Just like in my previous post, the title of this article is slightly misleading. Personally, when I hear “The History Channel,” I immediately think of ancient aliens building pyramids, crystal skulls made via old, forgotten technologies, and a man with wild black hair whose name I’m not sure of but always seems to be completely mesmerized by what he’s saying. When I think about it, I don’t actually get why it’s still called “The History Channel.” There’s really not that much history on it nowadays.
The only similarity between my write-up and “The History Channel” is the fact I’m about to tell a tremendously long story that leaves out almost all of the actual story so that I can fit it in a readable format.
Well, after that incredibly pointless intro, it’s time to get into the topic of today’s post: the history of tattoos.
In my opinion, every tattoo artist should have some knowledge of this topic, an example being studying “The history of arts” when you’re in art school. As such, it’s essential for tattoo artists to know the history of the art they practice.
For all you non-tattoo artist readers, I hope you find my write-up about this barbaric, pagan satanic ritual (or beautiful way of expressing yourself, depending on your political, religious, and world views) interesting.
Starting out with the roots of the word tattoo, its origin most likely comes from the Tahitian word “tatau,” which means “drawings on skin.”
The history of tattoos is quite rich and interesting, as its one of the oldest art forms known to man. The oldest tattoo ever found is inked on a mummy that dates back 5 200 years.
If a way to preserve skin in fossils existed, I assume that timeframe would stretch way back in time, considering that archeologists have found tools that were most likely used for tattooing over 10 000 years ago.
Almost all ancient civilizations had tattoos as part of their culture in one way or another (by the way, if you haven’t read my previous post, you might find it interesting – it’s all about geometric tattoos and the oldest tattoos ever found being in a geometry-inspired style).
Tattoos have shown up in many ancient civilizations that were independent of one another, often without them being aware of the other civilizations’ existence.
Here are some of the nations that were known to have partaken in tattooing:
Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Chinese, Celtics, Vikings, The Inca Empire, Proto-Bulgarians, North American native tribes, Polynesian tribes, Ancient Japanese, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Babylonians, many American tribes, Arabs and Ancient Romans (who tattooed their slaves to separate them from locals), and many other nations on every continent with animals different than penguins.
However, after the spread of Judaism and later Christianity, the art of tattooing began being looked upon as a pagan ritual and was no longer widely accepted by the masses. Which is funny, considering the fact Crusaders often had a cross tattoo on their chest so they could be identified and buried as Christians, in case they fell in battle trying to “spread the word of God.”
Meanwhile, tattoos were also commonly used in the East, although just like in the Roman empire and Ancient Greece, the Japanese used them to mark criminals.
The art of tattooing was especially developed on the Polynesian islands, where it was tattooing was an inseparable part of the ritual in which boys became men. Commonly known as Maori tattoos (named after the Maori tribe), or even more commonly known as “The Rock’s” tattoos, this type of ink is done in a series of geometric patterns arranged in lines, which the tribes believe give them special powers and qualities.
Judging by how tough and resilient their warriors were, it’s hard to argue against this belief, especially for someone fighting them. This belief is also one of the main reasons which helped the spreading of tattoos back to the Christian-ruled West.
Let’s go back in time. The year is 1769, and the British Empire is doing its best to colonize everything that isn’t already considered European territory. When the British ships reached the Polynesian islands, the European soldiers were incredibly impressed by the seemingly unhuman power and resilience the Maori warriors showed.
The British army had tremendous technological advantages (guns, armor, etc.), but the Maoris proved nearly impossible to colonize. It took more time for the British army to colonize that small handful of islands located near Australia than the remainder of the colonized territories put together.
After 30 years of fighting, the British finally managed to gain control over yet another part of the world. What the Maori tribe did manage to do, however, was persuade the British sailors that the powers their tattoos brought were very much real. The British soldiers were so impressed by these seemingly immortal “savages” (according to them) that they also began tattooing themselves on board their ships.
Little by little, the art of tattooing made its way back to European land, where tattoos were once again not taken well by most of the modern Christian society and the Church, which was one of the most powerful institutions on the planet. The reality was quite different behind closed doors, though. Many members of Britain’s aristocracy had tattoos, with there even being rumors that Queen Victoria herself had a tattoo of a snake battling a tiger. Tattoos were even more popular among sailors, who used them to highlight special milestones.
Later on, when tattooing was banned in Japan, ex-prisoners began tattooing their bodies with designs inspired by classic Japanese fine art.
Another much darker chapter of the history of tattoos was written in Auschwitz, during World War II, where prisoners were tattooed with numbers as a way to dehumanize them and tell them from one another.
Tattooing has been an irrevocable part of the way people express themselves since before large civilizations existed. This post is a very short summary of the ancient history of tattoos. In my next one, I plan on focusing on the modern history of tattooing and how tattoos became so popular in the 20th century that you didn’t need to be a sailor with a ridiculously high chance of catching scurvy so you could get tattooed.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading (and maybe learning) something new about the ancient and mystical art of tattooing.