Tattoos have been about for an age. Various archeological discoveries have shown many different statues or figurines, paintings, etchings and even vases and plates to have bodies depicted with markings that probably represent tattoos. Scientific types also have discovered instruments that were probably used for tattooing during the Upper Paleolithic Time (10,000 BC - 38,000 BC). These instruments consist of sharp bone needles and disks made of clay and red ochre, but to honest that sounds pish to me..... I'm looking for actual evidence of tattooing, rather than scientific estimates and guesses!
Back in October of 1991, the preserved body of a Bronze Age man was found frozen on a mountain somewhere between Italy and Austria. Five thousand years ago. (Give or take) he had been out hunting and was caught in a snowstorm. We know this as he was found with a bow and arrows, a bronze axe and a flint for making fire...cool, eh? On his skin there are several basic tattoos: numerous groups of parallel lines on his ankles, six straight lines about 15cms long above the kidneys and a cross on the inside of his left knee. The positioning of these tattoos suggests that they were for therapeutic reasons, as they are located on main acupuncture and pressure point areas.
In fact, tattooing for therapeutic reasons can be linked to various Arctic tribes, as well as other early tattoo cultures around the world, but it's not that interesting.
Tattooing first came to public knowledge in the western world in the 1600's when sailors returned home from their travels (mainly the southern Pacific area) with tattoos. In some cases, heavily tattooed Pacific islanders were brought back to the west. Many islands in the southern Pacific area had, and still have, their own style of tribal tattoos. The best known of these islands are Borneo, Papa New Guinea, Japan, New Zealand (Maori), Tahiti and Hawaii. Although the techniques and styles vary, the basic principals are common: sharpened pieces of bone, flint or thorns are used to pierce the skin, and push in inks made from charcoal mixed with coconut milk (or other fluids) into the skin.
In some cases, such as with native American tribes, the fresh holes are rubbed with charcoal in place of an ink residue. When the western sailors returned home, some had learned the art of tattooing, and by the mid 18th century most British ports had at least one tattoo studio. At this time, the tattoos were still done by hand (i.e. without the use of machines). It was Samuel O'Reilly, a famous New York tattooer, who invented and patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1890.
Samuel shared his machine design with his cousin Tom Riley, who was already an established tattooer in London. Tom's main rival was a guy called Sutherland MacDonald, who was the first to use the term "tattooist" rather than "tattooer" for the reason that "\i the 'ist' sounded like 'artist' whereas 'er' sounded like 'plumber' \i0 "...Ooooo!
From there, George Burchett in the UK and Charles Wagner in the USA took tattooing to the next level, before the likes of 'Sailor' Jerry Collins, Terry Wrigley, Ed Hardy and later Henk Schiffmacher(Hanky Panky), Felix Leu (father of Filipe Leu)and many others further raised the bar and established their own tattoo studios which are still world famous today.
To return to the more traditional forms of tattooing, (i.e. where tattoos have been involved in the every day life of the people for centuries,) there were many different reasons for getting a tattoo; therapeutic, spiritual, rites of passage and in the case of many Maori tattoos, the telling of the wearer's life story and their family history. Different tattoos on different parts of the body have different names, and can mean different things. One example of Tattoos as a rite of passage can be found in Papa New Guinea. In certain tribes, when a girl reaches womanhood, she is expected to sit for 6 hours a day, every day for 3 weeks to get a facial tattoo. (Ouch! Bet that stings like a bitch after the first couple of days!) The tattoo is done with a thorn from a fruit tree, and an ink residue made from charcoal and coconut milk. Tribes in Borneo also use tattoos as a rite of passage, with young men having to endure the process silently, or bring shame on their family.
In Japan, however, tattoos have always been associated with criminals, dating back hundreds of years to simple tattoos in punishment for crimes, to the beautiful body suits of the Yakuza today. These body suits are also part of a rite of passage, but not into adulthood like the previous examples, but as entry to the criminal organisation.
As well as the Pacific islands mentioned above, tattooing can be traced back many hundreds of years in other parts of the world; some native American tribes used tattoos for religious or magical practices, as well as symbolic rites of passage and also spiritually, as marks that would help the spirit to overcome obstacles on it's journey after death. In South America, many cultures used tattoos to depict images of their gods and idols on their skin, the Aztecs and Mayans in particular, although they suffered badly for it, as the Spanish Conquistadors mistook this as work of the devil and punished the natives severely.
In Asia too, many examples of tattooing can be found, especially in the Middle East, and Jerusalem in particular. Tattooed mummies have been found in various parts of the world, in Egypt, as well as Libya, Peru, China and Russia.
From the time of George Burchett and Charles Wagner, tattoos were generally associated with sailors (for obvious reasons), criminals and ladies of the night! Since that time, tattoos have become more popular, especially in the last 10 years, and social attitudes have changed accordingly.
However, some people are still stuck in the past with their narrow minded attitudes and unmoving opinions, for which we should regard them with not with hate, but with sorrow, sadness and above all, pity! Everybody is entitled to their own opinions of course, but at the same time, the old classic 'Tattoo Parlor' sign probably says it best: "The only difference between tattooed and non-tattooed
people is that tattooed people don't care if you haven’t got a tattoo!"
The art of tattoo has grown immensely over the years, from the hand tapped tattoos of Japan, the Americas and the Pacific islands, to the ports of the west and the emergence of Samuel Riley's revolutionary electric machine, to the first generation of 'big name' tattooists emerging in the 1950's and onwards, to the astounding levels reached today by artists such as Filipe Leu, Guy Aitchison, Tom Renshaw, Manu, Kat Von D, Paul Booth, Brandon Bond, Hannah Aitchison and Chris Garver to name but a few. It's cool to see the way tattooing has developed in recent years, and it's exciting (and challenging) to look forward to the next 20, 30 years and where we're headed, so help keep the ball rolling and get a tattoo!