Tattoos: A Historical Journey

Posted on May 19, 2012 in Culture-Vulture

By Carrie Williams:

Tattoos have been around a while. They have permanently seared themselves into people’s body imagery since prehistory. They can be found in Japanese culture, Indian prehistory, the Maori of New Zealand and the Hausa people of Northern Nigeria. Tattooing doesn’t constrain itself to a single culture. In fact, today, British remain the most tattooed in Europe and are still trendy in the modern world.

Why have tattoos become such an important part of so many diverse cultures throughout the world? Some of the most popular designs in America derived from Asian influences. I recently watched a movie about the tattoo artist Ed Hardy, who grew up in America. He started doodling tattoos from the age of ten, went to art school and planned his career as a tattoo artist. He worked in Japan for a while and picked up the designs from them. He said that he was inspired because the images portrayed the magical world of another culture.

The oldest tattoo it seems was on Otzi the Iceman who was found frozen in the Alps. His body dated back to almost the fifth millennium BC and he had 57 tattoos. Among his tattoos were simple dots and lines. I would make the silly guess that he kept track of dates on his lower back, knees and ankles. Scientists are pretty sure that the real reason is because they served a therapeutic purpose since their placement on the body resembles the placement of needles in acupuncture.

Other mummies with tattoos were found that back to the second millennium BC. It seems to have begun as a Eurasian practice. The tattoos can be found to have many meanings such as with elaborate war-like designs in the Gallic Wars as described by Julius Caesar in 57 BC.

Tattoos are just ink that is inserted beneath the skin. It is a very tedious process for the artist to learn; it’s not the same as drawing on a piece of paper. The imagery often conveys a symbolism. For example, most tattoo shops have flash designs, or generic examples of tattoos that inspire people. The most common of these designs are sparrows that show frailty. Anchors are popular among Marines as a rite of passage after they cross the Atlantic Ocean. Hearts are also very popular for people in love. Some think long and hard about what tattoos they want to represent their experiences in life, while others get them spontaneously and do not contain much meaning.

The most popular reason to get a tattoo is to celebrate the here and now. When someone gets a tattoo it is a statement that this tattoo will only last as long as I’m alive. Some boyfriends and girlfriends have gotten matching tattoos. I also know of a brother and sister that got matching tattoos. In America’s commercial society, it is also fun to personalize our own image with the meaning we have placed in images. The images themselves represent how much we value our experiences with family and personal relationships.

Historically, tattoo designs have changed from warlike images among European tribes to the cross-cultural tattoo designs with Asian imagery in America in the 1960’s and 70’s. In India, I’ve seen people with the “Om” symbol on their hand that represents the Hindu religion, an old religion that has existed thousands of years.

Tattoos connect us with world around us through art. They portray culture and the people we associate with. In the modern world, they give many a way to clearly depict snippets of our complex cultural identity.