There are few art forms that have been around for as long as tattooing – in fact, some anthropologists claim that the history of tattoos may date back as long as 15,000 years! Certainly, we know that many of the ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, used tattooing techniques. There are mentions of tattooing in the Bible, indicating that it was practiced among the ancient peoples of the Middle East as well. However, the remarkable thing about the history of tattoos is not just the length of time that humans have practiced it; looking at the history of body tattooing, we cannot help but be struck by how widespread this tradition was. Apparently, decorating the body in this permanent way is an almost universal impulse spread over a lot of different cultures.
Skin was the first canvas for art. Sticks and other pointy objects were the first paintbrushes. Tattooing was first a form of scarification. This involved wounding oneself and packing dirt or ashes into the scrape or cut to discolor it permanently. It is believed that prehistoric man cut holes in his skin, charred sticks in the fire, let them cool and then applied the black substance to the wound to create tribal markings.
As tattooing involved pain, blood and fire, primitive man believed the process released sacred life forces. The letting of blood was also associated with a sacrifice to the Gods. The symbol or animal form of the tattoo was thought to bring one protection from attack from that very same animal.
Tattoos were also used to bring one’s soul in alignment with God’s purpose, increase virility and fertility, ensure the preservation of the body after the death and delineate hierarchies and roles within tribes. For instance, a tribal chieftain would have a very different tattoo than the individual in the tribe who was thought to bring them all bad luck.
As skin does not preserve that well there is very archeological evidence that prehistoric people engaged in tattooing, although a few Paleolithic artifacts that have been discovered seem to suggest that the art of tattooing is as old as mankind.
Tattooing in ancient history was a funereal art. Images of tattooing are found on Egyptian female figurines that are dated between 4000 and 2000 years BC. Libyan figures from the tomb of Seti (1330 B.C.) also boast figures with tattoo markings on the arms and the legs.
Both in ancient and modern times, primitive people believe that the spirit or astral body resembles an invisible human body. This is similar to many modern occultist beliefs about the astral body. Tattoos are applied so that the spirit is allowed to pass into the spirit world undisturbed by evil entities. The primitive peoples of Borneo believe that the right tattoo ensures prompt passage to the other side as well as a guaranteed positive occupation in the spirit world.
The ancient Egyptians reportedly spread the practice of tattooing throughout the world. The pyramid-building third and fourth dynasties of Egypt developed international nations that ruled Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia. By 2000 B.C. the art of tattooing had found its way to Southeast Asia and the Ainu (western Asian nomads) then brought it with them on their migrations to Japan. Elsewhere, the Shans of China introduced the craft to the Burmese, who still include tattooing as part of their religious practices.
Today, tattoos are still used to create a spirit connection with deceased loved one and family members. These types of tattoos are rarer, but they often appear as hearts with initials, tombstones with parent’s initials and heavenly symbols such as five, six and seven pointed stars.
Around the same time, the Japanese became interested in the art but only for its decorative attributes. The Horis the Japanese tattoo artists were the undisputed ancient masters of the color tattoo. Their use of pigments, perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole new appearance. During the first millennium A.D., Japan adopted Chinese culture and confined tattooing to branding wrongdoers.
In the Balkans, the Thracians had a different use for the craft. Aristocrats, according to Herodotus (500 B.C.) were tattooed to show the world their social status. Although early Europeans dabbled with tattooing, they truly rediscovered the art form when they explored new cultures in the South Pacific. It was a familiarity with the tattoos of Polynesian and American Indian tribes that introduced tattoos to the modern Europe. The word, in fact, is derived from the Tahitian word tattau, which means, “to mark.”
Most of the early uses of tattoos were ornamental. However, a number of civilizations had practical applications for this craft. The Goths, a tribe of Germanic barbarians famous for pillaging Roman settlements, used tattoos to brand their slaves. Romans also tattooed slaves and criminals.
