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Tattoo: Pigments of Imagination
A contestant shows off his eye-popping full-body tattoo backstage at the Meeting of the Marked competition in Pittsburgh.
By Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa
"It's a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling," sings Jimmy Buffett of parents' dismay over their daughter's tattoo. Yet those indelible body markings are more than a trend embraced by merchant marines, bikers, and goths in basic black. Tattoos arise from a rich cultural history dating back 5,000 years.
The earliest record of tattoos, to date, was found in 1991 on the frozen remains of the Copper Age "Iceman" scientists have named Ötzi. His lower back, ankles, knees, and a foot were marked with a series of small lines, made by rubbing powdered charcoal into vertical cuts. X-rays revealed bone degeneration at the site of each tattoo, leading researchers to believe that Ötzi's people, ancestors of contemporary central and northern Europeans, may have used tattoos as medical treatment to reduce pain.
As civilizations developed, tattoos took on other meanings. Egyptian funerary figures of female dancers from around 2000 B.C. display the same abstract dot-and-dash tattoos on their bodies as those found on female mummies from that time period. Later images represent Bes, god of fertility and revelry.
Ancient Romans found no reason to celebrate tattoos, believing in the purity of the human form. Except as brands for criminals and the condemned, tattoos were banned. But over time, the Roman attitudes toward tattoos changed. Fighting an army of Britons who wore their tattoos as badges of honor, some Romans came to admire their enemies' ferocity as well as the symbols that represented it. Soon Roman soldiers were wearing their own body marks; Roman doctors even perfected the art of application and removal.
During the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, warriors identified themselves with the mark of the Jerusalem cross so that they could be given a proper Christian burial if they died in battle. After the Crusades, tattooing largely disappeared in the West for a time, but continued to flourish in other places.
By the early 18th century, European sailors encountered the inhabitants of the South and Central Pacific islands. There, tattoos were an important part of the culture. When a Tahitian girl reached the age of sexual maturity, her buttocks were tattooed black, a tradition that continues among some today. When in mourning, Hawaiians tattooed their tongues with three dots. In Borneo, natives tattooed an eye on the palm of their hands as a spiritual guide that would lead them to the next life.
In 1769, Capt. James Cook landed in Tahiti, where the word "tattoo" originated from tatau, which means to tap the mark into the body. One method island practitioners used for working their designs into the skin was with a razor-edged shell attached to the end of a stick. In New Zealand, Maori leaders signed treaties by drawing precise replicas of their moko, or personal facial tattoo. Such designs are still used to identify the wearer as a member of a certain family and to symbolize a person's achievements in life.
In the 1820s, Europeans began the macabre practice of trading guns for tattooed heads of Maori warriors. To keep up with demand, Maori traders took slaves and commoners captured in battle, tattooed them, killed them, and sold their heads. The practice ended in 1831 when the British government made the importation of human heads illegal.
Tattooing has been practiced in Japanfor beautification, magic, and to mark criminalssince around the 5th century B.C. Repressive laws gave rise to the exquisite Japanese designs known today. Restricted from wearing the ornate kimonos that adorned royalty and the elite, outraged merchants and the lower classes rebelled by wearing tattooed body suits. Covering their torsos with illustrations that began at the neck and extended to the elbow and above the knee, wearers hid the intricate designs beneath their clothing. Viewing the practice as subversive, the government outlawed tattoos in 1870 as it entered a new era of international relationships. As a result, tattooists went underground, where the art flourished as an expression of the wearer's inner longings and impulses.
The yakuza, the Japanese gangster class, embraced the body suitseven more so because they were illegal. Their elaborate designs usually represented an unresolved conflict and also included symbols of character traits the wearer wanted to emulate. A carp represented strength and perseverance. A lion stood for courage. Such tattoos required long periods of pain from the artist's bundles of needles, endured by wearers as a show of allegiance to their beliefs. Today, Japanese tattoo wearers are devoted to the most colorful, complete, and exotic expression of the art.
New York inventor Samuel O'Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, making traditional tools a thing of the past in the West. By the end of the 1920s, American circuses employed more than 300 people with full-body tattoos who could earn an unprecedented $200 per week.
For the next 50 years, tattoos gained a reputation as a mark of American fringe cultures, sailors, and World War II veterans. But today, tattoo connoisseurs take the spotlight at international fairs and conventions with Japanese body suits, Celtic symbols, black tribal motifs, and portraits of favorite celebrities.
"Tattooing is enjoying a big renaissance around the world," says Chuck Eldridge of the Tattoo Archive in Berkeley, California. "Native American women in the Northwest are wearing chin tattoos again, reviving a cultural practice from centuries before the white man arrived. And, in answer to health concerns, artists in the South Pacific are slowly changing to modern equipment."
"The melting pot that is the United States has no rites of passage as a single American culture," says Ken Brown, a tattoo artist in Fredericksburg, Virginia, who finds inspiration in National Geographic photographs (see "My Seven"). "On some levels, getting a tattoo is like a milestone that marks a certain moment in a person's life." Ken still remembers one customer, an 80-year-old former marine who had always wanted a tattoo but had been too afraid to get one. "He came to me for his first tattoo," Ken says, "and he told me, 'I figure I got five or six good years left in me, and I'm not going out without one.' "
National Geographic Stories That Inspire a Tattoo Artist
Ackerman, Jennifer. "Japan's Winter Wildlife." National Geographic (January 2003), 88-113.
A frosted stage gathers red-crowned cranes, whooper swans, sika deer, and snow monkeys. Can Japan turn an ancient reverence for its animals into modern conservation?
Eliot, John L. "Bald Eagles Come Back From the Brink." National Geographic (July 2002), 34-53.
Our majestic national bird is flying high over much of its former range and may soon be off the endangered list.
Warren, Lynne. "Uncommon Vision." National Geographic (May 2002), 52-67.
Captivated by the beauty of moths, an artist uses digital scans to transform backyard fliers into fine art.
Conniff, Richard. "Deadly Silk." National Geographic (August 2001), 30-45.
Spinning complex webs of incredible strength, the versatile spider makes things sticky for unsuspecting prey.
Cave, Ronald D. "Jewel Scarabs." National Geographic (February 2001), 52-61.
Gleaming beetles from Central America attract insect enthusiasts and offer hope for saving a priceless habitat.
Chadwick, Douglas H. "Kingdom of Coral: Australia's Great Barrier Reef." National Geographic (January 2001), 30-57.
Largest structure on the planet built by living organisms, Australia's coral rampart hosts a carnival of sea life.
Hart Hansen, Jens P., and others. "The Mummies of Qilakitsoq." National Geographic (February 1985), 191-207.
Startlingly well-preserved, 800-year-old Inuit bodies offer new insights into the life of the early Greenlanders.