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Evolution Of Tattoos


Tattoos are considered to be one of the oldest forms of art. Some claim that they must have originated about the time people started scratching out patterns in dirt or scribbling figures on rocks, and definitely preceded the more complex art of actual painting with dyes, as are the ancient “cave murals”. The first tattooing most likely occurred by pure accident. It was enough for a clumsy person to trip and fall over a fire or step onto a stained sharp tool or material, so that some dirt, ashes or other colorful substances were introduced into the open wound, leaving an indelible mark after healing. Someone must have noticed this and decided to repeat the whole experience in order to obtain the same effect, but in a better controlled way to get a little fun and excitement. It was obviously more complex than scratching in dirt, but still probably simpler than mixing paints and making brushes for painting on cave walls – sharpen a stick, get a splinter of a bone, a sharp piece of a shell or something else, char it in the fire, stick holes into your skin, and you've got art! Or, the entire situation may have well been pretty much more complicated and grave. For example, the marks left on a person's skin after the healing of severe wounds might have been considered ominous and of particular religious importance. In a simpler instance, such marks on the skin could have just been considered real-life evidence of valor, and earned the person who had them respect and awe.


However incredible it might seem, some scientists state that certain marks on the skin of “the Iceman” – a frozen human body found in the Austrian Alps, about 100 meters inside the Italian border – are tattoos. It is said that the skin of the mummy bears a cross behind one knee and an array of lines above the kidneys. This has given rise to the speculation that the man was a shaman or otherwise worshipped member of his clan, as for millennia tattoos were reserved in many if not most cultures to members of the castes of priest or secret sects. And, if this must be the reason for which the “glacial shaman” is now housed in a one-million-dollar mausoleum and is being treated with utmost care. His “sacred mummy” has been carbon-dated to 5,300 years ago, and several artifacts found nearby seem to corroborate the time estimation. Thus, if it is true, these markings represent the earliest known evidence of the practice of tattooing. Several other Egyptian and Nubian mummies bear similar marks, and Egyptian clay figurines between 4,000 and 3,000 years old have paintings that resemble tattoos. Now researchers also mention the use of tattoos in connection with Greeks, ancient Germans, Gauls, Thracians and ancient Britons.

The initial tattoos seem to have been applied by puncture with a needle or other sharp instrument steeped in pigment, much like the prisoner tattoos several decades ago. As the Egyptian Empire expanded, so did the art of tattooing. As the Ancient Egypt developed an intense commercial traffic with most countries it bordered – the tattoo practice spread along the main merchant routes to Greece, Persia, Central Asia, and Arabia.

From Southern China the practice spread along the silk route. The Ainu – nomads from western Asian – brought tattooing to Japan when they crossed over to the Japanese islands. The Ainu people used tattoos to signify social status and to symbolize magic. The Japanese themselves rejected the religious meaning of tattoos, and turned exclusively towards the graphical and ornamental aspects of the practice. To the day the technique and style of Japanese tattooists stands out in design and craft. From Japan, tattoos spread to the Philippines and Pacific Islands. The Polynesians carried the tattoo culture across the Pacific Islands to New Zealand and are probably responsible for the largest dissemination of the practice. Their style still survives among the Maoris and the inhabitants of some of the Pacific Islands, strict regulations and ceremonies accompany the procedure.

Tattooing traveled to America either via the large Polynesian migration, or across a northern land or ice bridge with Siberian tribes who learned tattooing from the Ainu. Tattoos apparently became popular among Mayas, Incas and Aztecs and the practice had an important role in their religious rituals.

Invaders brought more refined and artistic tattoos to the British Isles, since it was usual for warriors and sailors to have their tribal symbols tattooed. This usage still survives with some aristocratic families. Pope Hadrian banned tattooing as a barbaric custom in the 8th century, although it was still practiced in Britain until the Norman invasion. It then vanished from Western culture until the 16th century. During this time of scarcity in the west, tattooing thrived in Japan, where it truly found itself appreciated as an art form. Collectors of tattooed skins would draw contract with individuals who would receive payment for their skin upon death. The Tokyo Museum of Natural Art has a collection of several hundred of these skins. The Japanese body suit, a well-known cultural icon worldwide, originated around 1700 out of protest. Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate clothing, by laws enacted at that time, and as a result, middle class men adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. This allowed the bearer the privilege of being 'well dressed' despite the legal restrictions!

