Man has enthusiastically decorated his body for thousands of years, and some of these decorations can leave the onlooker gasping in amazement at their intricacy and sheer beauty. Often the wearer of the tattoos is making a statement of some sort. Indeed, the very word tattoo is said to stem from the Polynesian word ‘ta’ meaning ‘striking something’ and the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ meaning ‘to mark something’.
In 1991, the body of a 5,000-year old tattooed man – ‘ötzi the ice man’ – was found frozen in a glacier in the mountains between Austria and Italy. The wonderfully preserved skin of this corpse bears 57 tattoos which are thought to have been medicinal in application, comprising a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines above the kidneys and numerous parallel lines on the ankles.
Tattooing involves the insertion of coloured materials beneath the skin surface. Original tattoos may have been the result of accidents, such as rubbing small cuts with hands still covered in soot or ash, the colour of which remained in the skin when the wound healed.
Russian researchers unearthing tombs in the south of Siberia during the 1940s found 2,500 year-old mummies with tattoos of animals and monsters. It is believed the more complicated the tattoos were, the more social status the wearer had. The Egyptians too, were responsible to a large degree for the spread of this practice around the world. By 2,000 BC tattooing had stretched out all the way to Southeast Asia.
Earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan comes from clay figures with faces painted or engraved in representations of tattoo marks. The oldest recovered from tombs dates to at least 3,000 BC. These statues acted as stand-ins for living people who symbolically journeyed with the dead into the unknown. Tattoos may have had religious or magical significance.
The first written record of Japanese tattooing is from 297 AD. The Japanese regarded tattooing as high art. Japanese tattoo artists, known as the Horis, were the undisputed masters of the craft, and the classic Japanese tattoo is a full body suit. Polynesian tattooing, however, is considered by real tattoo lovers to be the most intricate and skilful. Polynesian people believe that a person’s Mana – their spiritual power or life force – is within their tattoo.
These often elaborate geometrical designs were added to and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body. Samoan traditions of applying tattoos by hand were always dependent upon rank and title. Tattooing ceremonies, conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and a key part of the individual’s journey to leadership. The first Europeans to see this were from a 1787 French expedition, which 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’.
Hawaiian traditional tattoo art served not only for ornamentation, but as the people believed, also to guard their health and spiritual well-being. Very complex patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms graced men’s arms, legs, torsos and faces. Women were normally tattooed on hands, fingers, wrists and sometimes on tongues.
Maoris in New Zealand used their woodcarving skills to create fantastic tattoos. The full-face ‘Moko’ was a mark of distinction, telling of their status, lines of descent, tribal affiliations, and it recalled the wearer’s exploits in war and other great events of their life. In Borneo tribal tattooing is still today as it has always been. Their designs form the basis of what the Western people call ‘tribal’ nowadays.
Persian women saw tattoos as exotic beauty marks. Roman slaves and criminals were tattooed, those slaves exported to Asia tattooed with the words ‘tax paid’. Both Greeks and Romans used tattooing as punishment. When Emperor Constantine rescinded the prohibition on Christianity, he also banned tattooing on faces – common among convicts, soldiers, and gladiators – believing the human face was a representation of God’s image, not to be disfigured or defiled.
Celtic culture of 1200 to 400BC was very keen on body art. Body painting was done with woad, leaving a blue design on the skin. Spirals were common, and lines forming complex braids which weave across themselves symbolise the connection of all life.
Eleventh century tattooed Inca mummies were unearthed in Peru. Central American natives see tattoos as badges of courage. When Cortez arrived in Mexico in 1519 he discovered the natives not only worshipped devils in the form of statues and idols, but had also imprinted images of these ‘false’ idols on their skin. The Spaniards, knowing nothing of tattooing, thought it to be the work of the devil.
American Indians also revered tattoos. Several tribes employed them for signifying bravery or status, while Eskimo Inuit women had chins tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity.
The first tattoo shop in New York opened in 1846, and Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattooing machine in 1891.
Of course, one should not forget Christianity tends not to favour the practice of tattooing. As it says in ‘Leviticus’, ‘ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you’. (19:28)
Sailors have always, it seems, loved having tattoos. After Captain Cook returned from his Polynesia trip, tattooing became a tradition in the British navy. King Edward VII received his first tattoo – a Jerusalem cross – on his arm in 1862, when still Prince of Wales, starting a fashion among the aristocracy. In 1882, his sons, the Dukes of Clarence and York, received tattoos by the Japanese master, Hori Chiyo.
The bizarre and beastly beauty that is body art is far from new. In fact, it is more popular today than it ever has been in the past, and every celebrity probably has at least one tattoo somewhere. Every picture tells a story, they say, and some speak volumes.