Tattoo Mania: From "Inked" on A&E to "Miami Ink" to John Irving's "Until I Find You", Tattoos are Actually A Widespread Ancient Form of Artistic Self Expression & Recording Memories of the World Around Us - WEEKLY FASHIONTRIBES POP CULTURE PODCAST - MP3 File
Inked on A&E, Miami Ink on TLC, John Irving's latest effort Until I Find You - about a tattoo-artist dragging her son across northern Europe looking for his runaway father, an "ink addict"- and the fact that an estimated one in seven adults has a tattoo. There's suddenly a lot of ink in prime time. What's up with that?
GETTING INK IS NOTHING NEW:
According to the Australian Museum, Austmus.gov.au, our desire to decorate our bodies is nothing new: It's as old as we are and a characteristic we're born with. "The impetus to decorate and adorn is essentially a human characteristic and is something that people have always done." Fifty-three hundred year old mummies covered in tattoo show that we've liked our ink for some time now. According to Steve Gilbert, author of Tattoed Mummies in the super-comprehensive everything-ink-related Tattoos.com, from the extensive amount of evidence of elaborate and intricate tattoos found on both sexes, tattooing was not only widespread throughout the ancient world, it was beautifully rendered artwork.
TATTOOS REFLECT THE WORLD YOU LIVE IN:
A large part of the reason people have always gotten tattoos is to mark significant events in their lives, family history, and even social status. "The Polynesians used tattoos as a historical device. Each one told a story about who you were or what your position in society would be," explains tattoo artist Bob Munden of the Fiery Dragon Tattoo and Body Piercing Studio, in a piece in the Kentucky Kernel. "Tattoos told their family history, like the Indians used to write it out on buffalo hides. Each Polynesian had a different tattoo that told a different story." (And until the first electric tattoo machine was invented in 1891 by Samuel O'Riley, tattoos were done by hand - really slow & really painful.)
In the same way that Polynesians inked their personal resumes onto their bodies, old school sailors got tattoos of what was important in their world: booze, mothers, gambling & "fast" women - so that's what they recorded on their bodies. Those iconic Sailor Jerry tattoos which seemed so shocking in their time now seem almost quaint and cartoon-y, with a mellow nostalgic appeal. Why? Times have changed & those images no longer resonate. Instead, today's tattoo enthusiast opts for imagery that reflects his or her world. (illustrations from KentuckyKernel.com & DesignBoom.com)
AS THE WORLD GOES ONLINE, PHYSICAL MEMORABILIA IS DISAPPEARING:
In an increasingly electronic, paperless world, more and more of our history is stored on computers and on websites, and there are fewer tangible reminders of important past events. Even those once ubiquitious "secret" diaries, in which kids would record their youthful dreams and aspirations, are being replaced by blogs. More memories are being stored as computer code, and most of us have had a computer crash & leave behind no trace of whatever it was you were working on, so predictably, everyone is looking for a more tangible way to store memories and mark important events. Also, our early twenties is the time when many of us undergo the most dramatic changes in our lives, so it's not surprising that that's the time when many get a "sleeve" ( tattoos which cover the entire arm) as a way to record important events which mark the passage from childhood to independence - to being an adult. (Interestingly, it is around this time in life - the early twenties - when many science geniuses such as mathematicians like John Nash - the subject of A Beautiful Mind - complete their most groundbreaking work, so this is indeed a time of great personal change and discovery). (photo at ConsciousChoice.com)
TATTOOS AS THE NEW SOCIAL RITE OF PASSAGE:
On a deeper level, we live in an age of disintegrating nuclear families, makeshift social ties, and pervasive Gen-X-slacker ironic sneering at anything "important". At present, our society has few, if any, social institutions and rites of passage: Marriage has become virtually disposable, the church is enveloped in scandal, and children routinely continue to live with their parents well into their twenties (and beyond). Traditional rites of passage have disappeared, so people need to make up their own rituals - especially teens on the cusp of adulthood. Tattoos are a time-honored way to create rites and rituals that are meaningful. According to Traci Carroll, author of Consumer Tribes in ConsciousChoice.com, in her interview with tattoo artist Benn Wallenborn about this so-called New Tribalism, he noted "The tendency of just-turned-18-year-olds to come into the shop in groups in order to get tattoos in a sort of rite of passage. Wallenborn's observation, as well as the disproportionate popularity of body art among teenagers and young adults, perhaps attest to our culture's lack of meaningful initiation rites that "mark" our entrance into adulthood," says Carroll. "Regardless of the political or social message one attempts to broadcast by getting a tattoo, in many cases tattoos do seem to fulfill a need to claim group membership, whether that group is the nuclear family, Generation X, or the social and economic unit of the street gang."
THE SAME MOTIFS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN POPULAR:
The same tattoo designs that are popular today were also popular back in the day:
- Tattoos in ancient Egypt related to the sensual, emotional and erotic - like many a modern tatt
- Inca ink was characterized by the bold, more abstract tribal designs that are currently so popular.