Tattooing was first associated with criminality in the Mediterranean region in the middle of the third century. These labels would include the crime, the punishment and the names of the criminal’s victims branded on their foreheads. In ancient Greece and Rome, slaves with tattoos could never become citizens, even if they were able to buy their freedom. This was because a tattoo was seen as degrading to the bearer. In essence, the tattoos were permanent marks of guilt. Eventually those tattooed out of punishment started to be proud of their markings. Tattoos are still a mark of honor among criminals today.
In Tahiti, tattoos were a rite of passage and told the history of the person’s life. Men were marked when they reached adulthood when they got married. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled Bosnia, military authorities tattooed all of the soldiers in order to recognize them in case they chose to flee conscription.
Primitive peoples also used tattoos to create what are called clan markings. These marking came in handy during battle to identify foe from friend. These tattoos also guaranteed that you would be able to greet your friends again in heaven, after you had passed away.
Family and marriage tattoos were also clan markings that enabled spouses who were separated in death to find each other again in the after-world. A good example of this is the ancient Ainu tribe who believed that a bride without a tattoo would go straight to Gehenna their version of hell.
In the Americas, native tribes used simple pricking to tattoo their bodies or faces. In California some native groups injected color into the scratches. Some northern tribes living in and around the Arctic Circle (mostly Inuit) made punctures with a needle and ran a thread coated with soot through the skin. The South Pacific community would tap pigment into the pricked skin using a small rake-like instrument.
In New Zealand, the Maori would treat the body like a piece of wood in order to make their world-famous moko style tattoos. Using a small bone-cutting tool, they would carve intricate shallow grooves on the face and buttocks, and infuse them with color. Thanks to trading with Europeans, they were able to make the method more efficient by using metal tools instead of bone.
A “moko”, meaning to strike or tap, is the long-standing art form of Maori tattooing. This art form has been practiced for over a thousand years, and has withstood time and colonization. It was used as a form of identification with regards to rank, genealogy, tribal history, eligibility to marry, beauty and virility. Moko designs were finely chiseled into the skin. Maori women were traditionally only allowed to be tattooed on their lips, around the chin, and sometimes the nostrils. A woman with full blue lips was seen as very beautiful.
Rites of Passage:
Primitive people also tattooed their adolescents as a rite of passage. The theory was that if a young boy couldn’t take the pain of a tattoo at a young age, then he would be useless at battle. Similarly, if a young girl couldn’t handle the pain of a tattoo, she would not be able to handle the pain of childbirth. Many of these children ended up with a tattoo anyway, that would label them as an outcast of the tribe.
Totem animals are also another common motif in primitive tattoos. Totem animals such as snakes, frogs, butterflies wolves or bears signified that the individual has taken on the physical prowess of that animal. In some cultures, the totem animal is thought to have a special spiritual relationship with the bearer of tattoo and acts as a spirit guide. From the South Pacific to the South America, primitive people have customs involved with their tattooing rituals. Usually the person being tattooed is separated from others, smudged, isolated from the opposite sex or fed a special diet.
From primitive times to now, Hawaiians celebrate specific tattoo gods. The designs associated with each God are locked away in the temples and priests conduct tattooing. Each tattooing session begins with a prayer to tattoo gods that implores that the operation goes well and that the designs be gorgeous in the end.
In the ancient and primitive worlds, tattoos were also used as love charms. Often the dye used for these types of tattoos was concocted from magical ingredients. For instance, the dye for an ancient Burmese love charm is made from a recipe that consists of a bright purple pigment called vermilion and the skins of a trout and a spotted lizard. This tattoo was usually a small triangle created by three dots and was concealed by clothing so that others could not identify it.
In ancient Asian cultures, tattoos were often applied to ensure long term physical health. The Tibetans equated designs called mantra wheels with many minutes of chanting. These designs were tattooed on chakra (energy points) on the body to help the bearer of the tattoo achieve physical, emotional and spiritual harmony. Sometimes tattoos were created from medicinal dyes and marked on acupuncture points of the body in an attempt to cure chronic health problems and diseases.
