History of Tattooing


 

Tattooing has been a nearly ubiquitous human practice. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, wore facial tattoos. Tattooing was widespread among Polynesian peoples, and in the Philippines, Borneo, Africa, North America, South America, Mesoamerica, Europe, Japan, and China.

Tattooing in prehistoric times

Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. "Ötzi the Iceman", dated circa 3300 BC, exhibits possible therapeutic tattoos (small parallel dashes along lumbar and on the legs). Tarim Basin (West China, Xinjiang) revealed several tattooed mummies of a Western (Western Asian/European) physical type. Still relatively unknown (the only current publications in Western languages are those of J P. Mallory and V H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies, London, 2000), some of them could date from the end of the 2nd millennium BCE.

Three tattooed mummies (c. 300 BCE) were extracted from the permafrost of Altaď in the second half of the 20th century (the Man of Payzyrk, during the 1940s; one female mummy and one male in Ukok plateau, during the 1990s). Their tattooing involved animal designs carried out in a curvilinear style. The Man of Pazyryk was also tattooed with dots that lined up along the spinal column (lumbar region) and around the right ankle.

Tattooing in the ancient world

China

Tattooing has also been featured prominently in one of the Four Classic Novels in Chinese literature, Water Margin, in which at least three of the 108 characters, Lu Zhi chen (???), Shi Jin (??) and Yan Chen (??) are described as having tattoos covering nearly the whole of their bodies. In addition, Chinese legend has it that the mother of Yue Fei(??), the most famous general of the Song Dynasty, tattooed the words jin zhong bao guo (????) on his back with her sewing needle before he left to join the army, reminding him to "repay his country with pure loyalty".

Europe

Pre-Christian Germanic, Celtic and other central and northern European tribes were often heavily tattooed, according to surviving accounts. The Picts were famously tattooed (or scarified) with elaborate dark blue woad (or possibly copper for the blue tone) designs. Julius Caesar described these tattoos in Book V of his Gallic Wars (54 BCE).

Ahmad ibn Fadlan also wrote of his encounter with the Scandinavian Rus' tribe in the early 10th century, describing them as tattooed from "fingernails to neck" with dark blue "tree patterns" and other "figures." During the gradual process of Christianization in Europe, tattoos were often considered remaining elements of paganism and generally legally prohibited.

According to Robert Graves in his book The Greek Myths tattooing was common amongst certain religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean world, which may have contributed to the prohibition of tattooing in Leviticus.

Japan

Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jomon or paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BCE) and was widespread during various periods for both the Japanese and the native Ainu. Chinese visitors observed and remarked on the tattoos in Japan (300 BCE).

Middle East

An archaic practice in the Middle East involved people cutting themselves and rubbing in ash during a period of mourning after an individual had died. It was a sign of respect for the dead and a symbol of reverence and a sense of the profound loss for the newly departed; and it is surmised that the ash that was rubbed into the self-inflicted wounds came from the actual funeral pyres that were used to cremate bodies. In essence, people were literally carrying with them a reminder of the recently deceased in the form of tattoos created by ash being rubbed into shallow wounds cut or slashed into the body, usually the forearms.

Reintroduction in the Western world

It was thought that many of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England were tattooed, but much of this was conjecture as the first recorded fact of royalty being tattooed was King Harold II (1022-1066).Harold Godwinson's body was identified by his mistress Edith Swanneck, on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066 by the words "Edith" and "England" tattooed on his chest. William of Poitiers recorded the battle and noted that Harold was stripped of all regalia and could not be identified by his face, only by his body markings.

Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1595) who on May 31st 1577 set out on his second voyage from Harwich, England with 3 ships and about 120 men to find a north west passage to China and the promise of gold ore. Frobisher took prisoner a native Inuit man and a woman with a child, upon his return to England the woman having tattoos on her chin and forehead was a great attraction at the court of Elizabeth I. All three died within a month.

Between 1766 and 1779, Captain James Cook made three voyages to the South Pacific, the last trip ending with Cook's death in Hawaii in February, 1779. When Cook and his men returned home to Europe from their voyages to Polynesia, they told tales of the 'tattooed savages' they had seen.

Cook's Science Officer and Expedition Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, returned to England with a tattoo. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy and had acquired his position with Cook by putting up what was at the time the princely sum of some ten thousand pounds in the expedition. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Tahitian chief, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. Many of Cook's men, ordinary seamen and sailors, came back with tattoos, a tradition that would soon become associated with men of the sea in the public's mind and the press of the day. In the process sailors and seamen re-introduced the practice of tattooing in Europe and it spread rapidly to seaports around the globe.

