Tattoo art is as old as humankind’s need for expression and belief. The earliest findings of skin ink date back to 3,250 BC, but for all archaeologists know, tattoos may have been around since 12,000 BC. Today, tattoos have reached the status of a fashion statement, but back in the day, their purpose was all but aesthetic. Dark or coloured, simple or elaborate, customary or highly personal, tattoos carried a heavy symbolic undertone, ranging from amuletic to outright stigmatic, depending on the era, region, and cultural context. But how have tattoos evolved in terms of symbolism and application methods since their shy beginnings, up to the present day?
Therapy Turned Art: The Medicinal Use of Tattoos
The tattoos discovered on Ötzi, a European Tyrolean Iceman found on the mountainous border between Italy and Austria in 1991, are the first instance of ink art known to modern science. The 61 marks grouped across Ötzi’s 19 body parts seem to have had a therapeutic purpose and were administered as a form of acupuncture (which he was in dire need of, judging by his numerous ailments).
The medicinal use of tattoos wasn’t exclusive to members of early European civilizations: over in Egypt, pregnant women received tattoos as means of prevention and protection from evil spirits that could cause miscarriage or stillbirth. As it seems, ancient Egyptian mums-to-be used to get dot markings across their abdomen, breasts, and thighs to ensure easy pregnancy and labor. But medicinal and preventive uses were only one facet of the ancient tattoo coin. In other parts of the world, skin ink had more ominous implications and served as a scarlet letter, not therapy or spiritual protection.
The Branding Ink: Tell a No-Gooder by His Marks
In Japan, tattoos had a negative connotation and were used as punishment, to label criminals. First-time offenders received a line of ink on their forehead, which was topped by an arch in case they committed a second offence. The third line was administered in case the no-gooder didn’t learn from his mistakes and decided to breach the law for the third time. Together, the three lines formed a Japanese symbol meaning ‘dog’. Over in Europe, ancient Greek spies used tattoos as a secret ID that revealed their profession, as well as rank, while Romans resorted to ink to brand slaves and criminals.
Nevertheless, written records dated around 4th century AD point to another meaning of tattoos. According to Roman writer Vegetius, ink was applied to the skin of legionaries who’d proven themselves as worthy of a place in the emperor’s army, and could therefore be used to identify deserters (remember Gladiator and General Maximus removing the eagle from his upper arm using a sharp pebble?).
A similar practice was observed by military authorities in Bosnia during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, where a tattoo was a sign of a soldier gone deserter in battle. And while Romans, Greeks, and Japanese took no pride in skin ink, folks in other regions were only delighted to display their marks as tattoos pointed to high birth, skill, and social standing.
Tattoos as Status Symbols: Zeroing In On Royals
For early Britons, blue blood showed on flesh. Danes, Saxons, and Norse used to ink-mark family crests on their skin to denote social status, which made mugging or kidnapping personages of noble birth much easier for lowlifes and ransom hunters.
Interestingly enough, tattoos had a similar meaning on the other side of the globe: in Polynesia, skin inked with ancestral motifs denoted tribal affiliation, heritage, and social standing. In New Zealand, the Maori people wore tā mokos (facial tattoos) with pride, as aesthetic reminders of their cultural identity, and homage to their roots, and the practice is still very much alive among some Maori tribes. In Borneo, tribal women were also quick to display their ink as it testified of their skill and upped their eligibility for marriage. Now, that’s a system that’d make 21st-century dating much easier – and shorter, too.
Not One of Us: Inky Letter of Shame and Exile
While application of ink was optional in many ancient cultures, it was pretty much mandatory in some early civilizations. Brides of the Ainu tribe were seen as destined to burn in hell unless their received a tattoo prior to marriage. For Maori girls, lack of facial tattoos was a source of shame, too, because marks around the nose, lips, and chin were applied as a cosmetic treatment that both beautified the countenance and delayed signs of skin ageing.
For North American Indians, tattoos were a part of the rites of passage test, and youngsters who failed at it were often exiled by their tribes. For example, a girl with a low pain threshold who couldn’t stand the hurt of tattoo application was deemed to be incapable of enduring childbirth pains, which made her odds of wedlock vanish into thin air. A similar principle applied to boys’ ink: lads who squealed or moaned too much receiving their marks were regarded as unfit for battle and banished by their tribes who needed warriors, not cry-babies.
