History of Tattoos

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 4 January 2017

History of Tattoos

In today’s world, it is not uncommon to see people covered in all types of body art, such as tattoos. Arms, legs, sometimes even faces, all painted with permanent ink. For what reason, some people ask. What’s the point having words, designs, or pictures permanently drawn onto your skin? I personally love tattoos; they’re an artistic way for people to express who they are and their originality. Tattoos are a way for people to showcase their inner differences. But the question is, where did tattooing start, and why?

The word tattoo originates from the Tahitian word tattau, which means, “to mark.” An explorer James Cook, in his records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific, first mentioned this word. However, many scientists believe that the earliest known evidence of tattooing dates back 3300 B.C. due to 59 markings found on the skin of a mummified human body known as The Iceman (Demand Media Inc.).

In 2160 B.C., tattooing became prevalent in Egypt. Several mummies displaying lines and dots tattooed all over their bodies have been recovered that date to as early as the XI Dynasty. Though these people had been mummified for thousands of years, the tattoo markings were still completely visible (Hemingson). The main reasons for these Egyptian tattoos are to connect with the Divine (like god, or God); as a tribute or act of sacrifice to a deity; as a talisman, a permanent amulet that cannot be los; or to provide magical or medical protection (Hemingson).

Around 700 B.C. Ancient Greeks and Romans began tattooing, but for an entirely different reason. The use of tattoos, or “stigmata” (marks upon the body, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ), were mainly used to mark someone as “belonging” either as a slave to an owner or to a religious sect or sometimes even as a disciplinary measure to mark people as criminals (Designboom). When the dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs ruled Egypt, the pharaoh Ptolemy IV was said to have had ivy leaves tattooed on himself. These leaves symbolized his devotion to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. This fashion was also adopted by Roman soldiers, which then spread across the Roman Empire (Famento).

During the rise of Christianity in 600 B.C., there was a widespread temporary standstill to tattooing in the Middle East and Europe. Saint Basil the Great, one of the most notable doctors of the Christian Church, warned: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thoughts. Do not associate with those who mark themselves with thorns and needles so that their blood flows to the earth” (Hemingson). During the gradual process of Christianization in Europe, tattoos were often considered remaining elements of paganism and generally legally prohibited. In the years 306-373, the Christian emperor Constantine completely banned tattoos. He felt that tattoos disfigured what was made in God’s image (Hemingson).

Though this ban of tattoos was very powerful, it couldn’t completely eliminate tattooing from Europe or the Middle East. Tattooing worked its way back into these two religions between 500-1500 by holy pilgrims. During the Middle Ages, people would go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the only proof that they had actually been there would be the tattoos they received from the Coptic priests. The basic tattoo the pilgrims usually returned with was a simple cross, but the more outgoing people returned with portraits of historical events from the bible inked into their skin (Hemingson).

The earliest reference to British royalty being tattooed was King Harold II sometime between 1022 and1066. After King Harold II was killed in the Battle of Hastings, the only way his sister Edith could pick out which body was his was from the words ‘Edith’ and ‘England’ that were tattooed upon his chest (History of Tattooing).

Tattooing started evolving into a form of art in the 1600’s. The Japanese word irezumi refers to the insertion of ink to the skin leaving a permanent, decorative mark, which in other words, means tattooing in how we see it today. Tattooed marks were still used as a punishment during this time, but there were fads of decorative tattoos coming and going throughout the years. The release of the popular Chinese novel Suikoden, a story of bravery illustrated with extravagant woodblock prints demonstrating heroic men with their bodies permanently painted with mythical creatures, flowers, and other images, inspired many people to get tattoos similar to what they had seen. Woodblock artists began tattooing their designs onto human flesh just the same as they would create their woodblock prints, using chisels, gouges, and ink known as Nara ink. This ink turns blue-green underneath the skin (Irezumi).

Between 1766 and 1779, Captain James Cook voyaged out into the South Pacific three times After these voyages to Polynesia, Cook and his crew told stories of people covered in tattoos that they had seen, referring to them as “tattooed savages”. Cook’s Science Officer, Sr. Joseph Banks, returned to England with a tattoo. Many of Cook’s ordinary men came back with tattoos, a tradition that soon became associated with men of the sea. These sailors and seamen re-introduced Europe to tattooing (History of Tattooing).

As soldiers and sailors began returning home from conquest and trade wearing tattoos in various places on their bodies in the early 1800’s, tattooing starting to become very popular among Western societies. These men had imitated the tattooing practices they had witnessed from the people of Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. Ordinary working class men wore tattoos on their body to symbolize their pride (Hemingson).

Also in the early 1800’s, doctors and others in the medical field began voicing their concerns of tattooing. Many doctors felt that tattoos could cause many complications to ones well-being. A leading doctor wrote about a woman who had died from an infection caused by a tattoo in 1837. In 1853 a physician reported the first case in which syphilis was transmitted by tattooing. Back in these days, tattoo artists had no knowledge that using the same needles for multiple customers without cleaning them spreads diseases. It wasn’t uncommon to clean off a fresh tattoo with saliva, tobacco juice, or even urine (Hemingson).

Several tattoo artists found jobs in Washington DC during the Civil War. A man who was German born, Martin Hildebrandt, started his tattooing career in 1846 and was considered the best tattoo artist at that time. He tattooed military members from both Union and Confederate camps. In 1870, the first American tattoo studio was opened by Hildebrandt (Hemingson).

Samuel O’Reily opened tattoo studio in 1875. During this time, tattoos were done by hand, using needles attached to a wooden handle. The tattoo artist would dip the needles in ink and move their hand up and down, puncturing the skin with 2-3 needles per second. Tattooing by hand was a very slow process, and required good manual skill. Since O’Reily was not only a great tattoo artist, but also a mechanic and technician, he began to work on a machine that could help speed up the tattooing process. O’Reily created a hand-held machine where the needles could move up and down automatically. This invention made tattooing as fluent as drawing. In 1981 O’Reily patented his invention and offered it for sale. Tattooing in the US was revolutionized over night. Sailors lined up to be tattooed by O’Reily and his apprentice Charles Wagner. At this point in time, over 80% of the US Navy was tattooed (Hemginson).

During the Holocaust in 1939, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Over 400,000 prisoners were assigned a serial number and branded, or tattooed, with that number (History of Tattooing).

In 1961, New York City banned tattoos and tattoo parlors due to a hepatitis outbreak. This ban wasn’t lifted until 1997. Recently, many towns in New Jersey have removed the bans to avoid legal challenges and have applied rules to regulate tattooing (James).

Starting in the 1990’s, tattoos had started being linked to the American fine art world. The number of academy trained artists entering the tattooing profession seemed to be growing each year, doubling since the 1980’s. Art schools and programs started turning out more trained artists than the mainstream art world could absorb, so many art school graduates migrated towards the tattooing industry (Hemingson).

It is apparent that tattooing has been widely practiced in all parts of the globe, dating back to ancient times. Throughout history, tattooing, as well as other types of body art, has been related to religion, emotions, inner expression, and even punishment. Tattooing has occurred and still occurs in cultures everywhere and is widely popular in todays American society.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 4 January 2017

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