- Pazyryks (Iron age horseman & warriors who inhabited the Eastern European & Western Asian steppes from the sixth to second centuries BC) favored animals - both real and imaginary - as did many other cultures. Animals have always been popular because they "are traditionally associated with magic, totemism, and the desire of the tattooed person to become identified with the spirit of the animal."
TATTOOS THROUGHOUT HISTORY:
Although similar designs appear across the various cultures, they can have significantly different meanings. The Australian Museum has a helpful history of tattoos throughout history and time:
- OTZI the ICE MAN The 5,300 year old body, discovered in 1991 in the Austrian Alps, has 57 tattoos - the oldest tattooed body known. Apparently, some of the tattoos on his ankles, knees and lower back appear to be for the treatment of arthritis of the joints. (picture from IrishHealth.com)
- PAZYRYK MUMMIES Mummies dating back 2400 years from the High Altai Mountains of western and Southern Siberia have griffin and monster tattoos, some of which have magical significance, while others are purely decorative. The tattoos as a whole are thought to represent an individual's status. (illustrations of mummy's ink from Tattoos.com)
- MUMMY OF AMUNET Like all tattooed mummies from Egypt, this priestess of the goddess of love, Hathor, was female. Because they were located on her lower abdomen, it's thought that they are linked to fertility. (This one dates from the XI dynasty around 4000 years ago). (EclipsePhoenix.Homestead.com)
- THE PACIFIC A 3000 year old pottery shard is the earliest evidence of tattooing in the Lapita culture of the Pacific, showing pricked markings onthe nose, cheeks and forehead that suggest tattooing technique. (Photos at DesignBoom.com; Lapita Pottery from Users.on.net)
- JAPAN 3000 year old "dogu" figurines display similar markings to the indigenous Ainu people's tattooed mouths. (Ainu photo from NationMaster.com; Dogu pic at e-yakimono.net)
- ANCIENT GREECE & ROME Greeks like Plato, Aristophanes, Julius Ceasar & Herodotus all mention tattoos, which they learned from the Persians and used to mark slaves and punish criminals. Romans adopted tattooing from the Greeks, until the first Christian emperor of Rome banned facial tattooing of slaves and prisoners in the 4th century. By 787, Pope Hadrian banned all forms of tattooing. (barcode tattoo at BarCodeArt.com)
- CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA 11th century tattooed Inca mummies from Peru have been found, while 16th century Spanish accounts of Mayan tattooing in Mexico & Central America describe tattoos as a form of courage. (ClubTattoo.com)
- NORTH AMERICA & EUROPE Tattooing was a widespread practice among Native Americans according to early Jesuit accounts. The Chicasaw indians recognized outstanding warriors with tattoos, while elaborate tattooes reflected high status among the Ontario Iroquoians. Inuit women in northwest America indicated marital status with tattoos on their chins.(SkinAndInk.com)
- EUROPE 18th century French sailors returned from the South Pacific with intricate tattoos until the French navy and army banned tattooing following a 19th century study by a French naval surgeon outlining some of the medical complications from the procedure. English sailors also took to tattoos, where it became a tradition within the British navy in the 19th century. In 1862, the Prince of Wales got a Jerusalem cross tattoo after visiting the Holy Land, while in 1882, his sons (one of which later ascended to the throne as King George V) got tattoos from the Japanese master tattooist Hori Chiyo
- MAORI TATTOOS - TA MOKO Worn by both men and women, Maori Ta Moko was applied to men's faces and buttocks, and to the womens' chins, lips and shoulders. Only when someone close to them had died would the women put a small marking on the face. Considered to be a huge honor, Ta Moko "was like a history of a person's achievements and represented their status in their tribe. It's was like a resume. It also served as a reminder to people about their responsibility in life." There were no set patterns in Ta Moko - its meaning depended on where it was placed - on the left side, it related to the father's history; on the right side, to the mother's.
- SAMOAN "TA TAU" In the Samoan language, tatau - tattoo - means appropriate, balanced and fitting. Both men and women were tattood as a sign of having reached adulthood and being ready for life and to serve the community. Women received a "malu" - purely ornamental & without any specific patterns, except for a diamond-shaped design on the back of the knee. Men received a "pe'a" which covered the whole area from the waist to the knees. It was always applied in the same order: the lumbar area of the back first and the navel last. Without the naval design - the "pute" - the tattoo was considered unfinished & the wearer ashamed of being unable to complete the ceremony.
Still can't get enough? For tons more info about all things tattoo-related, check out VanishingTattoo.com. From photographs, to historical & anthropological sites, to cool designs, this site has it all. For books on body art & then some - tatts, piercing, modification, implants, scarification, branding - AnathemaBooks.com has pretty much any and all books on the topic.
John Rush's Spiritual Tattoo, a fascinating study of "body mods", traces it back 1.5 million years. Wow. Amazon.com.