The canvas on which tattooing is etched on may only be skin deep, but the history of this art form goes much deeper. If, like me, you have partaken in the joy of the needle (having a professional doodler draw upon your skin not, I hasten to add, drugs) we are participating in a social ritual, which has existed for at least 5,000 years.
The history of tattooing begins with a discovery that was unearthed in the Austrian Alps in 1991. The frozen remains of a perfectly preserved primitive human represented not just a breakthrough in archaeology but also caused a stir among anthropologists who were surprised to find this body to be covered with elaborate geometric tattoos, 57 in total. Researchers believe these geometric shapes were thought to provide therapeutic relief for arthritis.
Tattoos were also prevalent among women in Egyptian culture, usually serving a ritualistic or therapeutic purpose to ease a woman’s pregnancy. The tattoos, consisting of geometric displays of dots and lines, were strategically placed on a woman’s body to provide her greater fertility. While tattooing was clearly springing up independently around the world, the influence of the Egyptian practise of tattooing was instrumental in introducing the art to Greece, Persia and Arabia.
It was on its eastwards journey that the spiritual and ritualistic nature of tattooing was lost and corrupted by the Greeks and became loaded full of connotations of barbarism and criminality. The Greeks adapted tattooing to mark society’s ‘undesirables’ such as slaves and thieves. This practice haunts us today in the use of tattooing by the Nazis to identify and dehumanise inmates in concentration camps. Christianity too failed to capitalise on the spiritual advantages which tattooing offered, as Old Testament Bible stores such as the story of the curse of Cain reinforced the notion tattoos were to be used to mark the wrong-doers.
It proved to be colonisation that introduced tattooing to the modern western world. By the late 18th century the practice became popular among British sailors after Captain Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific, but the art met an unexpected popularity among members of the British gentry when King George was tattooed. So despite an element of respectability, tattoos in the Victorian period were predominantly the preserve of vagabonds and circus freaks, for customers to ogle at.
However, it was the opinions that formed in 20th century America which remain at the heart of today’s tattoo culture, appealing to the working-classes for its masculine values or to reflect individuality. The tradition of expressing one’s adventurous or well-travelled lifestyle was made appealing by returning sailors from the American navy. As journalist Jack London put it, ‘‘Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past’’.