Tattoo history

Tattoo history

Tattoos aren’t naff. You may blanche to see that WAG with her keeper’s name on her arse – but think of the Samoans, woaded Celts & warrior kings! Think of the etymology!

So… tattoos, eh? If you break it down, tattoos are crazy-looking things that you get by scratching a needle into your skin and then pouring ink into the scratches. It sounds like madness. It sounds like a horrible infection waiting to happen. Well, there may be an element of truth in both of these suppositions – but a tattoo is also a release of artistic expression, or a reflection of spiritual awareness. People have been getting inked since the dawn of time.

Its etymology comes from the Polynesian ‘ta’ (striking something) and ‘to’ (to mark something). This artistic ornamentation has been around for over five thousand years. The Polynesians believed that their spiritual properties were enhanced and displayed through the design of their tattoos. Much like those with the Liverpool emblem tattooed on their skin feel a spiritual link, or tighter restriction with the football club. Or the way in which those who tattoo themselves with a lover’s name feel their tattoo to be a magic symbol of a love more everlasting than the pesky ink they marked their bodies with in the first place.

Ancient Egyptian and Japanese tattoos

The Ancient Egyptians were well practiced in the skill of tattooing, usually inking their priestesses. They influenced many surrounding cultures, and it was how tattooing ended up in Japan. They also mummified their dead and removed their organs, although this didn’t catch on with the tourists so much.

Samoan tribal tattoos

Western missionaries viewed tattooing as a heathen practise and discouraged the Samoan form of tattooing. The Hawaiian culture were still going strong however, and were not to be dissuaded, believing that tattoos were not only there for decoration but safeguarded their health as well. Much like acupuncture – but with more ink.

Ancient Greek / Roman / Celtic tattoos

The ancient Greeks and Romans, to whom we owe much of our modern wisdom and philosophy, were fascinated with the beauty behind the skill of tattoos. They also used inking as a method of punishment, using tattoos to brand criminals, gladiators and soldiers. Not so cool, but I guess it’s why we still brand our cattle.

And let’s not forget… the Celts! The beautiful and fantastic Celts, who number among our British ancestors! They used to love the blue ink. They were covered in it, in fact, and used spirals, labyrinths, braids and weaves to symbolise the link between human life and nature. You could also see them coming in a battle. Their woad and tattoos probably made them a sitting target, but a fearsome one, and at least they looked good!

The first English Sailor tattoos

Speaking of dear old England, the country’s sailors became obsessed with the idea of tattoos when Captain Cook returned from his adventures, bringing the skill with him ()along with some crazy diseases and few foreign spiders). Tattoos soon became a fast growing tradition in the navy, and King George V, nicknamed the ‘sailor king’ for his nautical past, had a dragon tattooed to his arm by the famous artist George Burchett. George was so good, in fact, that he was kicked out of school at the age of 12 for tattooing his classmates.

Royal tattoos

George wasn’t the only British monarch to get inked, either. In 1862, the prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had a cross tattooed to his arm and started a fashion craze amongst the aristocracy. That must have died out around the time where wearing tights was no longer an option for men.

Tattooed ladies = hurrah!

The nineteenth century sparked a craze for tattooed ladies, with Nora Hildebrandt being America’s first professional tattooed lady. She often toured with Barnum and Bailey circus, and proved quite a champ among the men folk. Her famous history is due to the fact that her father was the famous German-born tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt who tattooed soldiers during the civil war.

Tattoos today

To get tattooed by the best today, you would need to travel to Japan and visit Hiriyoshi III. Although with travel expenses, accommodation and what not, a safer bet is to watch Dmax. On Dmax you’ll’ get a look at some of the world class tattoo artists featured on programmes such as Miami Ink, LA Ink and London Ink. These include artists such as Ami James, Kat von D and Louis Molloy. High five if you manage to get one of those lovelies to do a piece for you!

So, whether it’s because you think they look good or you’ve been inspired by history, don’t be put off tattoos because your peers think they’re naff or your mother threatens to disown you. Just make sure the needle is sterilised beforehand and whoever is doing it has a legal certificate!

Samoan tattoo

Tattoo on the right hand of a Chiribaya mummy (ancient Peru))

Japanese tattoo art was greatly influenced by 18th C woodblock prints (ukiyoe). The literary heroes on these woodblocks often bore elaborate tattoos covering much of the skin. Some tattoo designs were so spectacular – particularly those by the woodblock artist Kuniyoshi – that the youth of the day were inspired to have the images tattooed on their own bodies. Now, wearing tattoos visibly is still to some degree frowned upon in Japan as it has connotations with yakuza tattoo traditions.


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