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Socializing Bodies

A History of the Tattoo

Asserting that he was not his brother’s keeper, Cain lashed out at Abel, committing a deed that could not be undone. In response to Cain’s anxiety about subsequent potential threats to his own life, the Lord placed a mark, or what might be considered the first tattoo, on Cain. Multifaceted and complex in its meaning, his tattoo not only condemned him but also protected him, made him famous, and marked him as a committed rebel. As in the Bible, the Greeks, Romans, and Japanese would also routinely tattoo criminals, slaves, and “undesirables” and, like the Biblical mark, those tattoos were often polyphonic in their meaning (Gray 1994). Tattoos have not only marked rebels but have also communicated clan membership, religious or tribal affiliation, social status, and marital position...and have served as markers of inclusion or exclusion. The oldest physical body in existence, the so-called Ice Man (ca. 3300-3200 B.C.) is remarkable not only because his 57 tattoos perhaps were used for medicinal purposes, but because this oldest human skin ever found is itself tattooed. Considering the large number of tattooed mummies found around the globe, tattooing was apparently widely practiced in the ancient world (DeMello 2000). Ancient, mysterious, and powerful, tattoos still hold a critical place in the modern world.

Ancient Egypt and the Spread of Tattoos

Several female Egyptian mummies dating from the Eleventh Dynasty (2100 B.C.) show evidence of being tattooed for ritualistic purposes or for therapeutic purposes during pregnancy. Most likely influenced by ancient tattoo practices in Nubia, the women’s tattoos (or mentenu) were blackish blue and were likely applied with a pricking instrument with one or more fish bones set into a wooden handle. The most famous tattooed mummy is the beautiful Amunet, a priestess of the goddess of Hathor at Thebes, who was tattooed with several lines and dots in geometric patterns. A second female mummy, who appears to be a dancer, also exhibits similar patterns as well as a cicatrix pattern over the low pubic region. Several figurines from the Middle Kingdom known as the “Brides of Death” also display similar geometric patterns (Jones 2000). Though Egyptian tattoos have been found on only female mummies, designs which seem to represent tattoos are seen on both men and women in Egyptian art, suggesting tattoos were not restricted to women. While tattooing sprung up independently around the globe, the significant Egyptian influence also helped spread the practice.

Ancient Greece and Rome: Tattoos as Marks of Ownership and Criminality

The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians who, as Herodotus informs us, would tattoo slaves, prisoners of war, and even Hellespont with the name or mark of Xerxes. While tattoos sometimes served as a way to transmit secret messages across enemy lines, Herodotus notes that the Greeks typically associated voluntary tattooing with barbarians, such as the Thracian (Maenads) women who were believed to have murdered Orpheus for his homosexual interest in their husbands. Herodotus was the first to use the root “stig” as in the pejorative “stigma” to refer to tattoos as a mark (estichthai) or a “pricking.” Other Greek writers, such as Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aelius Aristides, Aeschines, and Herodus also mention tattoos in a punitive sense (Jones 2000). Plato, for example, argues that a temple robber should have his offense marked on his hands and forehead, and the philosopher Bion of Borysthenes (325-246 B.C.) claims that his father, a freed slave, had “instead of a face, a document” due to the number of tattoos on his face. The practice of tattooing “undesirables” is still practiced in parts of the modern world. For example, the Nazi’s would tattoo Jews and others with identifying numbers, and today prisoners in Europe, Russia, and America continue to tattoo themselves (Gustafson 2000).

Punitive tattooing continued into the Roman era. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Galen, and Seneca all mention tattoos (stigmates), and the Roman physician Aetius includes a description of tattoo application and tattoo removal as well as the formula for tattoo ink in his Medicae artis principles. The Roman emperor Caligula would capriciously tattoo members of his court for fun, and the emperor Theouphilus tattooed eleven verses of iambic pentameter on the forehead of two monks who had criticized him. In addition, exported Roman slaves would have their foreheads tattooed with the phrase “tax paid.” The Biblical Book of Revelation says that the “whore of Babylon” was a slave of the lowest kind whose face was tattooed with her vices. Paradoxically, Christians who were tattooed under Roman government and lived were treated as heroes and courageous models. What had been a mark of punishment was transformed into a mark of glory, honor, and a victory of God’s power. As Jewish influence crept into Roman government, tattoos became less common, and the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine banned tattoos on the face as it was supposedly in the image of God (Gustafson 2000).

