So, what is a tattoo anyway? Yes, it’s a permanent design on someone’s arm, ankle, or you name it. But why do people indelibly mark their bodies, suffer through pain and bloodshed, and open themselves up for potential social stigma? A PBS documentary answered that question eloquently: “A tattoo is an expression of loyalty and devotion, a tribute of a great feat in battle, or simply a beautification to the body with a distinctive work of art.”
Having a tattoo has become so common that according to a 2013 statistic, 36% of people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo; between 26 and 40 years of age, 40%. It used to be that tattooed people would’ve more likely found themselves in company with military personnel and bikers, or even in carnival circles. Many people today who get a tattoo—or those cringing about their kids getting one—may not realize what a profound cultural and historical place tattoos have held through history and around the world.
Before tattoos became a $1.65 billion industry annually, before the popularity of anchors, sculls, roses, and the Road Runner of Looney Tunes fame—even before the advent of the sideshow spectacle of tattooed ladies in Victorian times—the history of the tattoo reaches as far back as 5000 BCE. They’ve been badges of honor, ceremonial markings, signs of social rank, forms of punishment, and, of course, a way for people to beautify themselves.
Polynesia. Tattoos have been a part of the traditions and cultures of the Polynesian Islands for over two thousand years. It’s from the Samoa people, though, that we in the West got the word tattoo, which derives from the traditional Samoan art of tatau, which means “correct or workmanlike.” It also refers to the quadrangular figures of the Samoan tattoo designs, which don’t include circular lines, although other Polynesian tattoo motifs do.
“Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.” Verse from a traditional tattoo artist’s song
Japan. Although shunned as an acceptable form of expression since the mid-nineteenth century—when colonization broke the 200-year-old barrier keeping Japan closed off to the outside world—contemporary Western tattooists and ink lovers alike revel in the artistry of the Japanese irezumi. Chinese records tell of Japanese men being covered in tattoos as early as the third century, but the tattoo’s history in Japan is a sordid and debated one with documented use of tattoos as punishment and uncertainty as to which class(es) went under the needle.
What is known, however, is that the heyday of Japanese tattoos was in the Edo Period (1603–1867) when a circular relationship developed among the new art forms of kabuki, ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and tattoos. The respective artists were inspired by—and didn’t want to be outdone by—one another, and so the art of tattoo elevated to new heights.
Europe. Ancient Greeks and Romans reported that many of the peoples they encountered during their northwestern domination of Europe bore tattoo marks—including the Britons, Iberians, Gauls, Goths, Teutons, Picts, and Scots. Julius Caesar said that the men and women he met during his 55 BCE push through Western Europe appeared to be more frightening and aggressive than other peoples he had encountered, having never seen the likes of their woad-blue painted faces, shaggy hair, and nearly bare warrior garb.
With the spread of Christianity through Western Europe, along came the condemnation of tattoos, which essentially eliminated the practice in that part of the world. Then the Europeans went a’sailing. Contemporary tattoos made their way back to Europe via traders and missionaries who visited the Polynesian Islands. Their acceptance hit a new high in British culture when the young Prince of Whales, later King Edward VII, got a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm in 1862 during a visit to the cross’s namesake city.
In the United States.
Did you know? Thomas Edison got a US patent in 1877 for his stencil-pen, aka tattoo gun.
Accounts from Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century indicate that the practice of tattooing was common among many of the First Nations tribes. Of the North American tribes, though, some say that the Haida were the most accomplished. Following in their traditions of documenting mythic and totemic themes, their body art was some of the more elaborate to be found, with what is still a ubiquitous feature of Pacific Northwest culture: distinctive line-art depictions of creatures that are found in nature.
Like the swell of popularity in Europe in the early 1800s, people in the United States started to adorn themselves with tattoos. In 1846, Martin Hildebrandt opened a permanent tattoo shop in New York City, where he began the tradition of tattooing sailors and military servicemen during the Civil War. Wartime in the twentieth century brought its own wave of style and panache to the art when the servicemen of WWII made the tattoo an unofficial part of their uniforms—with the aforementioned anchors, sculls, roses, and Roadrunners, and of course, the American Flag.
An etymologic side note.
A second definition of the word tattoo means to signal soldiers or sailors to quarters at night. The fun fact about this is that it’s said that the Dutch word taptoe (tap “faucet of a cask” + toe “shut, to”), stemming from the 1640s, came from the fact that the police would regularly make the rounds to local pubs to close the taps of the casks, marking the time for folks to head home for the evening.
Learn the languages of the people you’ve just read about!
The cultures of the people you’ve read about here go beyond skin-deep design. Learn Japanese and someday study hiragana and katakana in Osaka; or learn French and find yourself in French Polynesia to see some tattoos firsthand; or have some fun and learn British English!