (ii)
From the 16th century onwards, French voyagers encountered people with different kinds of bodily practices to theirs in places from the South Pacific to the Americas. Such people were, in the eyes of some French observers, “primitive” outsiders to “civilisation”, and their tattoos only contributed to this perception. Others – notably sailors – were inspired by what they saw, and got busy with the ink. By the turn of the 19th century, the “tattoo” had a common name in Europe as tatouages, Tätowiren, or tattoos.
n 19th-century France, authorities began to use the tattoo to mark a different kind of “outsider”: the criminal. The hot iron which had branded early-modern French criminals was replaced by the more discreet weapon of the tattooist’s needle in 1832. Instead of a generic fleur-de-lys, criminals were marked with an individual code to identify them. The tattoo was a visual marker of the criminal’s submission to legal authority. But it was also a form of physical violation. In Christian religious culture, bodily markings had often been condemned as evidence of paganism as Jane Caplan has pointed out. When the needle penetrated the convict’s skin, it symbolically took away what remained of their body’s sanctity. The hot iron brand punished the body, but the tattoo punished the soul.
When convicts took to inking themselves, though, they appropriated the tattoo. The prevalence of tattoos on men in the French overseas penal colonies and in military prisons contributed to their association with deviancy in the late 19th century. In a photographic essayPortraits de tatoués (1890-1930) by Pierrat and Guillon., Jérome Pierrat and Eric Guillaume demonstrated how the tattoo became a striking means of rebellion against “respectable” society by the mauvais garçons of the fin-de-siècle French underworld. For some, these tattooed “bad boys” had a certain exotic allure – see the popularity of Edith Piaf’s tattooed Legionnaire, or Papillon, the fanciful “memoir” of ex-convict Henri Charrière published in 1969. In the book, the protagonist’s nickname comes from the butterfly – the papillon – tattooed on his chest: an emblem of hope and freedom as he tries to escape prison. Since then, individuals and groups have continued to choose needles and ink as tools with which to court outrage at the same time as expressing themselves artistically.
As the French case demonstrates, the tattoo is firmly inscribed within the cultural history of the modern era. These days, tattoos play an important social role by challenging our notions of beauty and belonging. Perhaps we might best understand tattoos as visible (and tangible) demonstrations on a body which so many outside forces seek to discipline and control
Stereotypical and Sensationalized Associations of Tattoo Designs
they received during their voyage. These usually consisted of a extremely basic or primitive styles that used minimum amounts of detail thus making the tattoos look 2 dimensional or ‘flat’. These flat tattoos, today known as ‘flash tattoos’ often give a cartoon feel. The typical motifs would consist of flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names or script (ii)
A huge part of these tattoos were actually in memory to commemorate a stage in the sailor’s life like voyages, love of country, or to mark some visits to specific places or their victories. Many of those tattoos, however, were considered good luck talismans by the sailors to keep off bad influences. Folks who are part of the sea are known to be superstitious which is natural given to their line of work which involves the humongous and unpredictable sea. Their need to keep good omens about their person was not totally uncalled for
A sparrow tattoo is something that shows the traveling of a 5000 nautical miles. The anchor tattoo – A sailor would get the anchor tattooed once he had crossed the Atlantic ocean. What is more than the anchor since it is what keeps the ship attached to the bottom of the sea, and so they were considered a symbol of faith that is stable and unwavering. Sometimes adding the word “Dad” or “Mom” along with this makes it more significant. A dragon tattoo – was used to simply denote that the sailor in question had been to China or had served in a China station. A golden dragon – this denoted the crossing of the International date line which is an imaginary line along the surface of the earth. The fully rigged ship is supposed to denote that the sailor has sailed around the Cape Horn. Hold fast tattoos would be a reminder to the lines fast when the ship is on the water in poor weather. Rooster and pig tattoo are supposed to denote the surviving of a sailor from a shipwreck. Both these animals are often put in wooden crate on board the ship, and when the ship capsizes the crates would float along the current and was likely to wash to the shore.
