The art of Tattoo has been around for many thousands of years.The styles and
reasons for it have varied from individual to individual as they have from society to
society.Some tattoos were done for simple adornment, others done for religious
beliefs,and others still for reasons only their owners will understand.
existed in one form or a another across the globe since before recorded history , and the
popularity of this unique form of expression will most likely continue for centuries to
come.Although the basic concept of tattoo has been a constant throughout the history of
mankind the styles and reasons for it have evolved along with mans own evolution.Five thousand years ago,a man fell dead on the slopes of the Italian Alps.Five
thousand years later when his well preserved body was discovered,something remarkable
was found.Across his back and behind both knees were several simple line tattoos.
significance to these tattoos , if there was any other then to decorate the body, are
unknown.Some speculate that they were done for medicinal purposes.The pigments used
may have been a certain type of berry know to have curative effects for different
The oldest tattooed mummy on record is the Lady Amunet,who was a priestess of
the Goddess Hathor.She lived in Thebes around 2160 B.C.
.Her tattoos consisted of
curling blue lines and dots scattered across most of her body.Historians dont know if
there were specific reasons or meanings associated with the markings themselves,or the
placement,however, the current theory is that they are somehow related to a hieroglyphic
image of a woman covered in tattoos.These images of tattooed women , found in the
tombs of Kings , are known as the Brides of the dead.It was thought that these brides of
the dead would lead the dead Kings to the after life and there rejuvenate them.Amunet ,
perhaps,was a living representation of this religious belief.
Eventually Egyptian tattooing
began to move past simple abstract symbols and into more representational art.The only
specific design found,was that of the God Bes.Bes protected the home,everything in
it,and also women who were giving birth.Done as a simple outline,this tattoo has been
found on the thighs of dancers mummified bodies.(1,5)
The ancient Romans were vehemently against marking the body in any way.
belief being that we are created in Gods image and to desecrate that was sacrilege .In
Rome at this time,tattoos were grounds for banishment.Further more Romans used
tattoos in order to brand criminals. However,while fighting on foreign fronts Roman
soldiers encountered warriors of the British Isles who wore tattoos as a badge of
Perhaps in admiration or sympathy with these fierce foes, these Roman soldiers
adopted the practice of tattoo.As these Roman soldiers returned home the market for
tattoos grew in the heart of Rome.Doctors,whose tools could be adapted to the practice of
tattooing quickly took up the art and began to perfect the trade, becoming tattoo artists in
Here we begin to see how the individual has always persued the tattoo even
though it runs counter to the beliefs and values of the society in which they live.This was
never more true then in the early days of Christianity.It was at this time that tattoos were
forbidden under the guise of religion .
Thou shalt not make any cuttings in your flesh for
the dead,nor print any marks upon you Leviticus 19:28.Despite this, many early
Christians had themselves tattooed with a cross to signify their permanent allegiance to
Christ.Some of the power of a tattoo comes from its permanence once placed on the
body.If found by the Romans,these early tattooed Christians would surly be put to death.In 325 A.
D. tattoos again came under fire as Emperor Constantine took up
Christianity.The pagan Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.Constaninte
decreed the body sacred and was not to be defiled by man.This effectively drove
tattooing under ground.By the 4th century tattooing was nearly non existent in
Tattoo carries a radically different meaning from one culture to the next.
this clearly in a sect of Egyptian Christians called the Copts.The Copts continued to
tattoo their inner wrists with small crosses.This was the beginning of some of the most
elaborate religious tattoos ever seen. (3)
During the Holy Wars of the 11th and 12th century warriors often marked
themselves with the Jerusalem Cross,fearing that if they died in battle the cross would
mark them for a proper Christian burial.
Once the Crusades were over the practice of
tattoo largely disappeared in the west once again. (3)
The impulse to tattoo the body is universal and finds expression in every
culture.Japan may have had the most complete and exotic of devotion to tattoos.The art
flourished in Japan mainly do to a repressive government edict allowing only the royal
and wealthy to wear elaborately decorated kimonos. The merchant class began to aquire
Full and elaborate body suits were the style.The only parts of the body not
tattooed were the face,hands,and the 3 - 4 inch seam that ran from the neck to below the
navel.The imagery was mostly taken from the classic literature at the time.These suits
would consist of stories of conflict and courage.
