Title: A Brief History of Tattoo
Type: Research Paper
The art of tattooing has been around for many thousands of years. The styles and reasons for getting tattoos vary from person to person. Some people get tattoos for simple decoration, others for religious beliefs, and others for personal reasons only they can understand. Tattooing will most likely exist in one form or another for centuries to come. Although the basic concept of tattooing (inserting some type of pigment into the skin) has been a constant throughout the history of humanity, the styles have evolved along with the techniques.
Four thousand years ago, a man wearing a leather waistcoat and boots met his final fate. He was frozen in a block of ice. Four thousand years later, when his well-preserved body was uncovered, it was still covered with swirling images of animals and mythical creatures that had been tattooed into his skin.
These images were crude by today’s standards. After all, they were probably done with fine bone needles and pigments of carbon black or roasted nutshells. Done in this manner, it must have taken hours to create even a small design. Imagine taking a thorn bone, dipping it into your pigment of choice, and then piercing the top few layers of skin. Each prick leaves only a point of color. Also, the chance for infection must have been great. Who knew about sterile conditions 4000 years ago? (Arcadia, 109)
The oldest tattooed person on record is the Lady Amunet, who was a priestess of the Goddess Hathor. She lived in Thebes around 2160 B.C. Her tattoos consisted of curving blue lines and dots scattered across most of her body. Historians don’t know if there were specific reasons or meanings associated with the marks themselves or their placement.
Eventually, Egyptian tattooing began to move beyond simple abstract symbols and into more representational art. The only specific design found was that of the God Bes. Bes protected the home, everything in it, and also women who were giving birth. This tattoo, done as a simple outline, has been found on the thighs of dancers’ mummified bodies. (Arcadia, 109)
Jumping ahead quite a few years to the Age of Discovery, we come to the origins of modern tribal tattoos, a style that is very popular today but is actually evocative of Amunet’s lines and dots. Samoan men wear what is called a Pe’a. It is a series of lines starting at the kidneys and continuing down to the knees. Women wore a Malu, which covered them from thigh to knee. The tools used during this time were shark’s teeth or boar tusks.
They called these tools an “Au”. The other tool required was a mallet, called a “Lapalapa”. The tegument would be stretched tight, and the “Au” and “Lapalapa” would be applied. In the same general country, the Polynesians used a tool called a “Ta”. It was a bone with jagged edges. This is where the modern word for tattoo started. It was “Tatu”, and in Polynesian, it means to strike (Arcadia, 110).
When we examine even early Japanese tattoos, we instantly see how the tools used have a direct consequence on the manner of the tattoo. The Japanese used fine needles attached to bamboo handles. Here we see some of the best work for its time. It was also one of the least painful tattoo experiences, and remains so to this day.
This was also a contributing factor to the amount of coverage that was possible. Full and elaborate body suits were the style. The only parts not tattooed were the face, hands, and the 3-4 inch seam that ran from the neck to below the navel. The imagery was mostly taken from the classic literature at the time.
These suits would consist of stories of conflict and courage. Sword-wielding samurai doing battle with mythical dragons would adorn many men in one form or another. Unfortunately for the image of tattooed people for years to come, these men were mostly members of the Yakuza, or Japanese Mafia. As tattoos were illegal at the time, this became a badge of membership, although it was also popular with upper-class men as well (Delio, 77).
Even in the 1860s in America, the art of tattooing was still somewhat primitive. Blocks of wood shaped into the outline of the tattoo were lined with sharp points of metal and dipped into the ink. These shaped blocks would then be hammered into the skin in one shot. Here you have an instant tattoo.
However, the quality and style were severely limited, as were the number of people interested in obtaining such a piece of body adornment (Delio, 77). Only 30 years later, in 1890, Samuel O’Reilly, seeing a blueprint for Thomas Edison’s electric engraving pen, modified it, making the first electric tattoo machine. The principle is still the same basic design for today’s modern tattoo guns. A needle on the end of an arm would be pulled down by a magnetic coil.
When the arm descended fully, the connection to the current would be broken, and the arm would return to the uppermost position. Here, the magnet would reassert itself, pulling the arm down again. Now, you could pump ink into the skin in a continuous manner. This was the beginning of modern tattooing. (Delio, 78)
The Tattoo Renaissance began circa 1960. At this time, less than 500 tattoo artists were practicing in the U.S. These were mainly near military bases and amusement parks. With improved tools and techniques, it was no longer a struggle to get the ink into the skin. Now, the artist became more concerned with mathematical principles of balance, harmony, and perspective. Also, just around this time, collectors and artists began to throw off the idea that they were criminals or mentally disturbed individuals. (Delio, 78)
Today, with modern techniques and attitudes, tattooing is more accessible and acceptable than ever before. The only limit on this art now seems to be our own imaginations. Brightly colored or black and gray inks hold their shape and shade better than ever before.
As the styles become more diversified, more people, young and old, are able to find something in tattooing that appeals to their own sensibilities. As we see in today’s popular culture, tattooing is the thing to do. For those who say it’s a fad, they may be right. However, it’s a fad with highs and lows that have stretched from before the beginning of man’s history to the limits of his imagination.