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Tattoos – A History


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There was always an important role in ritual and tradition for tattoos. Women in Borneo used to tattoo symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman was to wear a symbol showing she was a skilled weaver, her status was then considered as prime marriageable material. To ward away illness tattoos were place around the wrist and fingers. All throughout the history of tattoos, they have signified membership in a clan or society. Even groups today, like the Hells Angels, tattoo their group symbol. It has sometimes been believed that the wearer of an image that was tattooed calls the spirit of that particular image. If that belief holds true, the ferocity of a tiger would belong to a person with a tiger tattoo. That tradition seems holds true even today shown by the images of tigers, snakes and bird of prey tattoo on a person’s body.

The word tattoo is said to come from the Tahitian word “tatu” which means “to mark something”. Tattooing has arguably been claimed to have existed since 12,000 years BC.

Tattooing’s purpose has varied from culture to culture and its place on the time line. The earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids (It probably started much earlier) but this is the earliest recorded history. After the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing began to spread as well. The ancient civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia and Arabia picked up tattooing and expanded the art form. Around 2000 BC tattooing was then spread to China. For communications among spies, the Greeks used tattooing. Certain marking identified the spies and showed their rank. The Romans used tattoos to mark their criminals and slaves. This tradition continues even today. In western Asia girls coming of age were tattooed to show social standing, as were the married women.

The Ainu people of western Asia were known to show the Japanese the art of tattooing. It Japan tattooing was developed to be used in a religious and ceremonial rites. The women of Borneo were the tattooists. They were the one to produce designs that showed indications of the owner’s station in life and what tribe he belonged to. New Zealand developed a facial style of tattooing that is still used today. It is called Moko. There are even tribes found in Alaska that practiced tattooing. Their style indicated that it was learned from the Ainu. There is even evidence that the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs used tattooing on rituals.

William Dampher is the one who is responsible for re-introducing tattoos to the west. He was once a sailor and an explorer who traveled the South Seas. In 1691 he brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo to London. He was known as the Painted Prince. He would later put on exhibition, a money making attraction showing off his tattoos and became the rage of London. Before that it had been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe. It would be another 100 years before tattoos would make it’s mark in the West.

Chatham Square in New York City was the birthplace of the American style tattoo. At the turn of the century, Chatham Square was a seaport and an entertainment center that attracted working-class people with money. Samuel O’Reily came from Boston and set up shop there. Samuel O’Reily was the first one to patent the first electric tattooing machine. The machine was based on Edison’s electric pen which punctured paper with a needle point. The basic design of this machine was with moving coils, a tube and a needle bar, are the components of today’s tattoo gun. The electric tattoo machine allowed anyone to get a reasonably priced and readily available tattoo. As the average person could easily get a tattoo but it was the upper classes that turned away from it. He took on an apprentice named Charlie Wagner and when O’Reily died in 1908, Wagner opened a supply business with Lew Alberts. Lew Alberts had trained as a wallpaper designer. He then transferred those skills to the design of tattoos. He was noted for redesigning a portion of early tattoo flash art.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the attitude towards tattooing changed. A lot of the credit should go to Lyle Tuttle. He then tattooed celebrities, particularly women. Television and magazines went to him to get information about tattooing. Tattooing has made a strong comeback. It is more popular than ever.

Michael Russell - EzineArticles Expert Author

Michael Russell

Your Independent guide to Tattoos

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  • Posted On December 22, 2006
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