Sword wielding samurai doing battle
with mythical dragons would adorn many men in one form or another as an act of
rebellion.In 1870 the Japanese government outlawed this practice for fear of how of it
would appear to western eyes.Again tattoos were driven underground.This made tattoos
more enticing to the criminal elements .Unfortunately for the image of tattooed people
for years to come,these men were mostly members of the Yakuza,or Japanese Mafia.This
became a badge of membership for the Yakuza,although tattoos were also popular with
As generations passed the reasons for getting tattoos evolved.
Once an act of
rebellion body suits became works of art and expression of religious faith.These people
liked getting tattooed for the beauty and the raising of spirituality that being tattooed can
bring to an individual.Getting tattooed can have a transformational effect on the
recipient.(6). Such is the power of tattoo.
In a nation that honors a homogenous culture it
is ironic that the most colorful and elaborate tattoos developed in Japan. (6)
By the early 18th century sailors from Europe found the South and Central Pacific
Islands.In 1716 Captain James Cook landed in Tahiti and the word tattoo entered the
English language.In Tahiti a girls buttocks were tattooed completely black when she
reached the age of sexual maturity.Tattoos here had flourished and spread between the
islands.In Hawaii three dots tattooed on the tongue was to signify mourning.
In Borneo an
eye was tattooed on the palm of the hand to serve as a spiritual guide to see them to the
next life.The Samoan men wear what is called a Pea.It is a series of lines beginning at
the kidneys,continuing down to the knees.The women wore a Malu.This covered them
from thigh to knee.
While visiting missionaries tried to wipe out the practice among the
natives the sailors adopted the practice and spread it with them through their
In New Zealand Cook found the Mouri,now famous for their complete facial
tattoos.These facial tattoos had very specific meanings for the Mouri.Each section of the
face and each design spoke of their heritage and standing in the community.When Cook
returned to England in 1775 he brought with him a native named Omhie.Omhie was
completely tattooed and being quite a civilized and dignified man ,changed the image of
the tattoo from something only savages had to the prize of the complete European
gentleman.Once again the tattoo takes on a new form.
The tattoo is so malleable and
flexible that it is able to embody so many different meanings , even through the course of
one persons lifetime his tattoos can change and grow in meaning. (5).European royalty
began to get tattoos,not the images of the Mouri facial tattoo but symbols of royalty and
power from the English mind set. (3,5)
Even in the 1860s in America the art of tattoo was prevalent , but still somewhat
primitive.Relegated to sailors and circus sideshows , tattoos still had a foot hold on
Only 30 years later,in 1890,Samuel Oriely,seeing a blueprint for
Thomas Edisons electric engraving pen,modified it,making the first electric tattoo
machine.The principle is still the same basic design for todays modern tattoo guns.This
was the beginning of modern tattooing. (2)
The Tattoo Renaissance began circa 1960.At this time,less then 500 tattoo artists
were practicing in the U.S.
.These were mainly by military bases and amusement
parks.With improved tools and techniques it was no longer a struggle to get the ink into
the skin.Now the artist became more concerned with mathematical principles of
Also just around this time,collectors and artist began to
throw off the idea that they were criminals or mentally disturbed individuals.(2)
Today with modern techniques and attitudes,tattoo is more accessible and
acceptable then ever before.The only limit on this art now seems to be our own
imaginations.Brightly colored or black and gray inks hold their shape and shade better
then ever before.As the styles become more diversified,more people,young and old,are
able to find something in tattoo that appeals to their own sensabilities.
As we see in
todays popular culture,tattoo is the thing to do.For those who say its a fad,they may be
right.However,its a fad with highs and lows that have stretched from before the
beginning of mans history, to the limits of his imagination.
Ancient Art - A Tattoo Timeline
Tattoo Feb. , 1997 : Issue 78
2. Michelle Delio. The Tattoo Renaissance - A Revolution in
Thought and Form
Tattoo May , 1997 : Issue 93
Steve Gilbert - Tattoo History
Tattoo May , 1998 : Issue 105
4. Alan Govenar - Stoney Knows How - Life as a Tattoo Artist
Tattoo Revue January ,1995 : Issue 39
5. Margo DeMello - Body Art
Tattoo Gallery January 1997 :Issue 4
6. Horiyoshi - Traditional Tattoo
Tattoo Feb. ,1998 : Issue 102