Malisa Smith The History of Tattoos Axia College University of Phoenix Tattoos have been around throughout our history, from Egyptian times to the present day. Many people may say they know the history of tattoos, and where they originate from, but do they really? Does one know that there were reasons that some people had tattoos? There may be people who know the actual history of tattoos and body art and why one would decide to get one; however there are people who do not. To be able to understand the idea of tattoos, one should educate themselves to the history of tattoos.
Although tattoos have been considered taboo and a stereotype, history reveals that this particular form of body art has been used for self expression, status and culture. The history of tattooing is defined as a process of creating permanent designs or modifications to ones body. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian language, tatau, meaning to mark something. The origin of the word tattoo, is also believed to have come from the sound when the tattoo device is struck by either a rock or solid piece of equipment.
The process of getting a tattoo occurs when a person’s skin is punctured, and pigments, usually some form of ink, are inserted just beneath the skin to create a desired pattern or picture. Tattoos can range from a very large area, called black work, or to a fine, smaller detailed area. Tattoos can be very basic in design or an elaborate picture using different colors. Although this way of creating a tattoo may seem barbaric to some, however; many people started out with tattoos from this fashion. There are still people who believe getting a tattoo by traditional fashion is a way connect with the tattoo of their choice.
Tattoos can be traced back to the aboriginal people from Oceania. The majority of what we know about ancient tattoo art has been passed down from ceremonies, legends, or songs. The oldest of these traditions comes from the Island of Samoa. The tradition originates from Polynesian culture, in which there would be one person, the master, who would be assigned to give the tattoos. The master’s of the community were held in high regard, and taken very seriously by the general population (The History of Tattoos, 2008).
There were many cases where the master was in charge of not only giving the tattoo, but would also decide if the tattoo was appropriate for the recipient. Keep in mind, with the gift of being the master, also came with great sacrifices. Being the master would often cause them to give up the right to have a family, or even a permanent relationship due to the nature of their craft (The History of Tattoos, 2008). There were even times when they would be restricted, just to avoid the possibility of distracting themselves or their work. Even with the pressures of the possible solitary life, there were also spiritual responsibilities.
It was believed that the gift of being a master was given by a patron god, and if the master did not accept the gift, it would be taken away as quickly as it was given to them. The techniques that were given to the master were not to be taken for granted. Furthermore, in Polynesian times, the process for giving a tattoo never changed. A master was still the one who would give the tattoo, however the actual tattoo process would change over time. First, the design is marked, or outlined on the skin with charcoal, or colored earth. Second, the master would begin his or her work with the needles.
The needles were usually made of bird bones, turtle shells, bamboo shoots, or even shark teeth (The History of Tattoos, 2008). The needles would be tied to a shaft, and then dipped into the ink. The ink was made of “candlenut oil, sugar cane juice, coconut milk, water, and other plant based liquids” (The History of Tattoos, 2008). Once the needle had been dipped into the ink, the master would then place the needle on the skin and tap the shaft to indent the skin with the needle in a repetitive motion. Aside from the Polynesian history of tattoo art, there is also some evidence that point to the Egyptians and tattoos.
This history goes back to as early as the XI Dynasty. In 1891, Amunet, a Priestess of the Goddess Hathor, at Thebes, was discovered. According to Taylor (1998), Amunet is believed to be alive sometime between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. Amunet displays several lines and dots all over her body. The dots and dashes that were found were found in a grouping pattern. This form of tattoo is believed to only belong to women, and usually the women were associated with ritualistic practice. The Egyptians had spread the practice of tattooing throughout the word.
By the year 2000 BC, the art of tattooing had stretched out all the way to Southeast Asia (Taylor, 1998). Although there is history that proves tattoos were used for many reasons, some people still fell into groups that are considered stereotypes. The stereotypes of people with tattoos were considered to be criminals, drug addicts, or habitual underachievers. There is somewhat of a statistical truth to that slander. Sadly when it came to people who had chosen to show their tattoos in public, the stereotype is all too real. That is no surprise though; people with tattoos are treated poorly by the majority.
Traditionally, tattoo clientele was considered to be that of bikers, bad-boy personalities, and truckers; however all that seems to be changing. There is still the tough guy image to contend with. However, it is mostly just with the older population. Chris Weskamp told the Denver Business Journal (1998) “Some people are actually scared of us”. Chris Westkamp sports tattoos of nature, animals, and American Indian tattoos (Denver Business Journal 1998). There are three classic stereotype categories that people with tattoos fall victim to. Sailors, Criminals, and Circus performers were expressed to be the three reasons why one wanted a tattoo.
Sailors would come home from their tour of duty with tattoos that they had gotten over seas. Many of the tattoos were very basic in style, and only used a minimum of detail. The tattoos looked two dimensional and flat. Most of the designs were flowers, mermaids, ships, anchors, birds, names, and snakes. Prison art has had its own share of accusations. There have been artists that have gained their experiences through their time being incarcerated. There were a few of these artists that had significant experience with art before being incarcerated. Many prison artists had come from backgrounds that did not even encourage art.
However, being faced with long hours of solitary confinement, lack of physical activity, separation from family and friends, and the tensions of prison life, found inmates finding art as a sense of accomplishment. Since access to supplies was limited for inmates, the inmates were forced to use what was available to them. Many prisoners learned to weave boxes, handbags, picture frames, and crosses folded from cigarette packages or gum wrappers, and stitch the created project together with dental floss. Here is where art work has been linked to people who have been incarcerated.
Those who did not involve themselves with crafts were linked to creating the art for some of the tattoos. Watchtowers, chain linked fences, cement block walls, barred windows, and hourglasses all present the reality of time to the inmate. Drawings of Hearts, roses, cartoon figures, palm trees, and random symbols of religion may express a longing for a loved one or family member who is no longer around. Circus performers were popular during the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. When circuses started, for over 70 years circus employees were considered misfits of society.
These misfits were stereotyped as misfits because they were covered with tattoos. Some of these people, after being employed with the circus, were included in the sideshows and others performed traditional circus acts. In the same way that people with tattoos were stereotyped, some of these people had received tattoos due to their culture. In Borneo, some women would have a tattoo on their forearm that would symbolize a particular skill that they had mastered. For example, if a woman’s tattoo was that of weaving, her status for marriage was increased.
In New Zealand, the Maori, created some of the most impressive cultures of all Polynesia, their tattoo called the ‘moko’, this tattoo reflected refined artistry. The Maori used woodcarving skills to carve into the skin, and the full-face moko was the mark of distinction, which would communicate their status. In Ancient Greece and Rome, the Greeks learned how to tattoo from the Persians, and the Romans adopted tattooing from the Greeks. “Roman authors such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed “(Designboom 2000-2008).
It was documented that the in the early Roman Empire, all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words “tax paid” on their foreheads. Greeks and Romans also used tattoos with punishment. In the early Fourth Century, when Constantine had become Emperor, he banned tattooing of the forehead or face, which was common for soldiers, gladiators, and convicts. Constantine believed that the face was a representation of god, and should not be disfigured. From different cultures to different eras it has been found that tattoos are ones way of expressing something.
Whether it is rebellion, or because it is required, having a tattoo takes ownership of that reason. Someday this form of body art may be more acceptable by the general population, but that is unknown. What is known is that people will continue to have their body marked with designs of their choice. Of course there will always be a stereotype of the people that have tattoos, whether it is one tattoo, or the entire body covered with body art. Before getting a tattoo, one should make sure that the design they have chosen is something that they feel is appropriate, be prepared to face ridicule, all from the idea of getting a tattoo.
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