The Middle Ages: Decline of Tattoos

Though Pope Hadrian banned tattoos completely in A.D. 487, they could still be found throughout the European middle ages. For example, Christian pilgrims received tattoos as souvenirs of their faith on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests in early Briton, using “woad” as permanent body paint. Woad was blue ink from a flower and was also used to create spirals, intricate knot work, and labyrinths that symbolized the connections and various paths of life. When the Normans invaded Britain in 1066, their utter disdain of tattoos effectively erased tattooing from Western culture until the nineteenth century (De Melloo 2000).

Japan: Tattoo Imagery and Sophistication

While tattooing diminished in the West, it had ancient and pervasive roots in the Pacific where it held a significant cultural significance. The Ainu traditionally wore facial tattoos and likely imported the practice into Japan. Indeed, ancient Japanese clay figures recovered from tombs dating from 3000 B.C. had engraved or tattooed faces and most likely represented living individuals who could accompany the dead on their journey to the underworld. During the Kofun period (A.D. 300-600), facial tattoos took on a negative association and were used as a form of punishment and to identify the untouchable classes, the hinin and the eta. The modern Japanese tattoo covering the front and back of the torso as well as the arms and legs developed in the Edo period (1600-1800) and was practiced by large segments of the lower class. The imagery and style of the full-body tattoo was probably derived from the Chinese novel Shui-hi Chua (Suikoden in Japanese), which was popular in the early nineteenth century. The versions illustration by Kuniyoshi showed scenes of legendary battle with mythical heroes and warriors that had creatures surrounded by highly stylized waves, wind bars, flowers, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and peonies. Pictures from this novel and from the wood-block prints of that century came to form the iconographic vocabulary for modern Japanese tattooing (DeMello 2000). The full-body tattoo later was discouraged by Japanese authorities and began to mark questionable groups such as prostitutes and entertainers. These “undesirables” often embellished their own tattoos with images of their own choice, both transforming the tattoo’s original meaning and giving rise to the Irezumi or Yakuza (the criminal underground).

Western Culture and North America: Colonialism, Circus Shows, and Appropriation into the Middle Class

After centuries of decline, tattoos re-entered the Western consciousness initially through colonialism. In 1769, Captain James Cook, sailing for the British navy, brought back to England his own painted “native” named Omai. Cook first encountered tattooing when he discovered Tahiti and was the first Westerner to use the Tahitian word ta-tu or tatau meaning “to strike” (the word “tattoo” formally entered the English language in 1777). Previously, tattoos were known in the West as “prics” or “marks.” Cook also discovered tattooing in Hawaii (“kakau”) and New Zealand (“Moko”). Interestingly, the Moko and were often tattooed on the head, which created a rather bloody tattooed-head trade in the West (Jones 2000). Paradoxically, while tattooed natives were seen as little more than savages, soon after Cook displayed Omai, the English upper class began getting small tattoos. For example, the Prince of Wales started a fad of sorts when he revealed his tattoo of a Jerusalem cross. And tattooing would eventually become an integrated part of North American working class as they became attracted to what the sailor represented: adventure, travel, exotic lands, and a free spirit (Atkinson 2003). Sailors served as the middlemen through which tattoos were integrated into Western culture (DeMello 2000).

In the early twentieth century, the practice of displaying tatooed natives was replaced by tattooed Westerners in freak shows and carnivals. Tattooed circus performers such as Jean Babtiste Cabri, John Rutherford, and James F. O’Connell (the first man exhibited in the U.S.)--as well as female performers Irene La Bell and the most famous tattooed lady Betty Brodbent--further ingrained the tattoo into Western culture. However, as the sideshows declined in the early twentieth century, “freak” shows dwindled and the cultural view of tattooing was forced increasingly into the “sleazier” parts of town.

