What's the origin of tattoos and body art?

A young fellow, Spoogy206, asks for the lowdown on tattoos and body art. Although I appear to be doing his homework, the subject is as compelling as a train wreck. Thus, I am willing to comply with his desperate request.

It appears that tattoos and body decoration significantly predate heavy beer-drinking and riding hogs. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica indicates that tattoos have been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from about 2000 BC. They are referred to in ancient writings relating to, among others, the Thracians, Greeks, Gauls, ancient Germans and ancient Britons; Romans used tattoos to mark criminals and slaves.

After the advent of Christianity, tattooing was forbidden in Europe, but persisted in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Joyce Cabrini, at her website http://www.chelsea-art.com/tattoo.htm, describes the origin of this practice with a passion and detail that doesn't deserve paraphrase. She relates:

The origins of tattooing as an art form are to be found in societies all over the world where it was first used for magical purposes. The finality of being tattooed gave it a seriousness and a social importance no longer seen on the globe today. In ancient Egypt, among Native Americans as well as in Africa and in the Pacific Basin tattooing assured control over the supernatural, as well as the forces of nature. Both the form and placement of designs were used to achieve the maximum intended power. The tattooed person's age, marriage status, prowess as a warrior or membership in a specific group were in this way identifiable in this life. Often, too, the tattoos were intended as a sort of passport in the afterlife.

For the Maori of New Zealand they kept the dreadful hag who appeared after death from devouring the eyeballs and thus blinding the soul from finding immortality. The face with bared teeth that is common to tattooing as an animal, either grotesque or demonic, serves the purpose of anticipating and averting evil. More recently the nautical 19th century pig and rooster on the instep of each foot guards against drowning. The swallow on the chest denotes news from home.

Omi,the much tattoed I can also recommend the astounding Tattoo History Sourcebook at http://tattoos.com/jane/steve/toc.htm. This is an anthology of historical records of tattooing that will take you to from the Marquesen Islands, 1200 miles west of Peru to the Dayak tribe of Borneo, and just about everywhere else in between. It will ultimately lead you to the tattoo archive at http://www.zapcom.net/~flg/archive.html, from which the illustration on this page (of the Great Omi) has been, with gratitude, borrowed. The art of tattooing quite obviously invokes passion among its practitioners and amanueses.

As for me, the more I read about this art, the less likely I am to have dinner tonight. It was Californian Native American tribes who introduced color into the scratches or prickings that made up tattoos (on both the body and the face. Eskimos and Easter Siberians made needle punctures through which a thread coated with pigment (usually soot) was drawn...gak...underneath the skin. The Maori of New Zealand produced moko by striking a miniature bone adze into the skin. Japan: needles. Burma: a brass penlike implement with a slit point and a weight on the upper end. Tunisia and the Ibo of Nigeria: pigment rubbed into knife slashes. Pima Indians of Arizona and Senoi of Malaya: skin punctured with thorns. So, like, how the hell do you sterilize thorns?

There is the associated art of cicatrization, or scarification, in which raised scars, (or keloids) are produced by incision or burning, usually in decorative patterns. This practice is more common among darker-skinned peoples, where, presumably, tattoos were not sufficiently distinct.

The word tattoo, explains the OED, is of Polynesian origin, as tattow. It was introduced into english from Tahiti, where it was first recorded by James Cook's expedition in 1769.

In Europe and the United States, interest in tattooing was limited to a fascination at the artistically mutilated folks on display at exhibits, fairs and circuses of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sailors were the customers at the first tattoing parlors where specialized "professors" applied designs on seabees from Europe and the U.S. The electric tattoing needle was patented in 1891. The United States became the center of tattoo influence at this time, with the creation of pattern sheets used around the world.

The early Roman use of tattoos was invoked with the marking of released U.S. convicts in the 19th century, British army deserters, and later the inmates of Siberian prisons and Nazi concentration camps. Some of my relatives bore those marks; the chilling effect invoked by that impersonal row of numbers may explain mrlucky's antipathy for the practice in general. It ain't rational, but I guess it kind of demonstrates how the marking of flesh strikes deep to the core.

And why doesn't it suprise me that, during the late 19th century, tattooing had a short vogue among both sexes in the English upper classes. I'm glad they hadn't heard about some of those other wonderful body fads, like clitoral mutilation.

Reasons to avoid tattoos? I'll quote straight from the EB. "There are sometimes religious objections to the practice ("You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you" [Lev.19:28]). The health risks of tattooing include allergic reaction to pigments and, when tattoos are applied underl ess-than-sterile conditions, the spread of viral infections such as hepatitis B."

If you are intrigued by this ancient practice of tattooing, but find it too pervasive in our society for your independent, original streak, how about one of these other practices to set a trend. Each has been used by some culture, some time, for purposes religious, aesthetic or social: incision, perforation, complete or partial removal, cautery, abrasion, adhesion, insertion of foreign bodies or materials, compression, distention, diversion, enlargement, and staining. Yes friends, be the first in your crowd to display some alteration of the skull, lips, teeth, tongue, nose, eyes or ears. I especially like the sound of head flattening, practiced on infants by some Indians of the Pacific Northwest. (But only the heads of free men, not slaves!) In Africa, perforation of the lower lip for insertion of a decorative plug is widespread. Or how about sharpened incisors (Africa, Mexico and Central America).

And then there's genital mutilation, which frankly, you can look up yourself.

The bottom line is that just about as long as there have been cultures, there have been standards of beauty which required some masochistic alteration of the human form. (or sadistic when applied to helpless infants.) These practices conveyed status, some manque of mystical power or, in the context of each practicing culture, an aesthetic distinction which served in the eternal struggle to bag a desirable mate. mrlucky doesn't care for it, but I don't like shaving regularly either.

Maybe that's why I have so much time to write these columns.

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