The Tattoo: Inked Artistry

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We humans have adorned our bodies for thousands of years, and the permanent record of the tattoo, whether elaborate, plain or culturally dictated, is always a personal one.

The earliest archaeological records of tattoos were Egyptian, found on several female mummies dating to 2000 BCE. Yet the discovery of the frozen “Iceman” in 1991 pushed back the dating of tattoo culture to around 5200 BCE. The tattooed areas of his body, on X-ray examination, revealed bone degeneration; archaeologists speculate that his markings, made by charcoal rubbed into small cuts, may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and had a therapeutic purpose. The ancient Romans banned tattoos, except as brands for criminals and the condemned, believing in the purity of the human body. Yet over time, battling fierce Britons who wore their body markings as badges of honor, the Romans began to respect their opponents and adopt the practice.

“For thousands of years, indigenous peoples around the world marked their bodies with skin-stitched tattoos. This painful form of body art was not just the latest fashion; it was a visual language that exposed an individual’s desires and fears as well as ancient cultural values and ancestral ties that were written on the body,” notes Lars Krutak, a chronicler of the history and art of tattoo culture. Many patterns were believed to have had magical power and purpose, to induce fertility, or to offer protection from unseen illnesses caused by evil spirits.

Captain James Cook, the famed explorer, landed in Tahiti in 1769, finding the Pacific Island culture in which the word tatau gave rise to the word tattoo. Tatau means to tap the mark into the body; island practitioners used a razor-edged shell attached to the end of a stick.

Cook returned to England with two tattooed Tahitians, Omai and Tupia, who were displayed as objects at pubs, museums and fairs. Europeans became fascinated with the exotic while simultaneously viewing the markings, which distinguished “primitive” from “civilized,” as a hallmark of inferiority. Paradoxically, the exposure to the exotic became a lure for upper-class Europeans and royalty to embark upon adventurous travel to acquire a tattoo. King George V of England traveled to Japan, when it was reopened to the world in 1854, to acquire tattoos. The tattoo became an indicator of status; the bearer had the wealth and time to travel around the world or hire an artist to apply a tattoo.

When inventor Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric rotary tattoo machine in 1891, the traditional tools became a thing of the past in the West. At the same time the tattoo underwent what anthropologist Marge DeMello calls “an Americanization,” stating, “Tattooing was modified by early U.S. tattooists to fit a local sensibility emphasizing patriotism rather than exoticism.” Martin Hildebrandt, the first recognized tattoo artist in the United State, set up shop in New York City in 1846 and tattooed soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. He also used his daughter, Nora, as a canvas; she was covered in ink, with a reported 365 designs, and began to exhibit herself in 1882, touring with Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“As an act, tattoos require a willing abandonment of certain social conventions regarding the body, and forever place that person into a different category than someone who is not tattooed. As a physical space, the tattoo runs contrary to certain cultural assumptions about what constitutes a normal body,” writes Gabriel Garcia-Merritt in her 2014 ethnography Inked Lives: Tattoo, Identity and Power. Garcia-Merritt notes that based on geographic and cultural context, the act of getting a tattoo may be a rite of passage or create an identification of the wearer with a trait, design or quality associated with the tattoo. The memorial tattoo, she specifies, is intended to serve as a reminder of a loved person or even a pet; this is one of the most common classes of tattoos and one most respected by the wearer. It conveys a part of the life history and for some can serve in the grieving and closure process.

“First generation” tattoo artists, according to Garcia-Merritt, were born in the time span from 1900 to the 1950s and viewed tattooing as a trade. The “second generation” of tattoo artists was born after 1965; many have artistic training or higher education and view tattooing as a professional art. In addition, the artist and client, due to the sustained nature of their interaction in completing the tattoo process, develop a trusting relationship that permits the goals of both to be realized. “Thus, the tattoo is a procedure, a negotiation, and a text that lives upon the skin of the client, and in the name of the artist that executed it,” she writes.

Today, tattoos are as varied and complex as the individuals who get them and as their reasons–commemorative, oppositional, artistic, expressionistic. Jimmy Buffett may sing, “It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling,” but body ink is here to stay. HLM

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