Even while tattooing was declining in popularity, Samuel O’Riley invented the electric tattoo machine in 1891 and opened a shop in Chatham Square in New York City. His invention made it easier, less painful, and cheaper to get a tattoo. The machine created strong black lines, heavy black shading, and a dab of color, creating the American classic style of tattooing. Between the two world wars, the hub of tattooing moved from Chatham Square to Coney Island, and both the tattoo machine and the rise in patriotism contributed to a surge in the tattoo’s popularity. Tattoo flash became very patriotic and included such imagery as eagles, American slogans, and “girlie” tattoos. These classic tattoos were very literal, universal, and easy to read, though they were more like badges arranged on the body with no obvious relationship between them.

Outside the military, many worried parents had their children tattooed after the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped in 1932, and women became interested in tattoos as cosmetic makeup. When social security cards were issued in 1936, men and women flocked to get them tattooed on their arm. And in 1955, the Assistant Secretary of Defense suggested that citizens get their blood type tattooed on their bodies in case of a military attack against the U.S. (DeMello 2007).

After WWII, tattoo popularity started to decline in America as tattoos lost their patriotic appeal and became instead associated with bikers and criminals who appeared defiant and rebellious. The 1961outbreak of hepatitis further cast tattooing in a negative light, and very few people wanted to get one. The tattoo culture of the 40s and 50s was also a very masculine world. Indeed, from the last carnival ladies until the 1970s, women were noticeably absent from the tattoo scene except for lesbians and “skags.” If a nice girl wanted a tattoo, she was required to have a marriage license and to be accompanied by her husband (DeMello 2000).

A Modern Tattoo Renaissance

American sailor Jerry Collins was a critical figure in reinventing and introducing tattoos in the middle class in the 1970s and 1980s. Sailor Jerry wanted to improve the Western style, which he saw as primitive and abrupt, and started to use the style, colors, and imagery of Japanese tattooing as well as their belief that the entire body acts as a canvas. He argued that the Japanese’s sophisticated and spiritual style could move the American tattoo from is “primitive” state to a credible art form.

Lyle Tuttle also sought to bring tattooing into the mainstream, and due in part to his influence, tattoos changed during the 1970s more than in any other previous period in U.S. history. Not only did he advocate updating health regulations and creating tattoo magazines aimed at the middle class, Tuttle also created images that both were influenced by Collins’ theories and also reflected the social movements of the time, such as the peace, gay, and women’s movements. Previously, most tattoos relied on flash rather than personal creation and they were masculine in terms of imagery (masculine icons, aggressive animals, and motorcycle insignias), style (bold lines), and placement (the ubiquitous bicep tattoo). Tuttle’s new designs were both more feminine and appealing to middle-class tastes than the classic working-class design. In addition, as tattooists started coming from more theoretical fine arts backgrounds, they brought with them more sophisticated images that began appearing on women’s shoulders, breasts, and other angles. The 1980s reinterpretation of the Chicano and tribal style also introduced new images and symbols to the S&M and punk communities that were later appropriated by middle-class communities (DeMello 2007).

Today, tattoos are more accepted and popular than ever before, and many tattoos are now considered “fine art.” Influenced by colonialism, circus exhibits, and various cultural intersections, there are endless choices of tatoo images and styles as well as publications, clubs, and Internet communities devoted to tattoos. Some tattooists, however, are critical of the tattoo’s place in the mainstream western culture. Tattoos, they argue, have become too fashionable and too little thought is put into getting a tattoo. For many tattooists, the body is sacred and they lament the seemingly cavalier attitude toward tattooing. Yet, tattoos have always survived, shocked, and linked us to our ancient human adventure. And despite their attempt at permanence and immutability, their inherent dynamism always tend to upset cultural narratives.

-- Posted July 26, 2008


Atkinson, Michael. 2003. Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art. Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press.

DeMello, Margo. 2000. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham, NCa: Duke University Press.

---.2007. "Tattooing." Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Gray, John. 1994. I Love Mom: An Irreverent History of the Tattoo. Toronto, Canada: Key Porter Books.

Gustafson, Mark. 2000. "The Tattoo in Later Roman Empire and Beyond." Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Ed. Jane Caplan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jones, C.P. 2000. "Stigma and Tattoo." Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Ed. Jane Caplan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.