The History of Body Art and Modification

Almost every civilization has some kind of practice or ritual involving tattooing. Natives from Africa, Borneo, Polynesia, Philippines, and Mesoamerica still use tattoos as either religious or war symbols. Same in Japan and China, where tattoos were in common usage among warriors and shamans.

Perhaps the oldest example of tattooing is “Otzi the Iceman,” a frozen mummy dating from the Neolithic period (around 3300 BC). Found in a glacier of the Otztaler Alps, between Italy and Austria, Otzi exhibits tattoos that resemble small dashes along the lumbar region and on the legs. Of his 57 tattoos, most are located on what today are considered acupuncture points, leading anthropologists to believe the tattoos were used for medicinal purposes.

Other examples of the ancient use of tattoos are three mummies found in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. All three (two men and a woman) were heavily tattooed with animal designs, and one of the men also sported dots along the spinal column and around the right ankle.

Tattoos have been used for all kind of purposes ever since the dawn of time. Over the years, they have served as symbols of rights, symbols of rank and seniority or being juniors, symbols of spirituality, devotion, religion, rewards and awards for bravery, amulets, talismans and security. Tattoos were also used as a symbol of punishments, being outcast, slavery and conviction. Tattoos have been one of the most frequently used body arts.

The word tattoo is derived from the Polynesian word, ‘tatao’, which literally means to tap or to mark someone. The word was coined by Captain James Cook in 1769. The original way of creating tattoos was definitely much more brutal than it is today. A sharp pointed comb would be dipped into lampblack and then moved around on the body. The fad then spread from the Polynesian and Tahitians to the Europeans.

Tattoos have had other uses in different regions. Tattoos in Egypt can be found as early as before the Pyramids were made. The Greeks used the tattoos primarily to transmit messages between their spies. The Asian world used tattoos to denote a woman coming of age or her marriage. Japan used tattoos for religious purposes and other ceremonial purposes. Tattoos were also used to induce the sexuality in a person. The tattoos of Japan were prepared by the women of Borneo.

Two decades after World War II ended, American artists were still reacting to Minimalism and other Modernist styles like Surrealism, Dadaism, and Cubism. The new body art of the late sixties and early seventies represented the artist’s feeling about the commercialization of art. Honour and Fleming (2005) note that artists debunked the concept of objects and places associated with the new art system; “they hoped to find a way of eluding the system especially the system’s elaborate structures for endowing their work with an exclusiveness, rarity value and luxury character they did not want it to have.”

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) has been historically concerned with the artistic inspirations offered by ordinary life experiences. In 1966, the same year he graduated with an MFA from University of California, Davis, Nauman created a work of body art called “Self-Portrait as a Fountain.” His body formed the body of the fountain and his mouth served as the fountainhead from which water sprinkled.

In this period, body art was closely associated with performance art. In Europe, the use of human bodies as art forms emerged even before “Self-Portrait as a Fountain.” In 1960, Yves Klein (France), Lucio Fontana (Italy), and Gilbert and George (UK) created “living sculptures” with the assistance of live human models.

Whether you look to ancient history, Modernism, or twenty-first century art, you can find examples of adorning the human body or using the human body as a solid medium for artistic expression.