Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Skin Ink: Where do Tattoos Come From?

Tattoos of stars, tribal shapes, ships and swallows; contemporary tattoos are everywhere, cults have even built up around them.

From Goth and Emo to Ladettes and Skaters, tattoos have spread across many various British scenes, and seem prevalent across a diverse array of cultures from Polynesian to European.

But where does the practise actually originate, and do the common symbols used for tattoos actually mean?

Image: Oliver Kvlt

Ancient Customs
The practise of tattooing has ancient historical roots, emerging as a method of skin marking over 5,000 years ago.

Due to the positioning of tattoos found on a Bronze Age mummy, it seems they were originally applied for therapeutic reasons.

Purely decorative tattoos emerged some time later, as shown by 2, 5000 year old mummies found in Russia. Animals, magical creatures and mythological beings became common symbols and are thought to have had spiritual significance.

Some ancient Egyptian mummies are marked with geometric tattoos that were probably applied for ceremonial or ritualistic reasons.   It was from the vast Egyptian empire that the art of tattooing spread across the world to Asia and Polynesia.

Tribal tattoos originate from these areas. Intricate patterns and lines on the body and face were common throughout Polynesia and denoted status as well as having spiritual significance.

Many of the tribal designs we see today are modifications of Polynesian and Maori tattoos that were prevalent in the nineteenth century.

Explorers and Sailors
Tattooing in Europe got lost in Europe until the golden age of exploration when captains and sailors, including Captain Cook, visited Polynesian islands and Asia and rediscovered it. They reported to have seen ‘natives’ decorated in intricate patterns. Cook is the first European to have used the word ‘tattoo’ in a report of 1769.

Tattoos became popular amongst the English gentry and aristocracy in the following generations, and even the men of the royal family were decorated!

Sailors began acquiring tattoos on their voyages to distant lands to show where they had travelled and how far.

The traditions then evolved to incorporate the popular symbols that we associate with vintage tattoos today. Seafaring was such a dangerous profession that many superstitions built up around it, and symbolic tattoos were thought to have great meaning and protective qualities.

Image: Oliver Kvlt

Star: The star was a popular sailor tattoo and symbolised the North Star. Sailors believed that it would help to guide them home.

Swallow: Each swallow indicated that a sailor had travelled 5,000 miles.

HOLD FAST was tattooed on knuckles to remind sailors to hold tightly to the rope.

Pig and Rooster: These animals were tattooed on a sailor’s foot and were believed to protect against drowning.

Anchor: A symbol to show that a sailor is in the merchant marines.

Dragon:  An indication that a sailor had travelled to China or Japan, where tattooing had developed into a respected art form.

Criminals and Gangs
In the twentieth century, tattoos became popular with gangs and criminals to denote loyalty and affiliation. Amongst prisoners, tattoos became a way to mark out individuality and to show how much time they had served.  

A spider’s web is a common example of a prisoners tattoo.

Tattooed individuals became common aspects of circus freak shows.

Show folk thus began the tradition of getting tattoos and the phenomenon of ‘painted ladies’ emerged.

Designs then moved away from sailor symbols to decorative images such as feathers, animals, patriotic motifs and flowers.

Today we get all kinds of things tattooed on to us, what’s the most bizarre tattoo you’ve ever seen?

Anne Standing writes blog posts for Cartridge Shop and she has a particular interest in art, printing and tattoos. 

post signature