their long history, tattoos have been seen as many different things. And their
wearers are everything from outcasts to revolutionaries – depending on which
part of the world you look at!
Very simply, a tattoo is nothing more than a mark made by injecting ink onto the second layer of the skin. What’s controversial about that, you might wonder. That answer is not quite as simple.
Tattooing is over 5000 years old. Mummies have been discovered in Europe and Asia sporting tattoos which were most likely a form of pain relief – similar to acupuncture!
Tribes in Asia, Australia, Native America, and Polynesia have been tattooing for a long time, and are the inspiration for modern tribal tattoos and other styles such as blackwork.
Over time, tattoos came to be used as brands to mark anyone deemed a “criminal”, such as prisoners of war in Hitler’s Germany and women who were accused of adultery, among others. In countries like Japan and China, tattoos, particularly colorful, extensive full-body tattoos became associated with gangs (such as the Yakuza in Japan) and were made illegal. Though they are no longer illegal, the stigma around them remains.
In the West, tattoos were beloved among the aristocracy in Britain who were especially enamored by traditional Japanese tattooing, called Irezumi, and would frequently get inked with serpents and dragons, common themes in Japanese tattoos. This trend spread to America, where inking was considered a lower class fashion trend. Women covered in tattoos were often part of the circus as ‘freakshow’ acts. The blowback from this made the elite British inkers start hiding their ink more, as they did not want to be associated with the ‘riff-raff’.
Earlier on, James Cook and his sailors voyaged into Polynesia and were shocked by the tattoos they saw on the locals there – tribal tattooing was entirely foreign to them and they did not understand the sacred nature of this art form. Eventually, sailors began sporting tribal tattoos of their own, which they later combined with the colorful Irezumi designs – and this led to the old-school or ‘classic’ tattoo style which remains popular even today.
The stigma around tattooing in the West shifted dramatically after it became common for celebrities and famous personalities to get inked. And with the growth of the tattoo industry itself came about better equipment and tattooing materials, which shifted the perception that tattooing was excruciating and unhygienic. Moreover, the punk subculture began sporting tattoos which brought a whole new dimension to tattooing – one that painted tattoos as a symbol of revolution, freedom, and anarchy. The rest of the world eventually caught up and tattooing became something more than just ink on the skin – it became an extension of one’s self, and a true expression of one’s identity and beliefs.
Since then, tattoos have become much more commonplace. With advancements in the laser removal industry as well as tattoo artists’ skills with coverup tattoos being better than ever, tattoos are now no longer something so permanent you have to get it right the first time. Now, people are free to get inked with anything that inspires them or brings them joy, even if only momentarily.
With so many different styles of tattooing i.e, tattoo for hand and wrist and all kinds of experimental tattoos and inks coming up, this is an industry that is going to keep evolving. Tattoos, it would seem, are truly an expression of identity – changing and growing just like us, along for the ride all the way.