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Tattooing as body art

A look at tattooing throughout the ages

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky July 2 2007

woman with tattoo on back

Tattooing has been practised historically in a great variety of cultures throughout history, for a great variety of reasons. Tattoos have often been more than mere marks, pictures, symbols or color forms applied to the skin. In some cultures, they were symbols that marked a right of passage; in others they were marks of status or rank. Elsewhere they have been used as decorations to mark bravery, pledges of love, or fertility as well as sexual lures, as amulets, and as talismans. For modern western adolescents, tattoos have been a way of rebelling against authoritarian rules or for gaining acceptance within social groups.

Tattoos have also been used for more sinister purposes, such as identifying the wearer as property in one form or another. For example, Jews were tattooed with numbers during the Holocaust; African-American slaves were sometimes tattooed to identify their owner; convicts have often received tattooed numbers. At other times and places tattoos have served a medical purpose, disguising scars or other skin related problems. They are even used as a means to apply permanent cosmetics to the eyes or lips.

The methods of applying tattoos have also varied greatly, from the simple rubbing of cuts and other wounds with ashes, to painting designs directly onto the outer skin of the body, to hand-pricking the skin to insert dyes and other pigments into the lower dermis.

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The earliest recorded tattoos were found in ancient Egypt, though many believe the practice existed long before that. Egyptians considered tattoos erotic and it was common to find them on the breasts, torsos, arms, legs, and thighs of prostitutes, dancers, and musicians. They were also used, in a different format, to mark servants and slaves. Henna was widely used as the tattooing medium. Some tattoos were literally body art that was made to be washed off, while others were more permanent in nature.

Tattooing was later found in China and then in Greece and Japan, but with widely different cultural attitudes. Chinese mystics believed that tattoos helped to ward off sickness and disease. Greeks, on the other hand, used them as a method of communication between spies. The Japanese often used them for religious ceremonies and were the first to heavily use facial tattoos. The popular practice continued to spread too many other countries and cultures including Polynesia, the Phillippines, Africa, and South America. In ancient times the tattooing process was hardly perfect; improper tattoo application often resulted in serious skin infections, some of which even led to death.

It was thought that many of the early Kings of England were tattooed, but the first one that can actually be verified was King Harold II (1022-1066). History claims that his sister Edith was able to locate his mutilated body on the battle field only by his tattoos which features the worlds “Edith” and “England.” When the church banned tattooing, it almost died out altogether in England. It wasn’t revived again until the 1600’s by Sir Joseph Banks. Even then, the practice remained somewhat scarce until much later in English history. For many years, tattoos in western society were connected primarily with the military and more unsavory components of the population such as criminals, gang members and sideshow artists.

The first tattoo parlor in the United States opened in New York City in the early 1960’s. The electric tattoo gun, based on Thomas Edison’s electric pin, operated on skin much in the same manner that the pin did on paper; puncturing the outer layer and inserting ink. This new tool revolutionized the industry, allowing artists to do tattoos quickly and at a much more reasonable price. By the late 60’s, this body art form was extremely popular and it continues to grow in popularity today.

Tattoos today are as diverse as the individuals wearing them. And since they are now so mainstream in the west, their previous status as markers of adolescent defiance is withering. It remains to be seen what their soaring popularity will do their status in future.

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Posted on 10/07/07 20:09 by: Sophie

Hi Charlie,

I like the history you gave of tattoos and the way you brought it up to date.



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