Tattoo History

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian “tatu” which means “to mark something.”

Would it surprise you to know in America more women have tattoos than men? Would you be shocked to learn that tattoos were a trend among the upper class during Victorian times and considered a fashion trend? “Now a days” tattoos are a common sight to see, even on women. Just to think, thirty years ago that was abnormal. Unheard of. But people forget the rich past that tattoos have, especially on women. So, I decided to do my blog tonight on tattoos (seeing that I just got a new one) and the history tattoos have.

The purpose of tattoos has differed from culture to culture throughout the course of time. Research has shown that the earliest tattoos come from Egypt during the time of the pyramids, although some believe they started much earlier. Egyptians at this time were believed to use tattoos as a way to mark the slaves and the peasants. Tattoos then spread to China and then on to Greece, where the Greeks used tattoos as a way to communicate among spies. Markings identified the spies and showed their rank. Romans marked criminals and slaves (this practice is still carried on today). Along the way, Japan also incorporated the use of tattoos as well. The Japanese people starting using tattoos for religious and ceremonial rites. At first, tattoos were used to mark criminals. First offenses were marked with a line across the forehead. A second crime was marked by adding an arch. A third offense was marked by another line. Together these marks formed the Japanese character for “dog”. It appears this was the original “Three strikes your out” law. In time, the Japanese escalated the tattoo to an aesthetic art form. The Japanese body suit originated around 1700 as a reaction to strict laws concerning conspicuous consumption. Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate clothing. As a result of this, the middle class adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. A highly tattooed person wearing only a loin cloth was considered well dressed, but only in the privacy of their own home. In Borneo (Indonesia), women tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill and women had delicate arm tattoos which looked like lacy gloves. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. In Borneo, women were the tattooists, it was a cultural tradition. They produced designs indicating the owners station in life and the tribe they belonged to. Borebo warriors who had “taken a head” had tattoos on their hands. The tattoos gained respect and assured the owner’s status for life. Polynesians developed tattoos to mark tribal communities, families, and rank.

What kept tattooing from becoming more widespread was its slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture of the skin was done by hand the ink was applied. In 1891, Samuel O’Rtiely patented the first electric tattooing machine. It was based on Edison’s electric pen which punctured paper with a needle point. The basic design with moving coils, a tube and a needle bar, are the components of today’s tattoo gun. The electric tattoo machine allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced, and readily available tattoo. As the average person could easily get a tattoo, the upper classes turned away from it. By the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of town. Heavily tattooed people traveled with circuses and “freak Shows.” Betty Brodbent traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus in the 1930s and was a star attraction for years. The cultural view of tattooing was so poor for most of the century that tattooing went underground and few were accepted into the secret society of artists since there were no schools to study the craft. There were no magazines or associations. Tattoo suppliers rarely advertised their products. One had to learn through the talk between tat advocates on where to go and who to see for quality tattoos. The birthplace of the American style tattoo was Chatham Square in New York City. At the turn of the century it was a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. While tattooing was declining in popularity across the country, in Chatham Square in flourished. Husbands tattooed their wives with examples of their best work. They played the role of walking advertisements for their husbands’ work. At this time, cosmetic tattooing became popular, blush for cheeks, coloured lips, and eyeliner. With world war I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons. In the 1920s, with prohibition and then the depression, Chathma Square lost its appeal. The center for tattoo art moved to Coney Island. Across the country, tattooists opened shops in areas that would support them, namely cities with military bases close by, particularly naval bases. Tattoos were know as travel markers. You could tell where a person had been by their tattoos. After world war II, tattoos became further denigrated by their associations with Marlon Brando type bikers and Juvenile delinquents. Tattooing had little respect in American culture. In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much credit can be given to Lyle Tuttle. He is a handsome, charming, interesting and knows how to use the media. He tattooed celebrities, particularly women. The rise of the punk age popularized tattoos as a rebellious fashion in the 1980s. It became a staple illustration of the rebellious generation, where it was all about a tough image, and health concerns did not matter.

Tattoos have had a cultural and social significance across the world for thousands and thousands of years. Over time, the meaning and significance of the tattoo has varied and altered. In researching for this blog post, I have SO many interesting things; like the concept of “tattoo rape”. This is where Native Americans would kidnap white women and forcibly tattoo them. Obviously, much like all history, who knows the truth behind these stories, but that makes it no less of an amazing concept to read. There is actually an entire book on women with tattoos that I fully intend to read. It tells of women throughout history and in modern times with tattoos.
Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo

Tattoos are a great way for self expression. A way to say the words you can’t say outloud, and adorn your body with pictures that will always have a memory to them. No matter how you may personally feel, tattoos are raging in popularity. I have to say… I sure am glad.

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