Body modification, through tattooing, piercing, painting and decorating has been established for thousands of years, early tribes would decorate themselves, as a form of belonging or uniform. “Evidence of tattooing and related practices comes to us from the earliest human societies. For example Egyptian mummies from the period of the Middle Kingdom have revealed an extensive culture of body marking.”
(Featherstone, 2000, p. 39) Although the way we are tattooed or pierced has changed, and the instruments used for these practices are completely different the concepts are still the same. You are making a visible permanent marking. “The earliest signs of human interest in self decoration appeared 30,000years ago, when handprints ochre deposits and ornaments are found alongside cave printings” (Tanne, 2000, p. 1) Thus showing just how far tattooing and body piercing can be traced back.
Tattooing and body piercing years ago often had links with religion. Tribes would tattoo and pierce themselves to be closer to the spirits, or as a form of self sacrifice due to their gods. It was the pain associated with these practices that linked them with religion and spirituality.
“During the latter part of the nineteenth century as the public became more familiar with the art of tattooing through the circus, which was primarily a working and lower class entertainment, tattoo was also developing commercially”
(Hewitt, 1997, p. 70). The introduction of circus’s and circus ‘freaks’ brought the idea of tattoo’s to the surface again, people slowly began to find them less shocking. Then working class men began to tattoo themselves, often as a sense of belonging to their community. “The tattoos of working-class men, he suggests once indicated ‘membership of a male culture of work and hardship’ –whereas nowadays, the ‘discrete and aesthetic butterflies and flowers on the shoulders and backs of fashion models and middle class professional women are sexual consumer images’, mere surface indicators of identity and attachment.” (Gelder, 2007, p. 133).
The tattoos that the working-class men held in comparison to those now seen on fashion models and musicians are completely different in meaning. “For Margo DeMello, the contemporary tattoo community is now largely defined by elite tattooists and tattoo magazine publishers who are primarily from the middle class.”(DeMello, 2000:3 cited in Gelder, 2007, p.131) Tattoos have moved on, from being about the class you are in, or belong to. To being about one’s self and their self identity and self expression. “Once the inscription tool of rebellious working-class subcultures, the tattoo is now used as a tool of individual self-actualization.”
Tattoo artist, Harmon believes that the recent rise in popularity and acceptance of tattoos is due to the modern desire for self expression. (Harmon cited in Beauchamp, 2006, p.1) The desire for self expression is something new for modern societies, whereas before people wanted to fit into a particular community or society, nowadays people want to stand out, and want to be seen as individuals rather than as a collective. “the growing conformity of our consumer society has generated a need for individual expression- a need which can be satisfied by a unique, personal tattoo.”
(Polhemus, 2000, p. 24)
Also instead of having tattoos or piercings to belong to a particular tribe or group, people now are more likely to have a tattoo or piercing to mark a particular relationship.“Because tattoos, scars and piercings are permanent decorations, they are a perfect means of demonstrating and reinforcing permanent social relationships”
(Polhemus T. , 1988, p. 48).
Having a tattoo or piercing can satisfy people in thinking that they are different, even if the masses are all having piercings or tattoos. What is considered ‘normal’ and acceptable within societies also affects the acceptability of these body altering practices. Our societies norms, values and fashions are ever changing, as it what is considered, fashionable or acceptable.“Fashion magazines show models with tattooed ankles and pierced navels, and recruit well known tattooed musicians for their pages”
(Hewitt, 1997, p. 73).
The media have a huge impact on people and on fashion and through portraying tattooed and pierced models and musicians, the media has implanted the idea of body alteration as ‘trendy.’ People see their idols on TV, in magazines and in music videos and want to look ‘cool’ and be like them, in this case with tattoos and piercings. (Hewitt, 1998, p.80).
Technology advances over the times also play a huge role in the acceptance of tattoos and body piercings. As time has passes, research and new technology has allowed quicker, less painful, more precise and accurate piercings and tattoos be achievable. “Electric tattoo machines made tattooing cheaper and less painful and good tattoos easier to render. With this new technology, tattooing became popular among the lower classes and quickly came to be associated with blue collar workers and ruffian.”
(Hewitt, 1997, p. 71)
Sterilization and the professionalization of the occupation have lead to a vast decrease in health issues relating to tattoos and body piercings. “Another factor contributing to the rising popularity of tattoos may be a decrease in health risks because of the rising professionalism of the tattoo business. People are less likely to contract infections and diseases as tattoo artists open shops in popular shopping districts with legitimate business licenses and highly sanitized facilities.”
(Beauchamp, 2006, p. 1) With less risks involved with the practices more people are drawn towards them. Due to new technology, new standards and easier, cheaper methods, the growing acceptance of body art as a form of art rather than a form of deviance “Whereas once tattoos were considered marks of degradation, now individuals take pride in their self stigmatization and publicly display colourful and elaborate tattoos” (Hewitt, 1997, p. 83).
