As an ancient form of artistic expression, tattoos have been a religious and then a social identification, and finally the symbol of our time’s individualism. Let us go back in time to try and understand the enthusiasm surrounding this growingly routine act.
In 1991, in the Italian Alps, archeologists discovered a body dating from about 5,000 years trapped in ice. They have managed to distinguish drawn lines in the skin of the back and the knees. To this day, they are not sure that it is the first prehistoric tattoo. They don’t know what technique was used nor when this practice dates back from. They assume that the first men experimented rubbing coal on wounds, which would leave marks.
In Ancient Egypt, it is believed that tattoos were reserved only for women, because they are mostly found on feminine gurines and mummies of priestesses and dancers. Tattoos would thus assume a religious as well as erotic form. The Romans had deep respect for their bodies and tattoos were a mark of infamy reserved for criminals. In the early years of Christianity, tattoos were forbidden by the Bible, but many of the first Christians were tattooed because they believed that Saint Paul wore on his body the marks of Jesus’ sufferings. The first Christians wore little tattooed cross shapes on the inside of their wrists to keep it hidden from the Romans. Tattoos were banned from European societies in the 4th century.
The origin of Japanese tattoos is very ancient: around 5,000 B.C. Because of the very restrictive laws dating from the 18th century declaring that only the wealthiest were allowed to wear kimonos decorated with very elaborate embroideries, leaving the art of tattooing to the other social classes. They were very elaborate tattoos that started on the neck, went all the way to the shoulders and could cover all the back all the way to the knees. In 1870, with the development of international trade, the government forbade tattoos afraid of looking barbaric in the eyes of the Europeans. This ban made tattoos very attractive; especially to Yakuzas, to whom it became a sign of their true criminal commitment. The more popular tattoos became, the more new motives appeared, often borrowed to ora and fauna, as well as Japanese culture (sacred objects, heroes, demons…).
18TH CENTURY PACIFIC
In the early 18th century, European settlers discovered the art of tattoo when they stumbled upon the Pacific Islands. From one island to the other, shapes evolved as reflections of the local culture. Some were purely decorative, others were signs of initiatory rites, celebrations, etc. In 1769, when explorer James Cook arrived in Tahiti, the word “tattoo” entered the English language. It comes from the Tahitian and Samoan word “tata” or “tatau” linked to the gesture of encrusting repeated marks on the body. When Cook came back to Europe, he brought along a Polynesian man called Omai whose body was covered with tattoos, hoping to make Europeans understand the meaning of those tattoos. Back then, Europeans considered people with tattoos as savages. However, it took on new meaning and new forms. But there have been misdemeanors in the 1820s. That is how a market started developing in Europe around Maoris’ tattooed heads. In 1831, the British government issued a law forbidding the import of human heads and the capture of slaves to sell their tattooed heads slowly ceased.
THE LATE 19TH CENTURY UNITED STATES
In 1891 in New York, Samuel O’Reilly created a tattoo machine. The tattoos that would take weeks to make could now be made much more quickly, precisely and painlessly. They became more and more popular in the big American cities that now all had tattoo parlors. The fascination for tattoos was omnipresent in the world of party, party business, the Travelling Community and the circus community. In the late 1920s, over 300 people with their bodies entirely covered in tattoos worked in American circuses. In the 1950s in the United States, tattoos were a sign of marginality. Sailors and soldiers had theirs. Hippies in the 1960s also joined the movement and the search for individuality became a sign of social protest.
Nowadays, the enthusiasm around tattoos is still ongoing through festivals such as Philadelphia’s, celebrating this art. We no longer talk about phenomenon exhibition, because mavericks may now push the boundaries of their art without any consequence. Longevity is the heritage of tattoos. However, the cultural significance that is attached to it is as varied as the motives available