Europeans rediscovered tattooing when exploration brought them into contact with Polynesians and American Indians. A fellow by the name of William Dampher is responsible for bringing tattoos to the west again. After exploring the South Pacific as a sailor, he returned to London in 1691 with a fellow named Giolo, a heavily tattooed Polynesian of purported royal blood. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tattau , which means "to mark", and was first mentioned in explorer James Cook's records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific. Because tattoos were considered so exotic in European and U.S. societies, tattooed Indians and Polynesians drew crowds at circuses and fairs during the 18th and 19th centuries.

By the start of the 20th century, tattooing was beginning to be viewed as sleazy. Heavily tattooed people, previously admired, were then appearing in circuses and freak shows. Tattooing was forced underground as it became socially unacceptable. Training was in short supply and magazines showing tattoos unheard of.

Currently, tattooing is more popular than ever and is also more widely accepted as a part of our society. Tattooists are now considered 'fine artists' and receive more respect than in years past. Artists now combine more traditional art with their own flavor to create some truly stunning work. Hygiene is also now a major consideration of any self-respecting tattooist. All in all, the changes that have occurred have today created a safe, artistic form of self-expression.


The practice of tattooing means different things in different cultures. In early practice, decoration appears to have been the most common motive for tattooing, and that still holds true today. In some cultures, tattoos served as identification of the wearer's rank or status in a group. For example, in Ancient Greece, the tattoo was used to mark spies while the early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals. Dayak warriors who had 'taken a head' were signified by a tattoo on the hand. The Polynesians employed tattoos to denote status, tribal communities and rank. Tahitian tattoos served as rites of passage , telling the history of the wearer's life. Boys reaching manhood received one tattoo to mark the occasion, while men had another style done when they married. Ritual and tradition have been common and constant factors in tattooing. In Borneo, for example, women bore a symbol on their arms to denote their specific skills, thus increasing their potential for marriage, whilst tattoos worn around the fingers and wrist were said to ward off illness. Clan or society membership have also often been symbolized by tattoos throughout history. It has also been believed that the wearer of an image calls the spirit of that image. For example, the ferocity of a tiger would belong to the person bearing this tattoo. Sailors traveling to exotic foreign lands began to collect tattoos as souvenirs of their journeys (a dragon showed that the seaman had served on a China station), and tattoo parlors sprang up in port cities around the globe.

Early Tattooing Methods

An amazing variety of tattooing methods developed in different cultures. In North and South America, many Indian tribes routinely tattooed the body or the face by simple pricking , and some tribes in California introduced color into scratches . Many tribes of the Arctic and Subarctic, mostly Inuit, and some people in eastern Siberia, made needle punctures through which a thread coated with pigment (usually consisting basically of soot) was drawn underneath the skin. In Polynesia and Micronesia, pigment was pricked into the skin by tapping on a tool shaped like a small rake.

The Maori people of New Zealand, who are world famous for their tattooing, applied their wood carving technique to tattooing. In the moko style of Maori tattooing, shallow, colored grooves in distinctive, complex designs were produced on the face and buttocks by striking a small bone-cutting tool (used for shaping wood) into the skin. After the Europeans arrived in the 1700s, the Maori began using the metal that settlers brought for a more conventional style of puncture tattooing.

Modern Tattooing

Today, tattoos are created by injecting ink into the skin. Injection is done by a needle attached to a hand-held tool. The tool moves the needle up and down at a rate of several hundred vibrations per minute and penetrates the skin by about one millimeter. What you see when you look at a tattoo is the ink that's left in the skin after the tattooing. The ink is not in the epidermis , which is the layer of skin that we see and the skin that gets replaced constantly, but instead intermingles with cells in the dermis and shows through the epidermis. The cells of the dermis are remarkably stable, so the tattoo's ink will last, with minor fading and dispersion, for your entire life.

The Tattoo Machine

The basic idea of the electrically powered tattooing machine is that a needle moves up and down like in a sewing machine, carrying ink into your skin in the process. Today, a tattoo machine is an electrically powered, vertically vibrating steel device that resembles a dentist's drill… and produces a similar sound too. It is fitted with solid needles that puncture the skin at the rate of 50 to 3,000 times a minute. The sterilized needles are installed in the machine and dipped into ink, which is sucked up through the machine's tube system. Then, powered by a foot switch much like that on a sewing machine, the tattoo machine uses an up-and-down motion to puncture the top layer of the skin and drive insoluble, micrometer-sized particles of ink into the second (dermal) layer of skin, about one-eighth inch deep.

