A Brief History of Tattoos and Piercings

While some people still have very negative opinions about tattoos and piercings, the art has been alive and practiced for centuries in practically all countries and cultures.

For millennia, people around the world have embellished their bodies with tattoos and piercings to convey various sociocultural concepts, including beauty, cultural and social identity, stature in the hierarchy, medicine, and superstitious protection. Tattoos and piercings have been used as a method of expression and continue to be a visual language in which culture is engraved and preserved in countless specific ways.

If we were to fully understand the meanings that these skin modification methods have had in human history up to the present, it would be helpful to find out how tattoos and piercings have been used across cultures as tools that convey culture throughout time.

A Brief History

Otzi the Iceman’s mummy, showcasing tattoos and piercing hole in ear. Image Source: wikipedia

In terms of tattoos and piercings on actual bodies, the earliest known example of the oldest mummified body discovered to date is of a Neolithic man called “Otzi the Iceman” who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. The mummy was found in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps (giving him the nickname “Ötzi”) on the border between Austria and Italy. During the discovery of his mummy, archaeologists found 61 primitive tattoos depicting lines and crosses carved on his chest, lumbar spine, wrist, knees, calves and ankles. His mummy also had pierced ears and elongated lobes ranging from 7 to 11 millimeters long.

A fact worth mentioning is that all of the Otzi tattoos line up with acupuncture points, suggesting that they may have been done to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic. In today’s world, the therapeutic ritual of joint tattooing is practiced among the Kayan of Sarawak.

In recent times, scientists have also uncovered evidence of tattooing around the same era in Ancient Egypt as Otzi.

Cultural background of tattoos

The tattooed right hand of a Chiribaya mummy displayed at El Algarrobal Museum. They were farmers who lived from A.D. 900 to 1350. Image Source: Joann Fletcher

Though one can’t pinpoint a primary place or culture claiming to have originated this art form, tattoos have been found on mummies from ancient periods across the whole wide world. Closely following Otzi, at least 49 other mummies have been discovered sporting tattoos.

It is pertinent to note that although these cultures have tattooing in common, the symbolism behind the practice of tattooing differs. In the ancient period, tattoos were often a cultural indication to determine tribal relations, as protection and as a form of healing. What I find the most fascinating is how every culture views tattoos differently around the world. In many cultures, they are seen as a symbol of purity; their rite of passage, ensuring societal acceptance, or to enhance your beauty. They may also represent a religious ritual.

Let’s deep dive and look at how tattoos are viewed in different parts of the world.

Ancient Egyptian tattoos

Initially, it was believed that in the Egyptian era, tattoos were only practiced by women and not men. And this body art was associated with dancing girls and prostitutes by male excavators. Later, when one of the mummies, first discovered in 1891 by Eugene Grebaut, was found to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, her patterns of dots tattooed across her abdomen are linked to fertility and are thought to be symbols of protection, and the elite location of this woman’s burials and the meanings behind her ink suggests otherwise.

Only recently, tattoos have been found on two mummies (a male and a female) after a more thorough inspection, thanks to technology. They belong to a collection of six found in 1900 and are now housed in the British Museum since then.

the shoulder and upper arm of a female Egyptian mummy bore “S”-shaped motifs. Credit: Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

Named the ‘Gebelein mummies’ after the region in which they were found, both individuals date anywhere from 3351 B.C. to 3017 B.C, (in a similar timeline as Otzi) making them some of the earliest known bearers of tattoos.

Unlike Otzi’s thin and dotted simplistic tattoos, Egyptian tattoos are the first known example representing images. Of the two Gebelein mummies, the male body features a tattoo depicted as a wild bull, which represents masculinity and stature. It is mentioned that he also appears to have an outline of a barbary sheep, which is believed to represent good hunting skills. On the woman’s body there are several S-shaped symbols, but their meaning is harder to decipher. One can believe that the tattoos carved on ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of emblem during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth. One can presume this due to the size of the tattoo and their location on the body, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts.

It is said that the people to do these tattoos of the era were older women, perhaps female seers with an understanding of the significance behind the symbols and colors used. Interestingly, Seers were also spiritually learnt, for they were known for practical magic and healing.

Japanese tattoos

A country known for its spectrum of rich and deep-rooted cultures, has a 5000-year-old history of tattoos. While today its designs are popular and most commonly recognized, an ancient Chinese text from around 287 AD, the ‘Wei Chih’, was the first to mention Japanese tattooing. The text says that men of all ages will have tattoos, some even on their face. Japanese tattoos usually come in a mixture of black-and-gray colors; each color bears its own association, like yellow signifies joy and optimism, pink – femininity, good health, blue – luck, a symbol of fidelity. There are also a variety of Japanese tattoos that come solely in black-and-gray. They take a good amount of space, because it needs enough room for extensive detailing, and hence, it is typically done on an arm, or the entire back, while some even go for full-body. One has a range of subjects to choose from. When it comes to Japanese tattooing, the most popular among them are dragon – for power and strength, koi fish – symbolizing good luck and independence. DID YOU KNOW?: Tattoos have also been used in Japan as a punishment. As an alternative to amputation, criminals would be tattooed in highly visible areas, even their face, for public shame and embarrassment.