It was in Tahiti aboard the Endeavour, in July of 1769, that Cook first noted his observations about the indigenous body modification and is the first recorded use of the word tattoo. In the Ship's Log Cook recorded this entry: "Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible."

Cook went on to write, "This method of Tattowing I shall now describe...As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes."

The British Royal Court must have been fascinated with the Tahitian chief's tattoos, because the future King George V had himself inked with the 'Cross of Jerusalem' when he traveled to the Middle East in 1892. He also received a dragon on the forearm from the needles of an acclaimed tattoo master during a visit to Japan. George's sons, The Duke of Clarence and The Duke of York were also tattooed in Japan while serving in the British Admiralty, solidifying what would become a family tradition.

Taking their sartorial lead from the British Court, where Edward VII followed George V's lead in getting tattooed; King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, all sported tattoos, many of them elaborate and ornate renditions of the Royal Coat of Arms or the Royal Family Crest. King Alfonso of modern Spain also had a tattoo.

Tattooing spread among the upper classes all over Europe in the nineteenth century, but particularly in Britain where it was estimated in Harmsworth Magazine in 1898 that as many as one in five members of the gentry were tattooed. There, it was not uncommon for members of the social elite to gather in the drawing rooms and libraries of the great country estate homes after dinner and partially disrobe in order to show off their tattoos. Aside from her consort Prince Albert, there are persistent rumours that Queen Victoria had a small tattoo in an undisclosed 'intimate' location; Denmark's king Frederick was filmed showing his tattoos taken as a young sailor. Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, not only had a tattoo of a snake around her wrist, which she covered when the need arose with a specially crafted diamond bracelet, but had her nipples pierced as well. Carrying on the family tradition, Winston Churchill was himself tattooed. In most western countries tattooing remains a subculture identifier, and is usually performed on less-often exposed parts of the body.

Religious prohibitions

Jewish Positions

Orthodox Jews, in strict application of Halakha (Jewish Law), believe Leviticus 19:28 prohibits getting tattoos: Do not make gashes in your skin for the dead. Do not make any marks on your skin. I am God. One reading of Leviticus is to apply it only to the specific ancient practice of rubbing the ashes of the dead into wounds; but modern tattooing is included in other religious interpretations. Orthodox/Traditional Jews also point to Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 180:1, that elucidates the biblical passage above as a prohibition against markings beyond the ancient practice, including tattoos. Maimonides concluded that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).

Conservative Jews point to the next verse of the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 180:2), "If it [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless" – this is used by they to say that tattooing yourself is different from obtaining a tattoo, and that the latter may be acceptable. Orthodox Jews disagree, but forced tattooing (like forced conversion) - as was the case during the Holocaust - is not considered a violation of Jewish Law. In another vein, cutting into the skin to perform surgery and temporary tattooing used for surgical purposes (eg: to mark the lines of an incision) are permitted in the Shulhan Arukh 180:3.

In most sectors of the religious Jewish community, having a tattoo does not prohibit participation, and one may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual. In stricter sectors of the community, however, a community may have a psak (ruling or responsa with the weight of Halakha) that may forbid one's burial in a cemetery that comes under that ruling. Many of these communities, most notably the Modern Orthodox, accept laser removal of the tattoo as teshuvah (repentance), even when it is removed post-mortem (see Tahara).

Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews neither condemn nor condone tattooing.

Christian Positions

Some Christians believe that Leviticus 19:28 also applies to them, while others who disapprove of tattoos as a social phenomenon may rely on other scriptural arguments to make their point. Christians who believe that the religious doctrines of the Old Testament are superseded by the New Testament may still find explicit or implicit directives against tattooing in Christian scripture, in ecclesiastical law, or in church-originated social policy.

The anti-tattooing position is not universal, however. The Christian Copts used tattoos as protective amulets.

Muslim Perspective

Following the Sharia (or Islamic Law), the majority of Muslims hold that tattooing is religiously forbidden (along with most other forms of 'permanent' physical modification). This view arises from Qur'anic verses and explicit references in the Prophetic Hadith which denounce those who attempt to change the creation of Allah, in what is seen as excessive attempts to beautify that which was already perfected. The human being is seen as having been ennobled by Allah, the human form viewed as created beautiful, such that the act of tattooing would be a form of self-mutilation.[1] [2] Some Muslims believe that though tattooing is not haraam (prohibited), it is nonetheless makruh (disdained). Muslims who received tattoos prior to conversion to Islam, however, face no special obstacle to religious observance. Henna patterns, however, are used among Muslim women, as distinguished from permanent tattooing.

   
 

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