Captain Cook is considered to be the Western man who discovered tattoos when he encountered them during his adventures in the South Pacific in 1769, but the art dates back to ancient cultures all over the world. In fact, scientists believe that markings on the Iceman, a mummified body thought to be from 3300 B.C., are tattoos. These markings are currently the oldest evidence of tattooing in the world. Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating back to around 2000 B.C. Classic texts indicate that tattooing was a common practice among the ancient Greeks, Germans, Gauls and Britons.The Iceman was discovered in 1992 at the border of Austria and Italy. He is believed to have lived somewhere around 3300 B.C., which makes him over 5000 years old. He was found frozen under ice. Because he was frozen, he is extraordinarily well preserved. Archaeologists count 58 tattoos on his body. These tattoos are simple lines and dots. Researchers consider the Iceman to have been an average man and conclude that tattooing was a normal cultural practice when he was alive.
The oldest known picture tattoos were found in Siberia. A line of frozen graves were discovered in the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia just after World War II. While excavating a well preserved grave of a chieftain, archaeologists found his body covered in tattoos of different animals.
Hawaiians, Tahitians and Polynesians regularly practiced the art of tattooing. These are the tattoos Captain Cook discovered during his travels. Though Captain Cook thought he discovered something new, the art of tattoo had been practiced for thousands of years.
The word tattoo originates from the Tahitian word tatau, which means “to mark.”
Methods of Tattooing
Just as they do today, methods of tattooing varied among cultures and tribes of the ancient world. Pricking the skin with a sharp needle was the typical practice of tattooing among the tribes of North and South America. The people of Polynesia and Micronesia inserted pigment into the skin by tapping a tool that resembled a small rake. In Hawaii, tattoo artists used the razor sharp edge of a shell attached to the end of a stick. In Nubia, designs were tattooed on flesh using a fish bone set into a wooden handle.
Reasons for Tattooing
The reasons for getting a tattoo in ancient times vary just as much as they do today. The tattoos on the Iceman are believed to be for therapeutic reasons. According to researchers, the tattoos found on his body correlate directly to areas where he experienced repeated muscle strain. Egyptians also used tattooing for therapeutic purposes. Several female mummies have been found with markings that indicate they were tattooed during pregnancy to alleviate pain. Egyptians also tattooed women during religious rituals.
For many tribes, tattoos were used to represent status. People in the upper class had more tattoos than those in the lower class. In general, the intricacy of the tattoos indicated a higher social status as well.
Some tribal members, like the chieftain uncovered in Siberia, wore tattoos of their totem animal for luck or protection. A totem animal is believed to assist or watch over a group of people. Some tribes believe that their totem animal has magical powers.
Ancient Greek and Roman women believed tattoos to be exotic beauty marks. They wore them as women today wear makeup. In contrast, ancient Greeks and Romans also tattooed criminals, gladiators and slaves as a mark of lower class or punishment.
Polynesian tattoos are considered the most detailed and skillful in the ancient world. In general, Polynesians tattooed themselves to display the strength of their mana which means “life force.”
Hawaiian tattoos were known as kakaus which means “ornamentations.” Hawaiians tattooed to note distinction in rank and war. They also tattooed to guard health and spiritual well-being. Hawaiians sometimes used totem animals in their designs. When in mourning, Hawaiians tattooed three dots on their tongue.
In Tahiti, tattoos were used to mark a girl who has reached sexual maturity. At the appropriate age, the girl’s behind was tattooed black. Tahitians also used tattoos to mark status and tribal affiliation.
The Maori people of New Zealand were well known for their unique style of tattooing. They tattooed skin in the same way they carved wood. Their method was to slice small rivers in the skin. These tattoos were often on the face and told stories of status, ancestry and tribal affiliation. Warriors were also tattooed to tell the tales of their exploits in war.
In ancient Thailand, monks were the only tattoo artists. They incorporated magic powers into the designs they tattooed. Monks in Thailand were not allowed to touch women so they only tattooed men. During ancient times, Thais also believed that women had enough strength on their own and did not need the magical powers of the tattoo.
Native Americans tattooed for various reasons according to tribe. For some, the tattoo represented status and successes in battle. In other tribes, tattoos represented animal totems. In most tribes, women showed their marital status with a tattoo on the chin.
During the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, warriors tattooed the Jerusalem cross on their bodies so they would be given a Christian burial if they died in combat.
Japan has a very interesting history in the art of tattoo. Upper class people in Japan wore intricately decorated kimonos, but lower class people were not permitted to wear decorative kimonos. In response, lower class people rebelled by tattooing colorful body suits on themselves. These people hid their tattoos beneath their clothes during the day.
Bringing the Tattoo to the Masses
Initially, Western folk considered tattoos to be scary and repulsive. Much of Christian culture viewed tattoos as a defiling of the body. In fact, American Indians and Polynesians made money showing their “horrifying” tattoos at circuses and fairs during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1846, this attitude began to change. In this year, the first permanent tattoo shop was set up in New York City. This tattoo shop was frequented by military servicemen. Martin Hildebrandt began the shop and also started the tradition of the tattoo among military personnel. In the 1890s, his daughter, Nora, became famous when she toured with the Barnum and Bailey Circus as the Tattooed Lady.
Japan banned tattoos in 1870. Japanese men and women responded by taking the art of tattoo underground. People tattooed themselves to display their inner longings and impulses. These tattoos were usually colorful and vibrant. This style of bright and bold tattoos lives on in Japanese culture today.
In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattooing machine. After this invention, the art of tattooing became more efficient and detailed. Due to this invention, the popularity of tattoos grew. The design of O’Reilly’s tattoo machine was so excellent that tattoo machines are still based on it today.
By the end of the 1920s, circuses employed more than 300 people with full-body tattoos. These tattooed men and women were mostly white, American Indian and Polynesian. They could earn up to $200 per week. This amount was a fortune at that time.
After the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped in 1932, many parents had their children tattooed with their family name. Around this time, women also became interested in using tattoos as permanent makeup. In 1936, social security cards were issued in the United States. Many people had their social security numbers tattooed on their arm.
In the 1960s, there was a decline in the popularity of tattooing due to an outbreak of Hepatitis B. In 1961, New York City banned tattooing, fearing an epidemic. The ban remained in effect until 1997.
The Art of Tattoo in Today’s World
Today tattoos serve as many purposes as they did in ancient times. Military men, gang members and sorority girls are just some of the people who get a tattoo to show affiliation with their tribe. Tattoos are used to memorialize a loved one or to show grief. Competitive athletes use tattoos to commemorate a victory in battle by tattooing their best marathon time, fastest pitch or longest winning streak on their bodies. Women and men use tattoos to decorate an area of their body they either love or hate. People get tattoos of their personal symbols of strength and power. Prisoner use tattoos to tell the story of the crimes they have committed.
Today, tattoos are popular among all classes of people. Famous actors, athletes and models regularly strut their ink. High school graduates flock to tattoo parlors and view getting their first tattoo as a rite of passage. Grandfathers and grandmothers see no shame in getting a tattoo. Newlyweds tattoo wedding bands instead of buying rings.
The styles of tattoos available have never been more varied. Some tattoo artists specialize in recreating the indigenous tattoos of the ancient world while other artists are creating new, innovative ways to ink.