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The History of Tattoos
Tattoos have an ancient history stretching back over thousands of years. Egyptians were tattooing themselves for decorative reasons back in the days of the pyramids. The Chinese adopted the form around 2,000 B.C. The body of a primitive man found frozen in the Swiss mountains dated to 2000 years ago had multiple tattoos on him. The practice of making permanent marks into the skin with pigment has been found at some point in nearly every major culture in history.
In some societies it helped identify bands of people - as when family crests or tribal symbols were used. During the Victorian era, the modern tattoo machine was first invented and patented, a design that has changed very little in style to this day. When explorers of that era came across primitive cultures that practiced tattooing, individuals were often returned to Europe for audiences and exhibitions. When religious missionaries encounter tattooing, they often do their best to discourage and end the practices. Sadly the twentieth century saw many native tattooing practices disappear, especially in the South Pacific island cultures.
In other societies, criminals or outcasts were 'marked' in order that others would know clearly who they were. One of the most notorious uses of tattooing was in ancient China where the offender was marked with three lines on the forehead, forming the character for “dog” after the third offense. The Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime syndicate, historically has used full-body tattooing as a way of identifying members and/or proving commitment. Street gangs in contemporary America frequently utilize tattooing, often on the neck or hands to prove commitment, as the marks can’t be hidden casually and your group identity is always on view.
The word “tattoo” is fairly modern. The first recorded usage of the word is an entry in British sea Captain James Cook’s diary dated 1796. The word is derived from the Polynesian/Samoan root word “tatu,” a verb meaning “to strike.” There is also a related modern usage where a tattoo refers to a military exercise or a continuous drumming. Internet query searches quickly reveal there are a variety of common misspellings for the word “tattoos.” Popular errors are tatoos, tattos and tattoes.
The modern wave of tattoo interest has its roots in the late 1960s. For the first time, people with fine art training began to work in the field of skin art, bringing with them all their art history knowledge. The modern body art renaissance has been the saving grace for many tribal tattoo styles, now being worn by people with no attachment to the symbolic histories of many of these patterns. Nonetheless, this fascination with mixed cultural tattoo styles has saved certain styles of skin art from extinction.
For various tattoo histories, you might try some of the below titles.
Flash from the Past: Classic American Tattoo Designs 1890-1965 by D.E. Hardy
New York City Tattoo by Michael McCabe
Written on the Body by Jane Caplan (Editor)
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