In quite a few cultures an image of a God or Goddess could also be tattooed on an acupuncture point or an afflicted part of the body in an attempt to heal it. In India, the Monkey God, Hanuman, was tattooed on dislocated shoulders. Older Maori women tattooed their lips and face to prevent failing vision. Ainu women tattooed a Goddess on their skin so that the evil spirits that bestowed disease would mistake them for the Goddess and flee in terror.
Historically tattoos have always been thought to bring the wearer good luck. In China, tattooing one’s animal astrological symbol, such as The Pig or The Horse is thought to bring good fortune. Images of Koi, carp or goldfish were thought to bring prosperity and wealth to the bearer.
In Burma, a parrot tattooed on the shoulder is thought to bring luck. In Thailand, a scroll representing Buddha in the posture of meditation is said to charm Lady Luck. Card tattoos such as the Ace of Spades and the Ten of Diamonds were worn by American soldiers in Vietnam to protect against bad luck and venereal disease.
In the 1970s, the counter culture in America rediscovered the beauty of primitive and tribal taboos. The most copied designs are primarily from Borneo, Japan, and the islands of the South Pacific. In the 1980’s, Celtic tattoos became very popular, probably as a result of the popularity of Wiccan and pagan religions among young people. Most modern Celtic designs are sourced from ancient scrolls called the Irish Illuminated Manuscripts, which were created during the sixth and seventh centuries.
As before that the Celts did not keep written records, designs are also found in ancient stone and metal work. Before the sixth century, these ancient peoples often tattooed or painted their faces and bodies to protect them from evil spirits and ensure victory in battle. The knotwork tradition of tattooing that was derived from Celtic manuscripts spread from Britain and Ireland to Scotland. Viking invaders eventually appropriated many of the Celtic designs into their own culture, often adding totem animals into the interlacing designs.
In the 1960s tattooing for art’s sake alone became popular and nowadays the sight of a tattoo on someone’s shoulder, hip or ankle has become commonplace. In recent years Celtic Tattoos have enjoyed a revival, as have primitive tattoos. Some people collect tattoos the way others collect antiques or works of art. Others are interested in the super sleek designs that are a product of the thinking of the 21st century such as bio mechanical designs (which look like muscles beneath the flesh) and designs that resemble the interior workings of cyborgs.
In the 1970s, artists trained in traditional fine art disciplines began to embrace tattooing and brought innovative imagery and drawing techniques to the industry. Advances in electric needle guns and pigments provided them with new ranges of color, delicacy of detail and artistic possibilities. The physical nature of many local tattooing establishments also changed as increasing numbers of operators adopted equipment and procedures resembling those of medical clinics particularly in areas where tattooing is regulated by government health regulations.
The cultural status of tattooing has steadily evolved from that of an anti-social activity in the 1940s to that of a trendy fashion statement in the year 200s. First adopted and flaunted by influential rock stars like the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s, tattooing had, by the late 1980s, become accepted by mainstream society. Today, tattoos are routinely seen on rock stars, professional sports figures, ice skating champions, fashion models, movie stars and other public figures who play a significant role in setting the pace of contemporary culture.
During the last fifteen years, two distinct classes of tattoo business have emerged. The first is the “tattoo parlor” that glories in a sense of urban outlaw culture, advertises itself with garish exterior signage and offers less than sanitary surroundings. The second is the “tattoo art studio” that most frequently features custom and fine art designs, all of the features of a high end beauty and “by-appointment” services only. Today’s fine art tattoo studio draws the same kind of clients as a jewelry store, fashion boutique, or high end antique shop.
Tattooing today is the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in the United States. The single fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoo services is middle-class suburban women.
Tattooing is recognized by government agencies as both an art form and a profession. As tattoo-related artwork is considered to be fine art, tattoo designs are the subject of museum and gallery art shows across the United States, Canada and Europe. Nowadays everything from Andy Warhol portraits to Teletubbies to instant messenger smiley face icons just about any image is fair game for a tattoo. Your choice of a tattoo design is only as limited as the reaches of your imagination!