A Brief History of Tattoos


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The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian "tatu" which means "to mark something."

It is arguably claimed that tattooing has existed since 12,000 years BC. The purpose of tattooing has varies from culture to culture and its place on the time line. But there are commonalties that prevail form the earliest known tattoos to those being done on college students on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley.

Tattoos have always had an important role in ritual and tradition. In Borneo, women 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. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. Throughout history tattoos have signified membership in a clan or society. Even today groups like the Hells Angels tattoo their particular group symbol. TV and movies have used the idea of a tattoo indication membership in a secret society numerous times. It has been believed that the wearer of an image calls the spirit of that image. The ferocity of a tiger would belong to the tattooed person. That tradition holds true today shown by the proliferation of images of tigers, snakes, and bird of prey.

In recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids (It undoubtedly started much earlier). When the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread as well. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia picked up and expanded the art form. Around 2000 BC tattooing spread to China.

The Greeks used tattooing for communication among spies. Markings identified the spies and showed their rank. Romans marked criminals and slaves. This practice is still carried on today. The Ainu people of western Asia used tattooing to show social status. Girls coming of age were marked to announce their place in society, as were the married women. The Ainu are noted for introducing tattoos to Japan where it developed into a religious and ceremonial rite. In Borneo, women were the tattooists. It was a cultural tradition. They produced designs indicating the owners station in life and the tribe he belonged to. Kayan women had delicate arm tattoos which looked like lacy gloves. Dayak warriors who had "taken a head" had tattoos on their hands. The tattoos garnered respect and assured the owners 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. There is evidence that the Mayan, Incas, and Aztecs used tattooing in the rituals. Even the isolated tribes in Alaska practiced tattooing, their style indicating it was learned from the Ainu.

In the west, early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies. The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests (a tradition still practiced today). In 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattooing. It still thrived in Britain until the Norman Invasion of 1066. The Normans disdained tattooing. It disappeared from Western culture from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

While tattooing diminished in the west, it thrived in Japan. At first, tattoos were used to mark criminals. First offenses were marked with a line across the forehead. A second crime was marked by adding an arch. A third offense was marked by another line. Together these marks formed the Japanese character for "dog". It appears this was the original "Three strikes your out" law. In time, the Japanese escalated the tattoo to an aesthetic art form. The Japanese body suit originated around 1700 as a reaction to strict laws concerning conspicuous consumption. Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate clothing. As a result of this, the middle class adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. A highly tattooed person wearing only a loin cloth was considered well dressed, but only in the privacy of their own home.

William Dampher is responsible for re-introducing tattooing to the west. He was a sailor and explorer who traveled the South Seas. In 1691 he brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo, Known as the Painted Prince. He was put on exhibition , a money making attraction, and became the rage of London. It had been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe and it would be another 100 years before tattooing would make it mark in the West.

In the late 1700s, Captain Cook made several trips to the South Pacific. The people of London welcomed his stories and were anxious to see the art and artifacts he brought back. Returning form one of this trips, he brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Omai. He was a sensation in London. Soon, the upper- class were getting small tattoos in discreet places. For a short time tattooing became a fad.

What kept tattooing from becoming more widespread was its slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture of the skin was done by hand the ink was applied. In 1891, Samuel O'Rtiely patented the first electric tattooing machine. It was based on Edison's electric pen which punctured paper with a needle point. The basic design with moving coils, a tube and a needle bar, are the components of today's tattoo gun. The electric tattoo machine allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced, and readily available tattoo. As the average person could easily get a tattoo, the upper classes turned away from it.

By the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of town. Heavily tattooed people traveled with circuses and "freak Shows." Betty Brodbent traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus in the 1930s and was a star attraction for years.

The cultural view of tattooing was so poor for most of the century that tattooing went underground. Few were accepted into the secret society of artists and there were no schools to study the craft. There were no magazines or associations. Tattoo suppliers rarely advertised their products. One had to learn through the scuttlebutt where to go and who to see for quality tattoos.

The birthplace of the American style tattoo was Chatham Square in New York City. At the turn of the century it was a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. Samuel O'Riely cam from Boston and set up shop there. He took on an apprentice named Charlie Wagner. After O'Reily's death in 1908, Wagner opened a supply business with Lew Alberts. Alberts had trained as a wallpaper designer and he transferred those skills to the design of tattoos. He is noted for redesigning a large portion of early tattoo flash art.

While tattooing was declining in popularity across the country, in Chatham Square in flourished. Husbands tattooed their wives with examples of their best work. They played the role of walking advertisements for their husbands' work. At this time, cosmetic tattooing became popular, blush for cheeks, coloured lips, and eyeliner. With world war I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons.

In the 1920s, with prohibition and then the depression, Chathma Square lost its appeal. The center for tattoo art moved to Coney Island. Across the country, tattooists opened shops in areas that would support them, namely cities with military bases close by, particularly naval bases. Tattoos were know as travel markers. You could tell where a person had been by their tattoos.

After world war II, tattoos became further denigrated by their associations with Marlon Brando type bikers and Juvenile delinquents. Tattooing had little respect in American culture. Then, in 1961 there was an outbreak of hepatitis and tattooing was sent reeling on its heels.

Though most tattoo shops had sterilization machines, few used them. Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and other diseases. The general population held tattoo parlors in disrepute. At first, the New York City government gave the tattoos an opportunity to form an association and self- regulate, but tattooists are independent and they were not able to organize themselves. A health code violation went into effect and the tattoo shops at Times Square and Coney Island were shut down. For a time, it was difficult to get a tattoo in New York. It was illegal and tattoos had a terrible reputation. Few people wanted a tattoo. The better shops moved to Philadelphia and New Jersey where it was still legal.

In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much credit can be given to Lyle Tuttle. He is a handsome, charming, interesting and knows how to use the media. He tattooed celebrities, particularly women. Magazines and television went to Lyle to get information about this ancient art form.

Toady, tattooing is making a strong comeback. It is more popular and accepted than it has ever been. All classes of people seek the best tattoo artists. This rise in popularity has placed tattoists in the category of "fine artist". The tattooist has garnered a respect not seen for over 100 years. Current artists combine the tr5adition of tattooing with their personal style creating unique and phenomenal body art. With the addition of new inks, tattooing has certainly reached a new plateau.


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