A swallow tattoo – these are migratory birds who can always find the way home. Sailors like the symbolism of being always being able to make it to the shore and thereby to home and back to the company of the loved ones. On the other hand, swallows are known to carry the souls of dead people off to heaven. The nautical star tattoo – this is representative of the North Star which is used for navigation on water. It is meant to guide you back to safety.
of tattooing was believed to be reserved for sailors, cultural outcasts, the marginalized and criminals. Prison tattoos can be quite professionally done with homemade or improvised materials. These convey an inmates autonomy and, in many cases, identity. A commonly known symbol for gang members are their tattoos. Receiving permanent markings on the body is a sign of absolute loyalty. These gang tattoos often speak volumes about the wearer, what gang they are in, what their ideologies or beliefs might be, what they have done, where they have been incarcerated or lived as well as details up to and including how many individuals the member is said to have killed. Known Western gang tattoo symbols include teardrops under the eye as well as spider webs on the elbows – these are said to symbolize that the wearer has killed. Japanese Yakuza tattoos often have a body suit with varied iconography being used. Whereas the Chinese triads use a specific set of archetypal images in varying arrangements (ii)
Going back throughout modern history, Tattoos have long been associated with Criminality. Whilst it is true that there are links to certain Tattoos, gangs criminal tattoo rituals and similar, it has to be said that in my opinion, most of this line of thinking is mere stereotyping of tattooed people. Going further back in English history, tattooing was originally synonymous with the higher classes of society. Over the centuries tattoos have been the indelible marks of royalty, of loyalty to a gang, of religious devotion and pledges of love. Among criminals, Tattoos can be used to show membership of gangs and record the wearer’s personal history – such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and, because of the nature of what they encode, they are often not widely recognized.
British Criminal Tattoos | ACAB is an acronym often integrated into prison tattoos in the United Kingdom. It is most commonly rendered with one letter between the knuckle and first joint of each finger, sometimes as symbolic small dots with or without the accompanying letters. Also commonly presumed to be associated with the UK prison system (often incorrectly) are words on the knuckles, homemade tattoos (cotton, needle and Indian ink) and similar. Many prison / jail related tattoo designs are now adopted by the youth culture as a means of identifying themselves as tough, mean, or to imply their willingness to go to jail for their crew or gang. ACAB can stand for All Coppers Are Bastards, or Always Carry A Bible, but most likely All Coppers Are Bastards depending on who is asking and whether the bearer is trying to make a good impression.
Japan Criminal History | Extensive body tattoos (‘body suits’) are commonly worn by Yakuza members. These traditional tattoos are known as irezumi in Japanese. Their size and elaborate nature show not only the wearers’ affiliation, but also his ability to endure pain. Starting in the Kofun period (300-600 A.D.), tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottos such as “I am a slave who has run away from his master”). At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912 A.D.) the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the west, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground. Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the Yakuza and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.
North American | A tattoo of three dots in a triangle, usually found on the skin between the thumb and forefinger, stands for “mi vida loca” (“my crazy life”). Along with the pachuco cross, it is a popular “generic” tattoo among Hispanic teenagers, and has no direct connection to gangs. The tattoo has also been adopted by Vietnamese teenagers, along with the similar interpretation of “toi khong can gi ca” (“I need nothing”). A teardrop tattoo is said to indicate that the wearer has killed or a friend of his was killed in prison. It is worn by the eye.A tattoo of a shamrock is associated with the white supremacist prison gang founded in California known as the Aryan Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood is also known to use 12 as an identifier, with the 1 symbolizing the letter A, and the 2 symbolizing the letter B. Another white supremacy gang, the Aryan Circle, uses 13 as their symbol, with the same meaning. A tattoo of an Ace of Spades was mainly adopted by the Aco Town and Asian Boyz gang, but have been widely used by Asian youths in California. Often, an “A” is placed in the middle of the spade: the “A” symbolizing Asian and the spade symbolizing thievery. A tattoo of the number “13” indicates membership in the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) gang. The Mexican Mafia uses MM or a Hand normaly a black hand, and are sometimes affiliated with California-based street gangs known as the Surenos. A tattoo of the number “14” is associated with the prison gang, Nuestra Familia and associated California-based street gangs known as Nortenos. A tattoo of “13 1/2” means 12 jurors plus 1 judge plus 1/2 a chance. It is a common practice for California street gangs of all races and ethnic backgrounds to have the telephone area code in their neighborhood tattooed, e.g. 213, 818, 310, 714, 415, 619; with the frequent changes in California area codes, this can quickly become outdated.