Where as tattoos and piercings are apparent in all cultures Africa never predominantly used tattooing, instead they favoured body painting and piercings. This shows how within one particular culture something is less acceptable than in another, due to their expected norms. Tattoos were used in tribes around the world for example, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, parts of central America etc. and had different meanings. People were tattooed because of their age, often starting at around the age of eight for children, and for other reasons, such as their social status and whether they were married. Tattooing was a common practice.
(Buckland, 1888, p. 324) For one society body art can represent one thing, and for another something completely different. “Body art reflects what one society believes is beautiful, expensive, noble, religious, or of high status. An outside society may react quite differently...” (Tanne, 2000, p. 1).
Tattoos and piercings are ways of marking bodies and rebelling against norms and values. However due to our ever changing society, what was unacceptable yesterday, will be normal tomorrow.
Beauchamp, K. (2006, December). A Living Canvas- Tattoos are todays Modern Art. Buckland, A. W. (1888). On Tattooing. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britian and Ireland, Vol 17 , 318-328.
Featherstone, M. (2000). Body Modification. London: Sage Publications.
Fisher, J. (2002). Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture. Body and Society, vol 8 , 91-107.
Gelder, K. (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. Oxon: Routledge.
Hewitt, K. (1997). Mutilating the body: Identity in blood and Ink. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Polhemus, H. R. (2000). The Customized Body. London: Serpants Tail.
Polhemus, T. (1988). Body Styles. Luton: Lennard Publishing.
Tanne, J. H. (2000, May 29). BMJ Medical Publications of the Year. Retrieved February 05, 2009, from Art, Body Art: Marks of Identity: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/320/7226/64
the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.
The mythological origins of Samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history of Tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of New Zealand, and later disseminated into various international subcultures from Auckland to the Netherlands.
In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘tatau’, by hand, has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role.
The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The first Europeans who set foot on Samoan soil were members of a 1787 French expedition. They got a closer look at the nativesand reported that ‘the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed, although they are almost naked’.
The Hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art, known as ‘Kakau’. It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being.
Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men's arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue. The arrival of western missionaries forced this unique art form into decline as tattooing has been discouraged or forbidden by most Christian churches throughout history..
Some cultures create tattooed marks by hand-tapping the ink into the skin using sharpened sticks or animal bones (made like needles) with clay formed disks or, in modern times, needles. Traditional Japanese tattoos (Horimono) are still "hand-poked," that is, the ink is inserted beneath the skin using non-electrical, hand-made and hand held tools with needles of sharpened bamboo or steel. This method is known as ‘Tebori’.
Traditional Hawaiian hand-tapped tattoos are experiencing a renaissance, after the practice was nearly extinguished in the years following Western contact. The process involves lengthy protocols and prayers and is considered a sacred rite more than an application of artwork. The tattooist chooses the design, rather than the wearer, based on genealogical information. Each design is symbolic of the wearer's personal responsibility and role in the community. Tools are hand-carved from bone or tusk without the use of metal.
The most common method of tattooing in modern times is the electric tattoo machine, which inserts ink into the skin via a single needle or a group of needles that are soldered onto a bar, which is attached to an oscillating unit. The unit rapidly and repeatedly drives the needles in and out of the skin, usually 80 to 150 times a second. This modern procedure is ordinarily sanitary. The needles are single-use needles that come packaged individually.
Sailor and Military Tattoos
When European explorers first arrived in the New World, they discovered that tattooing was a large part of the stone-age culture practiced by Native Americans. Common among most tribes were geometric patterns and dots that were applied to celebrate the individual's passage into puberty. Many tribes, including the Sioux Indians believed that a tatoo was necessary in order to gain passage into the other world. After an almost two thousand year absence from popular culture, the phenomena of tattooing re-emerged after explorers brought tales of it home after they had sighted examples of it in the North and South Americas.
Tattooing was also very popular among sailors who, from the 1600's to the 1940's tattooed a chicken on one foot and a pig on the other to protect them from death by drowning. During World War II, the big symbol that protected sailors from drowning were twin propellers (one tattooed on each buttock) meant to symbolically propel you to the shore.
Images of bluebirds inked on the chest were often used to mark the number of miles a sailor had spent at sea. Each bluebird represented 5,000 miles logged at sea. If a sailor had sailed south past the equator he sometimes got a picture of Neptune tattooed n his leg. If he crossed the international dateline, a sailor owned the right to wear a tattoo of a dragon. A hula girl tattoo meant the sailor had been to Honolulu. Female underwear and stockings tattooed on the sailor's body meant that he had been on more than one cruise.
Sailors passed the long hours at sea "pricking" designs into their own skin or that of their mates. These designs were a mix of patriotic and protective images. Often gunpowder was mixed into the ink, as gunpowder was though to possess magical powers of longevity and protection. The seamen of that day were familiar with tattoos because of their extensive travel. They had seen the dragons of the China, the Christian charms and evil eyes of the people and the highly detailed designs of Edo and Yokohama worn by the citizens of Japan. Sailors bearing these exotic designs, passed through the port of New York everyday, greatly influencing and broadening the very concept of "tattoo" itself.