Samoa, Polynesia Tribal Tattoos

Polynesia is a home to a thousand scattered islands in the central and southern Pacific ocean, whose people share ancestry and similar customs, but one thing that distinguishes them is their tattoo practices. In Polynesian culture, tattoos mean more than just the design and colors. They are meant to tell the story of your life. One of the most popular tribal tattoos from Polynesia is the Samoan Tribal Tattoos — a 3,000-year-old ritual that survived colonialism to stand strong to see the light of the day. These tattoos symbolize strength, authority and rank to define the hierarchy of the Samoan tribe.

‘Tatau or Tatatu’ is a Samoan word for tattoo, meaning “to mark” or to “strike repeatedly”. Scribed using tools such as shark tooths, Samoan tribal tattooing is an extremely painful process. Samoans believe that tattooing helps differentiate between adolescence and adulthood, for one has to show high endurance and courage to bear the process that sometimes goes on for days, while it takes weeks and months to heal. Both Samoan men and women believe in the sacred inking. Pe’a, the male form of Samoan tattoo, on being inked, grants him the status of a man and the right to perform certain duties as a village chief. While Malu, the female form, gives women the privilege to do odd jobs like serving drinks at a funeral, or collecting gifts.

Mayan Tribal Tattoos

The ancient Maya civilization at its peak power in the 6th century AD is a fascination for many of us. It began in Mesoamerica, a Greek term meaning “middle America.” Starting in central Mexico, it expands into Central America (including El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala.) In today’s time, there are approximately 6 million Mayan living in the world. Most Mayan tribes are located in Mexico. And just like many religions and cultures, there are 31 distinct tribes in Mayan itself with distinct variations in language, belief, customs and so on among them.

As opposed to most of our reason(s) behind getting a tattoo now (one of mine is a deathly hallows from Harry Potter, I know I know, spare me from the judgements), many tribal tattoos have deeper and significant meanings behind them. It was seen as an attempt at pleasing the gods, for status in society, while personal beautification was also one of the reasons.

The dignified class performed as many tattoos as they could, as in their culture they believed the more extreme and painful a tattoo, the higher the reputation of the individual. The Mayan form of tattoo involved the painful process of inking a design, and to enhance it on the skin, they would create cuts all along the markings. The inky scar was the tattoo. This form of detailed and long-enduring painful process left some individuals vulnerable to infection. This act of getting the tattoo, despite the painful process, was considered as brave and showcased their devotion to god. It would also act as a symbol to showcase a person’s place in the ancient religious systems. Hence, it is necessary to understand the cultural history and background of these designs, as to get a similar tattoo in today’s time for frivolous reasons, would be an insult to say the least.

Borneo Tribal Tattoo

Ever heard of tattoos serving as a weapon for war? Up against a group of Japanese soldiers with machine guns, a group of Iban warriors of Borneo had only their spears and tattoos for survival. This dates back to 1940, and according to history, one of the warriors even made it home, alive.

Like other tribal tattoos, Borneo holds similar significance — representing age, gender and the social status of the person. It also serves as an accomplishment. Through their life experiences, men and women collect tattoos. For instance, when a young man ventures out of his house to earn a livelihood, he is traditionally inked with flower-like shapes on his front shoulders, indicating a backpack. This process is called Bejalai, meaning the “journey of knowledge and wisdom”. Once the young man proves himself, he is permitted to collect other tattoos of significance. For women, tattoos on their hands signify she is a master weaver, a special skill in Iban culture.

A traditional ‘hand tapping’ method is being performed to create a tattoo – which requires repeatedly tapping a needle on a stick into the subject’s skin. Image source: AFP

The methodology of Borneo tattooing is generally the old-fashioned way of using a long stick and needles. A long stick with 3 needles on the end is carefully and rhythmically used to tap the needles into the skin with the use of a “striker”. They used a stencil made out of carved wooden block to transfer the design onto the skin. Once that is done, the tattoo artist will set to work. A homogenous mixture of soot, water, and sugar cane was used as an ink.

Māori Tribal Tattoos

The Maoris are an indigenous sect that trace its origin to New Zealand. Their form of body art is known as Ta Moko but more commonly referred to as Maori tattooing. This art form was introduced to the Maori tribe from Polynesia and is taken into account as highly sacred. Since the Maori people consider the head to be the foremost sacred part of the body, facial tattoos were highly respected and the most popular to get. They consisted of curved shapes and spiral-like patterns. This tribal tattooing is often done on the entire face, representing an individual’s rank, power and prestige in society.

For Maori, tattooing was (and for some, still is) a rite of passage, which meant it was highly ritualized. The tattooing would usually begin during adolescence. The Ta Moko was originally applied employing a small chisel. This chisel is known as a Uhi. The Uhi makes cuts and “carves” the skin with almost the same techniques an artisan would use on wood. This is a painful process that has a single effect on the skin. These cuts would then be treated with naturally derived ink to make the tattoo.

Ask any individual about the ink on his/ her skin, and they will tell you what it signifies. Rarely will you come across someone who has a tattoo just for the sake of it. Every tattoo has a purpose of its own. It ends up becoming a part of you. I have missed quite a number of cultures, tribes and places that have a deep history with tattoos. The list of traditional tattoos is long. I wish I was able to talk about all of them in detail. Alas, we have to limit it here. Even though the list is extensive and long, they all imply that tattoos have never been restricted to mere designs or colors. Dedicated research on the kind of tattoo you could get connected with is a must. Remember, picking up a random tribal tattoo design from the internet, and getting it inked on your body, may mean differently; for every tattoo has a tale of its own. In the next blog I’ll be talking about piercings and their significance in various cultures.

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