Skin Art: A History of Tattoos

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Tattoos are a permanent mark or design made on the skin by a process of ingraining and pricking an indelible pigment into the punctures or by raising scars. This body art comes in many shapes, sizes, colors, designs, and styles. Whether flaunted or hidden, sought as art or bought out of a whim, the tattoo has left its mark on generation after generation (Krakow). The purpose of tattooing varies from culture to culture, person to person, and its place on the time line. The essay will examine the following eras: BC and tribal, 20th century, and modern. It is noted that tattooing (a Tahitian word meaning “to mark something”) has existed since 12,000 years BC. As noted in “A Brief History of Tattoos,” women in Borneo tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. In tribes, tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness and bad spirits. In recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the erection of the great pyramids. As the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread along with it. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia Fetzer 2 picked up and expanded the art form (“A Brief History of Tattoos). The Greeks used tattooing for communication among spies by identifying them and showing their rank. Romans marked criminals and slaves, a practice still carried on today. Around 2000 BC tattooing spread to China. Historic Asian culture believed that the wearer of an image calls the spirit of that image. For example, the ferocity of a tiger would belong to the tattooed person. The Ainu are noted for introducing tattoos to Japan where it developed into a religious and ceremonial rite. Dayak warriors who had "taken a head" had tattoos on their hands (“A Brief History of Tattoos”). The tattoos garnered respect and solidified the owner’s status for life. Polynesians developed tattoos to mark tribal communities, families, and rank. They brought their art to New Zealand and developed a facial style of tattooing called Moko which is still being used today (“A Brief History of Tattoos”). There is evidence that the Mayan, Incas, and Aztecs used tattooing in rituals as well as the isolated tribes of Alaska. In the West, early Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests (a tradition still practiced today). In 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattooing, yet it still thrived in Britain until the Norman Invasion of 1066 when the Normans disdained tattooing. As a result tattooing disappeared from Western culture from the 12th to the 16th centuries. While tattooing diminished in the West, it thrived in Japan. Originally, it was used as a means of identifying criminals. First offenses were marked with a line across the forehead, a second crime was marked by adding an arch, and a third offense was marked by another line. Together these marks formed the Japanese character for "dog". Anthropologists argue that this was the original "three strikes you’re out" law. In time, Fetzer 3 the Japanese escalated the tattoo to an aesthetic art form. The “body suit” originated around 1700 as a social reaction against strict laws concerning conspicuous consumption. Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate attire. As a result of this, the middle class adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. A fully tattooed person wearing nothing more than a loin cloth was considered “well dressed.” In 1691, William Dampher re-introduced tattooing to the West when he brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian known as the Painted Prince. He was put on a money-making exhibition and became the rage of London. It had been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe. Soon, the upper-class were getting small tattoos in discreet places. For a short time, tattooing became a sensational...
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