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Tattoos 101, Part 1: Where Do Tattoos Come From?


By Karen L. Hudson, Contributor for Tattoos.net

Welcome to the Club

Preparing to get your first tattoo? Already have one, or maybe several? Congratulations. You have joined a cultural society that dates back thousands of years and continues to thrive in a modern world. So far, the oldest evidence of tattooing was discovered in 1991 with the unearthing of a mummified body found in a glacier – nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman – which was carbon dated back to 3300 BCE. Although the art has evolved since the crude markings worn by Ötzi over 5,000 years ago, much has also remained the same.

Know Where Your Tattoo Comes From

I know; sometimes history is boring, but trust me – tattoo history is full of interesting stories. And it’s important to know the background of such an ancient culture if you’re going to be a part of it. Why? It’s sort of like knowing where your food comes from. If you tend a garden or raise animals and learn about how different types of food are cultivated, you come to a greater appreciation for the things you put on your plate. When you gain the knowledge of where your tattoo is coming from, you also have a greater appreciation for the ink you put on your skin. But don’t worry – I promise to skip over the boring stuff.

What is a Tattoo, Anyway?

Do you even know why it’s called a tattoo in the first place? That’s probably a good place to start. So, I’m going to tell you a story about a man named James Cook. He was a British lieutenant, and he was sent on a scientific expedition to the island of Tahiti, to observe the “transit of Venus” – a rare astrological event in which the planet Venus appears as a round black spot in front of the sun. This event only happens once every 120-or-so years, and it just so happens that June 5 and 6, 2012 was the most recent occurrence. I’m sorry if you missed it, but you can see the awesome display in this time lapse video - either way, you were present for a very rare event recently, even if you didn’t realize it!

Anyway, while Cook and his crew were on the island, they became friendly with the locals and were introduced to many of their customs. Even though the main focus of his expedition was scientific, he was so enthralled with his personal experiences with the island that his logs contained just as much information about the people and the wildlife as it did his astrological observations. One of the things he wrote about with wide-eyed enthusiasm was their custom for marking the skin with decorative patterns.

LT. James Cook

He wrote, “they print signs on people’s body and call this tattow”. We don’t know how it was spelled because the ancient Polynesians didn’t have a written language; it was spoken only. But since Cook spelled it “tattow” which is pronounced similar to “tatau,” and “tatou” from modern Polynesian cultures, and all of them refer to markings on the body, we can safely assume that’s what he was talking about. However, the meaning of the word to the ancient Tahitians is in question, because tatau can mean "to mark" or it can also be a representation of the actual tapping sound made by the tool used to insert the ink.

In addition to not having a written language, the ancient Polynesians also didn’t have tattoo machines – instead, they had a sharp “comb” of carved bone or tortoise shell bound to a stick.  The comb of needles would be dipped into an “ink” made with soot mixed with either water or oil. Then, ever so slowly but surely, the needles would be applied to the skin and the Shaman – who was the only one allowed to administer tattoos – would tap the end of the device repeatedly, puncturing the skin and delivering the ink.

Polynesian bearing tattoos and skin markings representing tribal status

Why was the Shaman the only one allowed to do the tattooing? Because getting tattooed was serious business; getting a tattoo was a sacred ritual, having a tattoo was a badge of honor, and giving a tattoo was a most important responsibility. The Shaman was trained in the ways of carrying out the sacred ritual, even presiding over a “cleansing” that had to be performed by each recipient in preparation for the tattoo. Do you take your ink that seriously? It’s something to think about.

The Mystery in the History

Now, the story of Captain Cook is the most accepted version of how we got the word tattoo, but there is another. It dates about 150 years prior to Cook’s journey to Tahiti, and it refers to the “rhythmic rapping” used by the English military to call for silence and order before playing Taps at the end of the day. That, according to history sources, was already called a “tattoo” and it’s just a complete coincidence that the rhythmic tapping made to create marks on the skin was referred to as “tattow” by the ancient Tahitians. Hmmm…..

History can be a very mysterious subject. We may not know all the answers, but even the possibilities are fascinating. Can you imagine being Captain James Cook, meeting these exotic, marked people for the very first time? He was so enamored with them, he even brought one of them back home to England with him. So, not only did his logs shock the prim and proper gents and ladies of England, but an actual Tahitian native, decorated from head to toe in cultural markings, disembarked onto English soil in the eighteenth century. However, the appearance of Ma’i (nicknamed Omai) was embraced by the Europeans, and he became quite a sensation.  But that doesn’t mean the Tahitian people and their tattoos gained everyone’s approval.

The Unsinkable Ship

When the English settlers brought Christianity to French Polynesia, they also brought with them reading, writing, and tattoo prohibition. Citing that the bible forbade tattoos, the natives traded their ancient practices for modern beliefs, and tattoos were all but wiped out for hundreds of years. This holds true in many lands, but fortunately something this deeply entrenched in human history will never be completely eliminated, because there will always be those who hold tradition dear. And that is why you get to walk into any shop today and get tattooed simply because you want to.

Future articles will cover more of the fascinating history of tattoo, both good and bad, and how we got to where we are today. Know where your tattoo comes from.

Go to Part 2 "Tattoos 101, Part 2: The Tattoo Machine"

About Author: Karen L Hudson - Tattoo/Body Mod Expert & Educator, Author, Wife, Mother, Excessive Hobbyist. She is the author of Living Canvas: Your Complete Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Body Modification and the editor and co-author of Chick Ink: 40 Stories of Tattoos -- And the Women Who Wear Them. She has been one the world's top body art safety and acceptance advocates since 1999, and former About.com guide for 12 years. Check out her website for more great content: www.Tat2Guru.com.



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