Russian | Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can ‘read’ to give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct blueish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. ‘Grins’ may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. The Four Suits: Spades – the “suit of thieves” (particularly where the symbol appears upside down). Clubs – another “criminal” suit. Diamonds – the “chummy suit” (i.e. stoolpigeons and informers); this suit is usually forcibly applied. Hearts – a sexual symbol; it may mark the wearer out as a “passive homosexual” within the prison. Other Symbols: Cross (A cross worn on the chest signifies a “Prince of Thieves,” the highest possible rank.) ‘Grins‘ (these are humorous tattoos usually incorporating a grinning face and are often accompanied by text). Snakes (snakes have a particular symbolism and are usually worn by high ranking gang members). Tigers (signifies an ‘enforcer’). Cats (the cat is associated with the characteristics needed by a criminal). Skulls (these are usually worn by high ranking gang members). Eyes (these are forcibly placed on lower backside to show that the prisoner is used for sexual gratification). Barbed wire aA barbed wire across ones forehead usually indicates a life-term in prison). Swastika (is forcibly applied to forehead and marks one for death). Stars (stars commonly represent time served. Each point indicates a year served in jail). Churches (like stars, but for Christian prisoners, the number of dome towers indicate the amount of years that the prisoner has been sentenced to)
the late 19’th and early 20’th century owed much to the once popular circus. When these traveling carnivals were prevalent tattooing, in turn, prospered. For nearly 100 years all major circus acts hired numerous individuals who were completely covered in tattoos. Some of these tattooed men and women were exhibited in ‘sideshows’ whilst others performed in traditional circus acts like juggling and sword-swallowing (ii) Rival circuses competed with each other for the services of the most elaborately tattooed show people and paid them handsome salaries. Many of the old-time tattoo artists made most of their money while traveling with circuses during the spring and summer, returning to their shops and homes in the winter. The circus served as a showcase where tattoo artists could attract customers by exhibiting their work to a paying public, and in many cases the only surviving records are in the form of photos and posters which were used for circus publicity. The connection between tattooing and the circus began in 1804 when Jean Baptiste Cabri who had been tattooed by the Marquesas became a carnival performer. In the last years of his life he was forced to compete with trained dogs and other popular amusements in country fairs. By 1822 he died, poor and forgotten. The first tattooed English showman was John Rutherford. It was said that he was captured and held prisoners by the Maoris. During his years with the Maoris he participated in warfare, headhunting, and other tribal activities. When he returned he accompanied a traveling caravan of wonders where he showed his tattooing, and told of his adventures.
The great 19th century showman, Phineas T. Barnum, is credited with organizing the first group exhibitions of unique individuals. One of the principal attractions at Barnum’s American Museum in 1842 was James F. O’Connell who had the honor of being the first tattooed man ever exhibited in the United States. He entertained his audiences wih tales of exotic adventures and according to O’Connell, savages on Ponape, in the Caroline Islands captured him and forced him to submit to tattooing at the hands of a series of voluptuous virgins. He was forced to marry the last one who tattooed him. Museum patrons, most of whom had never seen tattooing before, were impressed. The railway in 1869, connected the east and west coasts of the United Sates. The circus entered a period of growth and prosperity that resulted in employment opportunities for many tattooed people and tattoo artists.
Constantine, a Greek who had spent many years in Burma, had himself tattooed with the intention of going into show business. He was the most elaborately and artistically tattooed performer of his time. He said that four strong men had to hold him down while he was tattooed every morning for three hours. It took three months for the work to be completed. With the invention of the electric tattooing machine, many individuals were attracted to the opportunity of making an easy living in the circus. “La Belle Irene” made her London debut in 1890, claiming to be the first completely tattooed woman ever exhibited in a circus. Her decorations included an assortment of flowers, birds, hearts, cupids, scrolls and sentimental inscriptions borrowed from the ornamental commercial art of the day. Londoners were told that she received her tattoos as protection in a savage land (Texas) as a protection against the unwelcome advances of the natives. During the last decade of the 19th century, the circus enjoyed an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity. As circuses prospered, the demand for tattooed people increased and the competition became intense as circus owners competed to come up with more extravagant tattooed shows. There were tattooed sword swallowers, fire eaters, dwarves, jugglers, mind readers, strong men, fat ladies, wrestlers, knife throwers and even circus animals. It has been estimated that by 1920, over 300 completely tattooed people wee employed in circuses and sideshows. Some earned as much as $200 a week.
