You love showing them off. It all began with that little design you got years ago, and now your body is covered in them. You’re hooked or in the process of getting one. Perhaps this is a recent wish, to get some ink on your skin. You might be wondering how this ancient art took over the world. This quick history lesson might inspire you on what you want to get.
While most of us might just shrug or say that we always wanted one, there is a historical reason for ink on skin that we cannot forget.
There is vast evidence that humans have been getting tattoos for centuries. The proof has been found all over the world in places such as Egypt, Peru, and Siberia. In September, 1991, during an expedition through the Alps, on the border between Austria and Italy, two explorers came across the mummified corpse of a man with 61 tattoos on his body. Upon further examination of the body, they determined that the man had lived around the year 3300 BC. There was evidence of arthritis on the places where he had body art, suggesting that the tattoos might had been thought of as having magical healing properties. This same theory has been found in other mummies that are over a thousand years old.
Tattoos were also part of ancient rituals around the globe. The Māori are a Polynesian tribe that reached the islands of New Zealand centuries ago. Its members were known to have different designs for facial tattoos. These were done with extremely painful techniques that would require day-long sessions for their faces and bodies to be covered. These particular designs, referred to as Moko, contained specific information about the person. Those custom designs made them feel proud of their community and history. Tattoos were symbols of bravery, masculinity, and social status.
This art has been linked to the evolution of man throughout ages. Permanent body decoration appears to be a collective obsession of humans in general.
The art of tattooing spread through Europe and Africa around 1000 BC, reaching Asia afterwards. It became a common practice in China, Japan, and India. The meaning of ink changed from culture to culture. For example, in Japan, after the end of the Shogun era, the practice took a particular meaning for a society of ancient Samurai working as mercenaries. Currently members of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia that controls the drug trade, contraband, and sexual slavery, have complex ink designs to match their strict code.
Tattoos are universal. There have been many styles and shapes that have become popular throughout different moments in time. But essentially, this process used to require plenty of patience and resistance to pain.
The tools that were originally used to paint on the skin were animal bones, bird beaks, tendons, wild hog tusks, fishbones, and natural pigments. The Eskimo would use an even more painful technique referred to as “skin stitching,” which is currently used by an artist in Santa Barbara, California who substitutes the bone and tendons for a sterilized needles and cotton thread.
The modernization of this practice is attributed to Thomas Alva Edison, who in 1876 invented an electric stencil pen intended to make duplicates of handwritten documents. However, this invention changed the tattoo industry. In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish immigrant, considered the original rock star tattoo artist, modified and patented Edison’s creation in order to build the first tattoo machine.
Throughout history, this art has been associated with several subcultures, such as sailors, pirates, bikers, carnies, etc. And each group has their own take on the practice. This art began as something with a meaning beyond the aesthetic.
Currently, tattoos can also be related to a symbolic or spiritual context. They are a way of celebrating the memory of someone who has passed or a means to seal a friendship or romantic relationship. The relationship of the ink and the body provides us with something beyond decoration. It’s as if we carry a permanent stamp of the person we love. There is also something therapeutic about enduring pain to wear a badge of honor representing a pivotal moment in our lives. In this sense, even to this day tattoos continue to have ritualistic connotations.
So, are you ready to take the plunge to get your first tat? Or perhaps you want to add to your present collection? Your body art can demonstrate your unique love for a culture or how you've gotten through a hard time.
Translated by María Suárez