The popularity of Tattoo as Body Modification

In 1961, New York City banned tattoos because officials claimed that the city’s uptick in hepatitis B was related to unclean tattoo parlors … although some say it was more of an attempt to clean up the streets in advance of the world’s fair). Surprisingly, New York didn’t strike down the ban until 1997. But the late ‘90s brought more to the tattoo world than the end of NYC’s official ban. That’s right, I’m talking about culturally insensitive tattoos, like Chinese symbols you don’t know the meaning of, dreamcatchers, and the vaguely named “tribal armbands” made popular by notable celebs and fashion trends.

And by 2006, a Pew survey found that a whopping 40% of Americans had a tattoo. So when did tattoos emerge? And when did they go from counterculture to mainstream? And … are they … Okay? I mean, when does an exotic tattoo veer into the territory of cultural appropriation? The answers -- as always! -- lie in history. Because when it comes to answering the question of where tattoos come from, who has them, and who gets them, cultural context is key. And tattooing has a lot of context and backstory. The earliest evidence of human remains that show signs of tattooing are traced back to Otzi the iceman. Discovered on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, Otzi has over 50 tattooed marks all over his body.

Carbon dating shows that Otzi’s remains are about 3,300 years old. But there’s other, older evidence of body art, like Egyptian figurines and pottery dating to circa 4000-3500 BC that show suspected signs of women sporting tattoos. But Otzi’s markings weren’t purely ornamental, like many of the tattoos we see today are. His 61 tattoos are located all over his body and often in areas that aren’t ideal for showing off the ink.

Like, near his worn-out joints and spine, giving new significance to lower back tattoos. So these tattoos are now thought to be evidence of early acupuncture or attempted healing practices. Other evidence of early tattooing pivots us away from archaeology and towards art history. There’s a portrait from 1710 called Four Indian Kings that shows the King of the Maquas (a Mohawk tribe) with tattoos that cover the lower half of his face and his chest. And anthropologists Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados note that Native Americans in the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains practiced tattooing for a variety of purposes. They were used to demonstrate a person’s lineage, their place within society or the broader universe, and also as a rite of passage.

And the practice of using tattoos to show ancestral lineage also stretches back around 2000 years in Samoa, Hawai’i, and New Zealand. But outside of their more sacred uses, tattoos have also served purely functional, secular roles in other parts of the world. Greeks have recorded instances of tattooing dating back to the 5th century BC. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall had military tatts, and European Crusaders tattooed crosses on their chests to guarantee a Christian burial if they died in battle. Ancient Romans and Greeks also had a history of tattooing enslaved people. In Japan, as far back as the 7th century, criminals were tattooed. And later, Yakuza gang members were known for their elaborate (and often quite beautifully done) ink that symbolized their life of crime and their gang affiliations. So: tattoos can be a sign of cultural pride, the mark of an outlaw, a healing practice, and a mark of a traveling soldier. And most of these tattoos were made by either pricking, burning, or staining the skin with manual tools. But if you’re like me and have 4 tattoos of various shapes and sizes that were done with an electric tattoo machine, then you’re probably curious about where and when contemporary tattooing came into play.

Well that brings our timeline forward to 1769. The word “tattoo” is an anglicized version of the word “tatua” which is a Polynesian word of Tahitian origin. The first recorded instance of the phrase in English came from colonist Captain James Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks. When Cook landed in Tahiti in 1769 he observed the practice, both he and Banks wrote about it in their diaries as “tattowing” with a “w.” And Cook’s contact with Native Pacific Islanders marked the beginning of the colonization of these regions by European nations.

With the arrival of European Christian missionaries to places like Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Samoa in the 19th century, the practice of tattooing in Native populations was discouraged. Missionaries wanted to eradicate the practice altogether in order to promote Western European culture, but the art of tattooing didn’t fade away. In fact, tattooing began to spread. The first Europeans to pick up tattooing regularly after Cook’s expedition were sailors and navy men, whose marks signified the various voyages that they’d taken. By the 19th century, when missionaries were busy demonizing tattoos abroad, Victorians back in England were actually turning this into a newfound fad. Because, despite the fact that tattoos had circumnavigated the globe more accurately than any explorer ever could, by the 19th century they were relatively unknown in England.

And this made the reintroduction of the art form “edgy” “novel” and “daring” to upper-crust folks. It’s even reported that members of Queen Victoria’s royal family were sporting some permanent bodywork under their tightly buttoned-up exteriors. Then in 1891, tattooing underwent a pretty big revolution, on account of American inventor and tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly who introduced the first patented electric tattooing machine.

O’Reilly modeled his machine off of Thomas Edison’s electric pens, which weren’t as useful for recreating drawings and documents as Edison had hoped, but were pretty great at tattooing human skin. That meant that instead of methods that favored scarring or tapping with sharp instruments, we now had a standardized method by which most people were getting inked. But tattoos in the US didn’t suddenly become mainstream just because a guy from Connecticut patented a tool for it. In fact, it remained a bit of an “outsider” art form through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The people most likely to receive tattoos were still military men who had served overseas, criminals, rebels with dubious causes, and sideshow performers who would tattoo their whole bodies and put themselves on display in shows. But tattoos also served, in one instance, a very practical function. After the passage of the 1936 social security act, many Americans started getting their social security numbers tattooed on their bodies so they could remember them! Tattoo parlors even advertised this service! Today this would be more of an invitation for identity theft than a helpful reminder.

Whatever happened to just tying a string around your finger? Tattoos continued to gain popularity throughout the 20th century. Janis Joplin is often credited as the first big star with visible ink, and she and other celebrities helped popularize tattoos. In time, this led to an eventual switch from counterculture to the mainstream by the dawn of the new millennium. But there has been a renewed effort by some to restore tattoos their often sacred origins. For example, Alaska Native tattoo artist Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone is helping to spread knowledge about face tattoos as a form of cultural pride and to save this artwork and this practice from the eradication that was encouraged by missionaries in the 19th century.

And this brings us back to the topic of cultural appropriation. When it comes to whether a tattoo is a marker of individuality or a sign of disrespect, the answer (like all good history) lies in cultural context as well as the content. In 2011 Thai Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat called for a ban on tourists getting spiritual or sacred tattoos that would be offensive to Thai cultural sensibilities. One example is getting Buddhist symbols tattooed below the waistline, which can be considered disrespectful. And despite the popularity of Japanese-inspired tattoos, some owners of public spas and pools in Japan still refuse access to people with tattoos because the markings are still heavily associated with Yakuza gang members. So when divorced from their original context, and taken up as part of a tourist market that centers on capturing a piece of another culture, these tattoos actually have radically different meanings in different places. So it’s something to think about for a long time before you put yourself under the needle. Because remember folks: when it comes to tattoos and crossword puzzles, ink is forever. 

07 July 2022
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