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In 2016 when I had a session with my local tattooist, a thought occurred to me - Here I am, paying this guy to permanently inject a design into my dermis, and I fucking love it.
Why do I, and many others, share such a strong fascination with getting our skin pricked?
I have no idea, however I’m sure any tattoo fanatic can empathize with me when I say it’s almost a primal urge to be under the needle. There’s something about having works of art, either impulsive or meaningful, engraved into your skin. This is what led me to researching the origin of the tattoo lifestyle - Where did it start? Why do some of us have an intense connection to this form of body modification? I wanted to know. Myself and others affectionately call tattoo sessions “Therapy”, and after countless hours’ research- I was very surprised and pleased with the relevance in my findings. Take of this what you may, but I am convinced tattooing is more than just a form of masochism at this point. For some of us it’s very meaningful, and I feel that’s a connection with humankind’s ancient practices. Before we proceed, keep in mind I am no historian. I am a woman who has a deep love and appreciation for art, ancient humanity, and of course - tattoos. What I am sharing is simply my personal findings while on the hunt for more knowledge.
The origin of “tattoo” stems from the Tahitian word “Tatu” which [roughly] means to mark something - not very surprising but still fun nonetheless!
Tattooing has been a part of human culture for millennia, varying in purposes from religion to medicinal. The oldest human skin example of ancient tattoos belongs to Otzi the Iceman, who is approx. 5000 years old. Otzi has roughly 60+ tattoos of the “Soot” Method, tattoos applied using soot from a fire. Soot tattooing now considered the oldest style of tattooing thanks to our inked iceman, and I’m sure this is where “Carbon Black” ink came from. Exact tattooing procedure is unknown, what we do know is this style of tattoo appears to be for medicinal/therapeutic purposes. Otzi’s soot tattoos are in relation to injuries - the goal being to alleviate pain associated with arthritic or acute injuries. Otzi has set the foundation for tattoos I believe- it’s incredible that he’s not only the oldest preserved specimen during the Copper Era, but he also has perfectly preserved tattoos to teach us more about ancient human practices. Moving down the line, we find ourselves looking at ancient Egypt as another good example of how the OG’s did it before our molecules were even considered to exist.
Egypt had many purposes for tattoos. Women commonly showcased tattoos for social rankings, however there are records suggesting (Like Otzi) tattoos were applied for medicinal purposes, and even as a form punishment (Yikes!). Egyptian mummies have been found with tattoos and scarification to treat a multitude of ailments ranging from arthritic pain sites to the areas of the body containing degenerative diseases. Before you start dissing these oldies for using [dirty] tattoos as their Rx, keep in mind that back then medicine was not nearly as advanced as we have it today, Ancient human civilizations attempted anything to treat themselves (I mean, a dude ate moldy bread at one point and now we have amoxicillin... come on). I’ve always wondered if this helped them, though I’m sure placebo comes into effect at some point, it’s incredible to see how these practices carried over the years to modern tattoos. Nowadays, we have medications to treat our illnesses, yet people still turn to tattoos for relief of injuries- physical or emotional. Tattoos covering or decorating mastectomy scars after a woman has beaten breast cancer, to name a perfect modern example. Now, moving down the timeline I found things starting to change in the tattoo world- from medicinal to symbolic. Not by much, but the seed was beginning to sprout. Egypt was one of the first civilizations to use tattoos with meaning in a decorative sense (Again, social status in women, or religious following).