Applying a Tattoo

The actual tattoo begins with the stencil of the tattoo in place or the outline of a custom tattoo drawn by hand onto the skin. Using one single-tipped needle, the artist starts at the bottom of the right-hand side and works up (lefties generally start on the left side), so the stencil won't be lost when the artist cleans a permanent line. For single-needle work, a thinner black ink than that used for shading is used, because thinner ink can be easily wiped away from the skin without smearing. As this happens, the tattoo machine is buzzing and smooth clear lines should be emerging as the needle pierces the skin, applies the ink and gradually lifts out of the skin in a steady motion. (Experts say this is where the professionals show their mettle: In order to create clear lines and proper depth, the tattoo artist must understand how deep the needles actually need to go to produce a permanent line. Not going deep enough will create scratchy lines after healing, and going too deep will cause excessive pain and bleeding.)

Once the outline is complete, the area is thoroughly cleaned with antiseptic soap and water. Then, the outline is thickened and shading is added. The tattoo artist will use a combination of needles. If this isn't done correctly, shadowed lines, excessive pain and delayed healing will result. Using a thicker, blacker ink, the artist goes over the outline creating an even, solid line. Shading creates special effects. Each tattoo artist works differently, depending upon his or her training and preference. After the shading is done, the tattoo is cleaned again and is now ready for color. When applying color, the artist overlaps each line of color to ensure solid, even hues with no holidays – the uneven areas where color has either lifted out during healing or where the tattoo artist simply missed a section of skin. The tattoo is again sprayed and cleaned and pressure is applied using a disposable towel to remove any blood and plasma excreted during the tattooing process. According to medical experts, some bleeding always occurs in tattooing, but under normal conditions (no alcohol or illegal drugs in the system, no fatigue, no tattooing over scar tissue), most stops within a few minutes after the tattoo is completed. (Reputable tattoo artists won't tattoo those who are sick, drunk, high or pregnant, and they won't apply pornographic, racist or gang tattoos.)

Tattoo Styles

Black And Grey

The tattoo is done in shades of black and gray only. This style originated in the prisons of North America, due to the prisoner's difficulty in obtaining colored ink. Later it developed into the refined, detailed style that has become popular these days.


Traditional style refers to the Western or American tattoo: arranging scrolls of words amongst decorative vignettes, flowers, hearts and animals. The style was first developed to accommodate busy shops of the 40s and 50s near military bases (it is a quick way to tattoo) and the limited color palette then available. This type of tattoo is very stylized, quite two dimensional, and often executed with little regard for art. The lines tend to be thick and bold, the colors are rarely shaded or life-like, and the images tend towards iconic, cartoon-like, and little effort made to make things look realistic. Common design elements include hearts, anchors, birds, panthers, simple flowers (roses in particular), and names.


A style popularized by illustrator H. R. Giger, the designer of the creature from the Alien movies. Bio-mechanical work usually involves flesh intertwined with machines.


Delicate outlines, often highly detailed. The success of the finished tattoo depends a great deal on the artist's use of negative space, and his or her refraining from adding yet more detail. An overly detailed fineline tattoo, or one that was not carefully planned out, may dissolve into mush after a few years. Fine line tries to reproduce an effect similar to looking at a drawing or painting on the skin. This type of tattooing falls into the categories "color work" and "black and grey". The desired effect is that of the skin being just another type of canvas or medium for the artist.


Bold, black, silhouette style designs. Most of this work is based on ancient tattoo designs of the South Pacific Islands. These designs, more so where they are strongly based on traditional forms, are usually abstract. But this is not always the case, as tattooists in the west have modified the traditional designs. The easiest way to characterize tribal style blackwork is that it consists of a combination of discrete design elements, each of which is self contained, abstract, and without shading. These elements are grouped which may or may not have a separate specific meaning.


Photographic quality work, usually portraits or nature scenes. Images taken from photos, best done by someone who can render realistic photographic images. Usually done in black and grey ink. The danger with finely stippled realistic tattoo work is the same danger inherent in all tattoos. The pigment 'bleeds' by osmosis, spreading under the skin, which can turn a once finelined tattoo into a dark, fuzzy blotch over a couple of years and finelined work is that which suffers most, quality-wise.


Original work designed by the bearer, either on his/her own or together with the tattooist. Custom designs are prevalent among people looking for a tattoo, which fits their personality, set of beliefs or is chosen to mark a special event in their lives. The design itself can be widely varying, depending on taste, budget and attitude of the bearer.


This style of tattooing is more concerned with approach than subject matter. It utilizes the entire body as canvas, rather than the western approach of adding a tattoo here and there. The Oriental style usually incorporates swirling patterns and figures from eastern mythology into the designs.

This style is characterized by flowers with symbolic value (particularly chrysanthemums), fish (again with symbolic value), such as carp, the familiar dragon imagery, and background fill-work reminiscent of water and waves. These images are often stylized in a particular fashion that follows the design rules of traditional Japanese art. Individuals in traditional Japanese dress may also be part of the images.


By Denis Dilion

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