Human beings have been creating visual symbols to communicate since the dawn of civilization. Tattooing has a history extending back to more than 7000 years. The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word ‘tattau’ which means ‘to mark’. Tattoos today are a great fashion statement and everyone from celebrities to commoners seem to be keen to sport a tattoo.
History and origin
Tattooing and piercing were in existence well before the beginning of our recorded history. Fragmentary evidence exists that body modification has existed since 12,000 B.C. The first evidence in recorded history comes from the period of construction of the pyramids of Egypt. From there tattooing and piercing seems to have spread both northwards and eastwards along the trade routes, ultimately arriving in China around 2000 B.C.
Some scientists believe that certain marks on the skin of the Iceman, a mummified human body dating back to 3300 B.C. are tattoos, which could be the earliest evidence of this art. Tattoos found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies date from about 2000 B.C. and classical authors mention the use of tattoos in connection with ancient Greece, Gauls, Thracians and ancient Britons.
Tattooing was re-discovered by Europeans when explorations brought them into contact with Polynesians and American Indians. The word ‘tattoo’ was first mentioned in explorer James Cook’s records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific. Because tattoos were considered so exotic in European and US society, tattooed Indians and Polynesians drew huge crowds at circuses and fairs in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Methods of tattooing
Most likely original tattoos were the result of accidents with sharp pigment loaded items. It is certainly reasonable to believe that early man must have made the original connection between magical or religious beliefs and tattoos, after surviving and recovering from a bad wound that left behind the first tattoo.
An amazing variety of tattooing methods have developed in different cultures. In North and South America many Indian tribes routinely tattooed body or face by simple pricking, and some tribes in California introduced color into scratches.
Many tribes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas , mostly Inuit, and some people of East Siberia made needle punctures through which a thread coated with pigment (usually soot) was drawn underneath the skin. In Polynesia and Micronesia, pigment was pricked into the skin by tapping on a tool shaped like a small rake.
Tattooing in different cultures
The practice of tattooing means different things in different cultures. In early practice decoration appears to be the common motive for tattooing and that still holds good today.
In some cultures tattoos were identification of the wearer’s rank or status in a group, for example early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals. Tahitian tattoos served as rites of passage telling the history of the wearer’s life. Boys reaching manhood received one tattoo to mark the occasion while men had another style when they married.
Each culture seems to have adopted the practice of tattooing of their own, but often with over-lapping cultural, religious, political or social symbols. The Greeks tattooed their own spies and the Dayaks their status as a ‘proven warrior’. Tattooing and piercing developed into a significant part of Mayan, Incan and Aztec religious rituals.
The Maoris of New Zealand developed an intensive and painful method of tattooing – carving the face with a bone chisel and then putting ink into the cuts. The person could not eat solid food for weeks till the scars healed.
The Scandinavians and North Europeans were often tattooed with the family crests till tattooing was banned by the Pope in the 8th century. The English continued the practice until shortly after the Norman Invasion and then tattooing largely disappeared for the next 400 years.
With the expanding country trade and travel of the 1600-1700s, sailors began re-introducing western civilization to tattooing. Sailors traveling to foreign lands began to collect tattoos as souvenirs of their journeys (for example a tattoo of a dragon in China) and tattoo parlors sprang up in port cities around the globe.
World War I and II created a significant upsurge in tattooing of military personnel and travelers.
The introduction of the electric tattoo machine in the late 1800’s made tattooing simple enough for the average person to afford. This unfortunately drove the art into the backstreets and earned the disfavor of many. It damaged the image of the art for some time.
However, today tattoos are the latest fad. Modern tattoo and body piercing artists have rejoined the ranks of ‘fine artistes’ and are most sought after. Tattoos have steadily gained popularity in the last decade – a trend that shows little signs of slowing down.
Everyone from the young to the old are swarming to the tattoo parlors to get some body art done. From hep youngsters to middle-aged sari-clad aunties, the trend is fast catching up. Tattoos often become an addiction with a person. He wants to keep adding tattoos to different parts of the body. The apprehension seems to be for the first tattoo. Once you have gone under the needle for the first time, chances are you will go back again and again.
Tattoos today come in all shapes and sizes and can be done anywhere on the body. While men prefer to have tattoos on their arms or chest, women are going in for body art on the calves and lower back. Broad and bold symbols look good on guy’s chests while rounded or symmetrical figures are preferred for the shoulders and upper back. Tribal art symbols, Sanskrit or Japanese script and Aztec art are very popular among boys while girls prefer flowers, bands of angels, hearts or boyfriend’s names on their bodies.
Permanent cosmetic studios also tattoo eyebrows, eyeliner and lip-liner for those who want permanent make-up.
Today tattoos are created by injecting ink into the skin. Injection is done by a needle attached to a handheld tool. The process moves the skin up and down at a rate of several hundred vibrations per minute and penetrates the skin by about 1 mm.
What we see when we look at a tattoo is the ink that is left in the skin after the tattooing. The ink is not in the epidermis (outermost layer of the skin) but instead intermingles with cells in the dermis (lower layer of the skin) and shows through the epidermis.
Celebrities sporting tattoos
Of late many celebrities have been sporting a variety of tattoos. Madonna used a tattoo in her ‘Frozen’ video. David Beckham’s various tattoos on his arms and upper back are well documented. Angelina Jolie’s shoulders are adorned with Thai script. Colin Farell has tribal art on his right arm. Janet Jackson flaunts a Mickey Mouse tattoo below her G-string. And so on. Many Indian models and film stars also flaunt tattoos from time to time.
Some Do’s and Don’ts
It is important to get a tattoo done from a well-known tattoo artist. Don’t go to the roadside ones (for example those in tourist spots like Goa) who are not only untrained, but may use un-sterilized needles and sub-standard ink which may cause permanent damage to your skin.
Never get a tattoo done from a person who doesn’t have tattoos on his body. Make sure he uses sterilized, disposable needles and the place is hygienic.
While green and black permanent tattoos are the tried and tested traditional options, today the tattoo artiste offers more exciting organic and chemical shades too. Aqua and neon green are very much in vogue in tattoo designs today.
Also, choose a tattoo which goes with your figure and personality. For example a small built person should not go in for large tattoo designs – delicate ones will suit him better. Also be careful about tattooing names or symbols (e.g. dragons) which may become outdated. Many girls who had got their boyfriend’s names tattooed on their body regretted it later if they broke up with him.
- You may get an infection if un-sterilized equipment is used.
- Tattooing is more or less permanent. It is very painful and expensive to have it removed.
- Some people are allergic to the ink of tattoos and their skin becomes red or breaks out in rashes.
- Some people get granulomes – nodules that may form around material that the body perceives as foreign (e.g. particles of tattoo pigment).
- Keloid formation on the sensitive skin is another risk of tattooing.
- Recently it was reported that some people with tattoos experienced swelling or burning in the affected areas when they underwent MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) at a later date.
- You may be dissatisfied with the tattoo once you get it done and it leaves you depressed as you can’t do much about it.
However, all these notwithstanding, tattooing and body piercing are the latest fads today and is a trend that has come to stay. The practice of tattooing has its origin in Indian legends and myths. Originally henna was used for body art and was later replaced by indelible ink.
The emergence of specific symbols representing sounds, letters or words in a spoken language occurred relatively recently and fundamentally changed human society. Tattoos are a reflection of society and the times people live through. The tattoos of today are more of an ‘anything goes’ style that is original and at the same time reflects a traditionalist characteristic that is intertwined with the past.
The Internet is full of a wide range of tattoo designs to suit all tastes. Thus tattoos today are a great way to express your creative streak and get noticed too.