One Busy Guy Presents...

  A History of the Tattoo

tat∑too (ta tŃ∆), n., pl. -toos, v., -tooed, -too∑ing.

1. the act or practice of marking the skin with indelible patterns, pictures, legends, etc., by making punctures in it and inserting pigments.

Incredible as it may seem certain marks on the skin of an Iceman dating back to 3300 BC are actually tattoos! It's so interesting and if true it is the earliest known evidence of body art. More widely recognized are tattoos & body art found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from about 2000 B.C. Classical authors mention the use of tattoos in connection with Greeks, ancient Germans, the Gaul's, Thracians (whoever they are) and the ancient Britons.

With the growth of Christianity body art was forbidden in Europe. However, the practice did continue in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Curiously tattoos were missing among populations with the darkest skin color and also in most of China.

Tattooing has been linked with the seafaring lives of sailors for centuries. This tradition began in the 1700's, when Captain Cook encountered tattooed natives of the South Pacific. Cook's sailors were looking for the perfect souvenirs of their journey into foreign lands.  Accepting a tattoo was the most convenient and exotic (not to mention portable and permanent).

One of the most notable seaman of all time was George Burchett-Davis. In 1888, at the age of 16 years, George set out on the H.M.S. Victory. For the next several years the world was his home. In memoirs published in 1958 (some 70 years later) Davis recalled much of the angst encountered while serving in the Royal Navy before the turn of the century, but that is a separate tale.

Sporting a tattoo addressed certain symbolisms on the part of the wearer (at least in the beginning). An anchor meant that this sailor had traveled the Atlantic. A rope tattooed around the wrist meant that this person was a dock hand. A dragon said that this individual had been to the Orient. Certainly these markings had the added advantage of permitting a body to be identified in the event of some horrific catastrophe at sea.  

Acquiring a tattoo is to be punctured with a sharp tool or needle. A dye is introduced beneath the top layer of skin. Tattoo artists seek to surpass one another through design, color and expression of movement. The use of light and shading can portray tattoo marks as nearly three-dimensional. Not surprisingly the tattoo had a number of religious beliefs for many tribal cultures; communities, families, ranks, even special patterns for girls and also for married women. The Greek used secret tattoos to mark spies, the Romans tattooed criminals and slaves. Sea-faring warriors had their family crests punctured onto their bodies despite being banned by Papal edict in 787 AD. 

Tattooing differs in spelling between languages. Germans refer to tattoos as 'Tatowirungz'. In French it is 'Tatouage'. In Italian it is referred to as 'Tatuaggio'. Captain Cook once referred to this operation as 'tattaw'; other terms are 'scarring', 'painting' or 'staining'. The Otahitan word 'attaw' is derived from 'ta' which means to 'knock' or to 'strike'.

William Dampier, a great explorer and pirate, was tattooed over most of his body and brought the 'Painted Prince' to London from his voyage to the South Seas in 1691. He became a sensation and decided he would exhibit to the public for a fee. His whole body (except face, hands, and feet) was painted or 'stained'. The paint itself being so durable that nothing could wash it off nor could it be defaced. The next heavily tattooed man to make an impression upon the English was a slave.

Americans produced the first professional tattoo artist in the West. Martin Hildebrandt, an immigrant from Germany, arrived in Boston in 1846 and became a full time practitioner. Between 1861 and 1865 (according to reminiscences published in the New York of 1870) Hildebrandt worked closely between the armies of General Grant and General Lee. It is said that he was able to cross lines freely and was welcomed by the Union and Confederate states alike. He was able to tattoo armies with emblems of either side and fared well.

In the middle of the nineteenth century there were professional tattoo artists in France, Algiers, the Holy Land, Italy and in Hamburg.

In the 21st century tattoos have become popular with what can only be referred to as the 'MTV' generation. It is the duty of young people to find some form of generational identity. Drugs and bell bottoms are no longer in fashion (as in the 60's). Tattoos and body piercing have become a most recent expression for young adults. It is as common place as ear piercing; though that is a topic for another page.

Tattooing is a permanent feature on the skin. It is an expensive and time consuming procedure when done properly and also rather painful. Removal can cost up to three times as much as the art itself. Clothes can be changed; hair can be cut or colored (it grows back); a tattoo is pretty much forever. For this reason tattoos should be carefully chosen expressions of the self and should only be administered by qualified professionals. The lovely rose on the small of a young back may well become an entire bush by age 60!


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