Published:  01:45 AM, 01 December 2018

The history of tattoos

The history of tattoos

The word tattoo is said to has two major derivations- from the Polynesian word 'ta' which means striking something and the Tahitian word 'tatau' which means 'to mark something'. The history of tattoo began over 5000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them.

Tattoos are created by inserting colored materials beneath the skins surface. The first tattoos probably were created by accident. Someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire. Once the wound had healed; they saw that a mark stayed permanently.

Despite the social sciences' growing fascination with tattooing, and the immense popularity of tattoos themselves, the practice has not left much of a historical record.

Polynesia: In Pacific cultures, tattooing has a huge historic significance. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. The Polynesian people believed that a person's "mana"- their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo.

The vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies. Elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.

New Zealand: The Maori of new Zealand had created one of the most impressive cultures of all Polynesia. Their tattoo, called 'moko', reflected their refined artistry - using their woodcarving skills to carve skin. The full-face moko was a mark of distinction, which communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. It recalled their wearer's exploits in war and other great events of their life.

Indonesia: Borneo is one of the few places in the world where traditional tribal tattooing is still practiced today just as it has been for thousands of years. Until recently many of the inland tribes had little contact with the outside world. As a result, they have preserved many aspects of their traditional way of life, including tattooing. Borneo designs have gone all around the world to form the basis of what the western people call 'tribal'.

India / Thailand: Hanuman in India was a popular symbol of strength on arms and legs. The mythical monk is still today one of the most popular creations in Thailand and Myanmar. They are put on the human body by monks who incorporate magical powers to the design while tattooing.

Africa: In Africa, where people have dark skin, it is difficult to make colored tattoos. So they have developed another technique - they make scarifications (this is not really tattooing, but it is related to tattooing). Made by lifting the skin a little, and making a cut with a knife or some other sharp thing special sands or ashes were rubbed in to make raised scars in patterns on the body, these patterns often follow local traditions.

Ancient Greece and Rome: The Greeks learnt tattooing from the Persians. Their women were fascinated by the idea of tattoos as exotic beauty marks. A legal inscription from Ephesus indicates that during the early Roman empire all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words 'tax paid'. Greeks and Romans also used tattooing as a punishment.

North America: Early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among native Americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognized by their tattoos. Among the Ontario Iroquoians, elaborate tattoos reflected high status.

In North-West America, Inuit women's chins were tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity. The first permanent tattoo shop in New York city was settled up in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing military servicemen from both sides of the civil war. Samuel O'Reilly invented the electric tattooing machine in 1891.

France: In the 18th century, many French sailors returning from voyages in the south pacific had been tattooed. In 1861, French naval surgeon, Maurice Berchon, published a study on the medical complications of tattooing. After this, the navy and army banned tattooing within their ranks. 

Sailors on their ships returned home with their own tattoos. Usually of a very basic style that only uses a minimum amount of details making the tattoos look quite two dimensional and flat. This often gives a cartoonish feeling and typical motifs would be flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names.

For a long time, tattooing was the preserve of sailors and criminals. In prison, the tattoo - professionally done and homemade- indelibly imprint on their bodies what these men desire in their souls: autonomy and identity.

The popularity of tattooing during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century owed much to the circus. When circuses prospered, tattooing prospered. For over 70 years every major circus employed several completely tattooed people. Some were exhibited in sideshows; others performed traditional circus acts such as juggling and sword swallowing.

As with other artistic mediums and cultural developments, vocabulary continually evolves, reflecting the depth and potential of body marking and of the contemporary imagination. In recent years tattooing has emerged to the forefront of popular consciousness. Today a tattoo 'flash', is a folder of tattoo-artwork by tattoo artists. Styles range from the traditional and vernacular to the sacred and innovative.


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