It would appear that Neolithic man or indeed Otzi, the Iceman living 3,300 years ago knew all about tattoos as he was found to have least fifty seven of them, ( including around his ankles), that could have been for treating arthritis. We can’t be sure. We do know however that Egyptian mummies were also tattooed and evidence has been found that tattooing was popular in Chinese minority ethnic groups several thousand years ago. Paleolithic man and woman, (10,000 BCE) certainly decorated their bodies, not only as adornment but as an expression of spiritual belief. In Japan, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and North Africa, tattooing was and is still popular.
Why did this Practice come to be so Widespread?
Penetrating the body with sharp, invasive instruments, and introducing minerals below the skin is what tattooing involves. Imagine a Samoan adolescent boy subjected to over 50% of his body being cut into and soot inserted. The bleeding and pain would be so great that it took ten days to complete this ‘rite of passage’ into manhood and high rank. Failure to endure this torture meant lifelong humiliation and shame. Better to have died, which so often was the outcome. Fortunately for women they didn’t have to suffer the same ordeal. However, tattooing could display a girls’ skills and so increase her chance of a good marriage.
A ‘rite of passage’, a sign of rank, decorative adornment, commitment or rebellion, all these diverse messages could be visible and understood by communities throughout the ages. Sometimes, heavily tattooed armies such as the Picts, scarified with blue woad, (copper based) so terrified the Romans that mention of their appearance was made in Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars!
The influence of Christianity as it slowly spread throughout Europe and the western world, also spread the idea that tattooing was a pagan activity and must be banned. Muslims and those of the Jewish faith have never allowed tattooing believing the practice to be a desecration of the body, which is a gift from God. What better symbol for rebellion to be taken up by dissenters throughout the ages than the tattoo? It was adopted by many sects including the Samurai warriors and their descendants, the Japanese “Yakuza” mafia. A tattoo cannot be seen without arousing conflicting emotions. Pictures imprinted on your body make a powerful statement.
Today we have relatively painless and hygienic methods of tattooing. The instinctive urge for body and facial enhancement has resulted in the skill of tattooing booming into big business. Cosmetic tattooing has entered the modern world allowing women to perfectly shape their eyebrows, eyeliner their eyes, have well-defined lips which never feel a lipstick and enjoy long luxurious eyelashes. Thread veins can be removed; and don’t think it’s only women who have a ‘little job’ done to boost morale! Cosmetic tattooing can help rebuild a life following surgery. There is so much choice in tattooing for the expression of adornment, faith, commitment, rebellion and renewal. The tattoo has a remarkable history and endures as a fascinating expression of our creativity.