Is Inscribing the Body a Modern Anthropological Attraction?

Maximillian Jacobson

Maximillian Jacobson

To get a more accurate understanding of current attitudes towards tattooing, it was essential to be familiar with tattooing in a historical context, finding out where tattooing has its roots, tracing how or if attitudes have actually changed towards people with tattoos and trying to find out if the types of people getting tattooed have also changed.

Although the article begins with a piece of historical archive footage from 1958, this is relatively recent in the history of tattooing, which precedes this time substantially and underpins the tattoos that can be seen today.

The archive footage, however, provides a good insight in the condescending tone of the voice-over script, as to what the media attitude to tattooing was like in the 1950s, the sound-byte that immediately follows, showing that in some individuals, attitudes to tattooing appear not to have changed.

Investigating the background to tattooing, not only exposed previous similar patterns to the current trend but also equipped me to gain interviewees trust, by speaking to them from an informed position.

Here are some of the salient historical facts and arguments that I discovered.

Tattoos can be traced as far back as Egyptian mummies, from the tombs of the Pharaohs to Greek, Roman and Celtic marking traditions, but that the rise in popularity in the West is often attributed to the British explorer, cartographer Captain James Cook’s ships voyages to the Pacific, and his crew — a relatively small number of around four hundred men on a total of three voyages — were the celebrities of their time.

They returned from their voyages with documented accounts of islander’s tattoos as well as some permanent souvenirs of their travels on their skin. These “tataus” — the Polynesian word of which the word tattoo stems from, were not the kind of tattoos mainly seen today, they were a hammering of ink into the skin using sharpened wooden implements and ink — these expeditions were immediately famous among mariners, artists, writers and the wider public; it is no exaggeration that they captured the attention of the epoch.

Tatau has principally remained a tribally dominated tradition in regular use by Pacific islanders in Polynesia but also adopted by tattoo enthusiasts in search of a different tattooing experience. Some people with this kind of tattoos have been called “modern primitives,” who are “enthusiastically committed to primitivism,” however, this definition also extends to a much wider group of body modification enthusiasts who came to prominence in the late 1970s.

It is also argued that sixteenth-century European Christian pilgrims tattooed with the names of their wives or places they had been to, may have been responsible for influencing the “the return of tattooing to European culture, two centuries before the Pacific Expeditions.”

Whichever tattoo historical trail one follows, it is acknowledged that natives were brought back by expeditions and displayed for enormous financial gain by European businessmen, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.

Indian Jesuit and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello contends that while tattoos in the colonial period were regarded as “marks of savagery” it was the sailors who “eagerly received tattoos from native practitioners” and managed to take the exotic and act as “the middlemen through which the tattoo was transformed from a mark of primitivism to a mark of adventure” and that “early tattooists through their enthusiasm for creating homegrown design and adopting new technology, competed for the transformation.”

The technology that was developed at the end of the nineteenth-century, and adopted by late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Western tattooists is still very much the basis of the method of production of tattoos today.

The “modern tattoo machine,” patented in 1891 by Samuel F. O’Reilly in New York, in the United States of America, was an enhanced version of a previous machine design for “autographic printing” patented by Thomas Alva Edison.

It was this development that enabled tattooists to copy drawn designs and ink them onto the skin and subsequent improvements to “control the speed of the needle, its depth, and pressure” making it less painful have undoubtedly contributed to the appeal of tattoos.

Exactly when the present trend for tattoos started is a matter of some debate. Professor Martin Pitts traces this escalation to the early 1990s, a time when “journalists and sociologists began writing about what they called a tattoo renaissance which reflected not only a rise in the number of tattoo parlours but also a rise in interest in tattoos from the middle class, including women.” Professor Paul Sweetman proposes a similar timeframe for this zeitgeist “…the last ten years have also seen the partial incorporation of body modification into consumer culture.

Numerous celebrities now sport tattoos, and related imagery is frequently featured in advertising copy.” Oliver Kosut also places the start of the rise in mass popularity to the 1990’s, “…when actors, models, musicians, and idolised athletes proudly herald the mainstreaming of a previously marginalised and historically underground practice.”

Others maintain that this so-called “renaissance” has actually been going on for longer than the last thirty years, the 1950s followed by the 1970s forged by an avant-garde of popularised tattooists or as an effect of “social movements (e.g., gay and lesbian, feminist, environmentalist, eco-feminist, etc.) as they argue for full participation in a pluralist consumer culture,” said Dr Abby Veliquette.

Writer Oatman-Stanford quoting Lodder, traces it much further back in time, maintaining that journalists have been writing similar articles hailing the rise of the tattoo and then disparaging it since the 1800s, “even when the press praised tattooing as newly respectable newly fashionable, and a spectacular and ancient art form as has happened every decade since the 1880’s other corners of the commentariat would decry tattooing as primitive, barbarous and uncouth,” and that instead of opinion and social acceptability fluctuating across the twentieth-century we should look at it as “two strands running in parallel.”

In the present–day, it is the digital online presence of tattoos and tattooing which has really transformed the way that tattooists are seen and do business.

Tattoos on the Internet are indeed to be found in abundance, there are multiple websites, and blogs devoted to tattoos appreciation, advocacy for anti-discrimination, many tattoo enthusiast on-line publications and many tattoo studios around the globe have their own websites, where prospective customers can peruse tattoo artists portfolios without ever stepping a foot in a tattoo studio.

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