It’s theorized Japan freely practiced tattooing since 10,000 BCE, and the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) was said to be the peak of the Japanese tattoo culture. At this point, Japan was cut off from the outside world and subjected to strict social hierarchy. What does this have to do with tattooing? Well, these social boundaries restricted the practices of art to a select few groups, and even then, they could only illustrate so much without upsetting the balance. Three prominent styles stemmed from this time; Kabuki, Ukiyo-E Woodblock Art, and of course Tattooing. The three styles grew and often blended with one another. For example; Kabuki would showcase heroes dazzled and painted with colorful tattoos of makeup causing Woodblock artists to create portraits of these characters as advertisements, this left the tattooists to articulate the style on their own “canvases” of human skin. Eventually the cycle would repeat itself with Kabuki gaining inspiration from new tattoos. Since everyone was constantly gaining inspiration from each other, you often had development stemming from one-upping. This is good news for art, and ultimately the tattoo styles. With all of Japan’s rich creative history, it’s not surprising that Japanese art still plays a huge role in modern tattoos. You can go to almost any tattoo shop and find an artist who can design that koi piece you’ve been wanting and still maintain that Post-Edo or Kabuki style. Thank the lord!
Now I want to take this chance to mention a personal favorite part of old-world tattoos. The style the public got to get a small taste of in Disney’s latest film, Moana, belonged to the mysterious culture of the mighty Polynesians. Remember when Maui explained how his tattoos were from major life developments? They’re not wrong when it comes to Polynesian culture.
The Polynesian tattoo world began roughly 2,000 years ago, and is considered one of the most detailed styles of the ancient tattoos. Not only do the Polynesians have incredible hair, they have incredible tattoos. These guys were hardcore, receiving tattoos throughout their life until they were covered from, quite literally, head to toe. It was in Tonga and Samoa where the Polynesian tattoos flourished; The tattoos were almost mathematical- Linear and intricate, developing into delicate and complex works of art. In Tongon culture, tattoos held serious social and cultural significance. Warriors were described being decorated from waist to knees with these linear geometric-like patterns. Priests would undergo long periods of training to apply a very strict ritual during the tattooing process. These guys meant business. In ancient Samoa, the tattooists received their right by heritage and was considered a very sacred privilege. These old-world tattoo artists would tattoo anywhere from 6 to 8 young men during a ceremony. Samoan women were inked, though tattoos on women were often limited to linear flower-like designs on the hands and lower body. When the Samoan and Tongan voyageurs settled in the Marquesas, around 200AD, the most refined and complex art and architecture developed from the Polynesians in this established culture. In turn, there was the development of Marquesan tattoos, becoming the most elaborate and detailed of the Polynesian styles, often covering the entire body. In 1,000AD most of the hospitable islands to the east of Samoa had been inhabited by the Polynesian people. At this point in time, each island has developed its own culture, language, lore, and naturally tattoo styles. One European captain, Captain Cook, had written a log of the Polynesian tattooing process in August 1769. It Reads;
"The color they use is lamp black which they prepare from the smoke of a kind of oily nuts used by them instead of candles. This is kept in coconut shells and mixed with water occasionally for use. Their instruments for pricking this under the skin are made of bone and shell, flat, the lower part of this is cut into sharp teeth from 3 to 20 according to the purpose into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood, or serum at least, and the part so marked remains sore for many days before it heals."
I’m sure it sounds familiar, though what’s truly fascinating was their ink. Like soot ink, but a little more reliable I’d imagine. Cook’s crew were one of the first to receive Polynesian tattoos and here is where they set the foundation for the tattoo fad in the British navy. Sailors would come home with their own tattoos from their distant travels, wearing stories of their adventures. At some point, Europeans learned the technique of tattooing from the Polynesian people, practicing on their ships, eventually leading to the first parlors being opened in ports. The Polynesians arguably started the tattoo revolution for the Western & European culture, which is one of the main reasons why I personally adore their tattoos.
So, we have a few noteworthy ancient styles & practices here. Trust me, there’s way more, however I can’t even begin to fit EVERY cultural tattoo developments in a simple blog post. Fear not, because we can cover each one a little more in-depth down the road. Tattooing is an ancient craft, adapted and developed further with time by humanity. For anyone to say it’s culturally unacceptable to have tattoos can, frankly, eat a dick. Tattooing is older than most family tree records, and I firmly believe some of us are still fascinated and drawn to our ancestor’s roots when it comes to inking our bodies.
- C. Dolan