The most famous tattooed man of this period was Horace Ridler. In 1927, he asked London’s leading tattoo artist, George Burchett, to tattoo him all over, including his face with inch-wide zebra stripes. To become a freak in order to earn a livelihood was a gamble which might not have come off. Ridler also had his teeth filed down to sharp points. He had his nose pierced so he could insert an ivory tusk and his ear lobes were pierced and stretched. He called himself the Great Omi and was one of the most successful freaks in the history of the circus. He succeeded because he was unique but during the latter part of his career there were fewer and fewer tattooed people seen in circuses. The popularity of the freak show was waning and tattooed people were no longer novelties. After WWII, freak shows came under attack and only a few of the larger circuses still included them
and cultural developments vocabulary continually evolves. The term ‘tattoo flash’ is commonly used to juxtapose it’s position against tattoo art. This comparison is reflective if the depth and potential of body art as well as the contemporary imagination. In recent years tattooing has emerged to the forefront of popular consciousness. Today tattoo ‘flash’, is a folder of tattoo designs completed by tattoo artists. For those who receive a tattoo based on flash it is much like the selection of a sticker from an album. The individual simply chooses a pre-made design from a book of stencils and has a tattooist trace it onto their body. Tattoo art today is defined as the commissioning of a tattoo artist for the creation of a unique, single use piece (ii) According to Albert Parry’s book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art, published in 1933 by Simon and Schuster, tattooists of the time were so inundated with requests that it was difficult for them to keep up with the demand for new designs. But the exchange of flash during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were largely distributed with other supplies through mail order catalogs, helped artists keep up with the growing marketplace.
The style that emerged during this turning point can be defined by its use of bold, black outlines and a limited color palette. It’s also defined by specific imagery – patriotic symbols like eagles, the American flag, or male oriented pictures of girl-heads and pin-ups – which can be attributed to the number of sailors who favored this act of body adornment. Designs were intentionally kept simple in an effort to further increase the speed of application and enable an artist to accommodate more clients. Of the many masters who helped fill the market gap, Parry credits New York City tattooer Lew “the Jew” Alberts as an early promoter and peddler of these new sheets of flash. Michigan native Percy Waters had a strong mail order business and was also influential. And according to Parry, he was also well known for his acrimonious criticism of his competitor’s practices and standards.
The author quotes from a leaflet Waters mailed that warns of “fly-by-nighters” who prey on inexperienced buyers, plagiarize literature, and sell ill-executed designs, such as the Statue of Liberty raising her left arm, or steamboats with flags that wave north while clouds of smoke float south. Waters concludes frankly with: “Such crap as this could not be classed with tattooing machines and designs made by a skillful mechanic and artist of long reputation.”
In some ways, Waters’ sentiment still rings true today – both inside and outside the tattoo industry. And while tattooing has become less of a “strange art” in recent years, the American style has become a time-honored tradition, and is still celebrated and referenced in countless studios across the country
In 1948 - just over 200 kilometers... Various written manuscripts... The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan... From Southern China the practice spread... In pacific cultures tattooing has... The Maori of New Zealand... Borneo is a rare example... Hanuman in India was a popular symbol... The traditional tattoo of Thailand is called Sak Yant... In Africa, where people... The Roman tattoo culture derived... Were a tribal people who moved... In Peru, tattooed Inca mummies... Early Jesuit accounts testify to the... During the time of the old testament... It is very likely that the vikings were tattooed Explorers returned home with tattooed... In the 18'th century, many French... Often returned to port with tattoos... For hundreds of years the practice... The prevalence of tattooing during... As with other artistic mediums...
Various written manuscripts... The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan... From Southern China the practice spread... In pacific cultures tattooing has... The Maori of New Zealand... Borneo is a rare example... Hanuman in India was a popular symbol... The traditional tattoo of Thailand is called Sak Yant... In Africa, where people... The Roman tattoo culture derived... Were a tribal people who moved... In Peru, tattooed Inca mummies... Early Jesuit accounts testify to the... During the time of the old testament... It is very likely that the vikings were tattooed Explorers returned home with tattooed... In the 18'th century, many French... Often returned to port with tattoos... For hundreds of years the practice... The prevalence of tattooing during... As with other artistic mediums...