The Pointy End: The Amulet and Stigma of Ink
Although Romans and Greeks had paved the way for ink art on the Old Continent back in their day, it was only in the late 1700s that tattoos saw a mass revival in London and other European cities. Freshly minted by laurels over his Polynesian explorations, Captain Cook presented London with Omai, a heavily inked native who quickly became a sensation.
Omai wasn’t the first Polynesian to stun British public by the elaborate needlework on his body, though: Prince Giolo, aka. the Painted Prince, made a debut in London about a century earlier, and he was even put on display and turned into a money-making attraction. As it turned out later, this marked the beginning of the era of circus shows featuring heavily inked stars who were considered to be freaks of nature just like bearded ladies and dwarfs.
In the early 20th century, women with ink marks were ostracised by the society as loose or seedy, but it didn’t deter some high-born ladies getting small tattoos on private parts on the body. A short while later, the taboo surrounding ink on a woman’s body gave first feminists a means of self-expression and subversion of the cultural norms in their pursuit of empowerment and the right to self-determination and voice of their own, as Professor Margot Mifflin noted in her account of the history of female tattoos.
on a lady’s physique were a sign of moral flimsy, their application to male skin had a very different implication. For marine men and miners, tattoos functioned as amulets, and sailors also often used tattoos to mark the miles they’d successfully survived at sea. Marine men probably picked up the cue during their journeys to China, Burma, and Thailand, where stylised depictions of animals on skin were regarded as a lucky charm. The use of tattoos in Lady Luck’s name was also common among America soldiers in Vietnam, who often ink-marked their skin with symbols of the Ace of Spades and the Ten of Diamonds.
From Charcoal to Ink: Evolution of Tattoo Art
Unlike today, application of tattoos was a painful and time-consuming process in bygone times, and ancient ink masters used various pigments to mark the skin of their clients. Charcoal, soot, gunpowder, vermilion, and plant pigments such as woad and henna were set in the skin with the help of sharp wooden or metal implements. After sailors reintroduced tattoos to Europe and the U.S., ink marks were at first rather costly affairs due to the complexity of application processes, which explains why the well-off were quick to show their ink in public.
In New York, Chatham Square and Manhattan were well-known tattoo parlour neighborhoods, with Samuel O’Reilly and Martin Hildebrandt leading the U.S. ink artist crowd. In 1891, O’Reilly managed to adapt Edison’s electric pen to function as an early tattoo machine, and the innovation made ink marks go viral across classes. The new application method made it easier, cheaper, and faster for ink-loving crowds to get their skin covered in tattoos, but the cost of mass popularisation of ink hit home in a form that had little to do with finances.
The hepatitis outbreak in 1961 brought the Chatham tattoo parlours to their knees, and New York authorities even imposed a ban on inking in 1964, which remained in force until 1997. Exiled from Chatham, tattoo artists moved to Coney Island and naval bases across the U.S., spreading the love of ink as they went. Soon thereon, tattoos became a hit among tourists, who could get inked during their travels to show all the cities they’d checked in at en route.
Religious Tattoos: The Double-Edged Ink Gun
As for religious use of tattoos, ritual ink was often applied in ancient civilisations to help the soul cross over to the realm of the dead. Use of tattoos in funeral rites among native tribes in former colonies was heavily spurned by Christian missionaries who swore by “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. Ironically enough, Christian pilgrims seemed to cherish affection for ink underneath their robes. Many among missionaries had the sign of the cross inked on their chest to show they’d been to the Holy Land.
For Sunni Muslims, skin ink has always been a huge no-no, but Shia Islam was less strict about permanent skin ink, which allowed pilgrims to proudly show their marks and claim the bragging rights as the faithful ones who’d been to Mecca. Unfortunately, Jews weren’t as lucky to have a deity that doesn’t mind a bit of skin art. Yahweh was pretty clear about (the lack of) ink on human skin: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”
Modern Ink: Pushing the Limits of Imagination
These days, tattoos are a common sight across the globe: Wiccan, Druidic, and Viking symbols, Celtic crosses, stylised portrayals of totem animals, geometric designs, and abstract tribal motifs are all being flashed around casually and without shame. Though there is still some ambivalence towards tattoos in the business world, the gender-based stigma has been lifted from the tattoo, and female celebrities aren’t shy when it comes to public display brief of their permanent skin tint.
The dance of pigments underneath the skin will last for as long as humans have the need for expression and a message to convey on the oldest canvas – their body. Markings that have adorned human skin for centuries, tattoos are an essential part of collective heritage of mankind, and it seems that the tooth of time has done them more justice than harm by now.