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Why Any Lady Would Want Her Chin Permanently Marked Up: A History Lesson in Tattoos

Whatever your personal body modification of choice may be, the facts are this: tattoos are popular. On the heels of a Hollywood gal pal getting her first ink job at the end of last month, I have body art on the brain. A lot of my friends have tattoos. I have books about tattoos, my coworkers are tatted up, and my younger sister has a growing and colorful collection herself. I’m practically an oddity with my non-tattooed status. (Even my pastor has a half sleeve)

Big or small, trampy to campy, portraits and tribal, this form of branding oneself has come a long way, only notably within the last 50-60 years gaining popularity in the Western world. Some are impulsive; others are treated with well thought out calculation, and plenty are just plain stupid. The history behind it is all sorts of interesting.

A traditional Samoan male tattoo from the wais...

A traditional Samoan male tattoo from the waist to below the knees seen from the side and back. Русский: Татау — древняя татуировка Самоа Gagana Samoa: Le tatau Samoa Français : Le tatau (ou pe’a), le tatouage masculin de Samoa, complété par des outils traditionnels. Deutsch: Tattoo von Samoa Māori: Ta moko mo tane no Hamoa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, in its section, “Tattoo,” the 1996 edition of the 30-volume Macmillan Dictionary of Art explains:

“The art is attested in almost every culture worldwide…the earliest surviving examples of tattooed human skin come from 12th -Dynasty Egypt (1938 BC), but representational evidence suggests that tattooing was practiced in Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt (4,500 BC).”

Concerning the meaning behind this form of body art, they’ve gone through quite the denotation warp from once being a mark of royalty, to savage beasts, to sailors of the U.S Navy, and we can’t forget those crazy 1960’s free spirit rebel kiddies. As for today, anything can, and clearly does, go.

The word “tattoo” has origins united from two sources–the Polynesian word “ta,” meaning to strike, and the Tahitian word “tatau,” meaning to mark. And we’ve been striking the flesh with printed mementos for at least the last 5,000 years.

“Tattoos are believed to have existed since the 12th century. In South America, tattoos were “discovered” as early back as when Mayans and other South American natives were ruling South America. Due to the pain of tattooing, tattoos symbolized both courage and bravery. On the flip side, just like many other ancient cultures, the natives of South America tattooed the heads of criminals for their crimes. For example, “whoever stole an item, the person would be enslaved and get tattoos from the chin to the forehead on both sides as a sign of disgrace”.”

Back in the day, waaaaaay back, early in the 17th century, French and Canadian missionaries and explorers encountered many heavily tattooed Native Americans. Members of the Algonquin and Huron tribes, both, amongst many, were known for their form of practiced tattooing that differentiated their tribes, their statuses within. Or other things such as symbol adulthood, spirits guide for afterlife, a type of skill, and honor.

English: A marriageable girl. Tattooing of a K...

English: A marriageable girl. Tattooing of a Koita (New Guinea) girl who has reached a marriageable age. The decoration is begun when she is about five years old, and is added to year by year as she gets older. The V-shaped marks on the chest, with certain others, are done last, and are an indication that the girl is marriageable. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“To celebrate a child’s steps into adulthood, the natives have ceremonies and tattoo the child to symbolize that he is a grown man. The natives would tattoo people with spirits or other magical and religious images on their bodies because they believe the deceased needed spirits to guide their afterlife for safety and happiness. The natives would also tattoo different warriors for their accomplishments in wars and their rank within their military establishments. Men and women that had certain skills are tattooed as well. “If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased.” Many Native American tribes used tattooing for therapeutic reasons as well. For example, “the tribes would tattoo temples and foreheads to relieve the headaches,” or “tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness.”

The Ontario Iroquoians used elaborate designs to identify those very high in social status and in many North-West American Tribes the women were tattooed on their chins as a sign of marriage or commitment.”

So as sign or marriage and commitment, eh? Well that certainly remains a reason today people still get them.

New York is known for a laundry list of historically significant events and activities (some of which related to their stance on marriage and commitment -go figure!), and their involvement in the history of tattoo artistry is no different. In 1846 Martin Hildebrandt founded the first permanent tattoo shop in New York City and honed his craft traveling to both sides of the Mason-Dixon line during the civil war tattooing the names of soldiers and sailors sweethearts for “good luck”.

Decades later in 1891Samuel O’Reilly founded the second US skin art shop, and there he invented the first electric tattooing machine. His invention banished the days of requiring needles to be dipped in ink and an artist manually puncturing skin two or three times a second. This electric machine gave artists the ability to draw directly on receivers flesh.

In their days predating modern needles, Native Americans gravitated toward the use of bones from fish or birds to create their prickly pointed instruments, and used natural pigments derived from cut flesh and charcoal, to make their ink prints.

“The tattooing process was rather barbaric and not very sanitary, resulting in infections and, sometimes, death. Francois-J. Bressani, a 17th century Jesuit missionary, described the dangers of tattooing: “Many have died after the operation, either as the result of a kind of spasm which it produces, or for other reasons.””

Then came the days of injection ink under the skin with a needle route.

“The pigment stains the dermis, which is the substrate of the skin, and can be seen through the epidermis, which is the outer layer. A special electric needle is used that makes a series of small punctures through the epidermis, much like a sewing needle. The pigment is injected as the needle moves.”

Read more: History of Tattoo Art

So pretty much everyone who has a tattoo now, or is considering one should all thank Samuel O’Reilly for his first innovative machine that left those former tactics in the dust.

Whew, glad we got over all of that.

“It (tattooing) is more popular and accepted than it has ever been. All classes of people seek the best tattoo artists. This rise in popularity has placed tattooists in the category of “fine artist”. The tattooist has garnered a respect not seen for over 100 years. Current artists combine the tradition of tattooing with their personal style creating unique and phenomenal body art. With the addition of new inks, tattooing has certainly reached a new plateau.”

blurry pic of my hello kitty tattoos

blurry pic of my hello kitty tattoos (Photo credit: Tafkabecky (Becky Bokern))

During the last fifteen years, interesting enough two distinct classes of tattoo business have presented themselves. The  “tattoo parlor” that’s all urban, and outlaw-ish, more on the tough and hard core something side. And then there’s the  “tattoo art studio” that might as well be synonymous with the Sears campaign “come see the softer side” mantra. These studios tend to features custom, and fine art design, all wrapped up in the after glow of a fancy beauty salon, with market branding geared towards middle- and upper middle-class professionals; and “by-appointment” services. “Today’s fine art tattoo studio draws the same kind of clientele as a custom jewelry store, fashion boutique, or high-end antique shop.”

Tattooing has become one of the retail world’s fastest growing business in the US. Their number one,  popular amongst, demographic is the well educated suburban woman. Shopping for tupperwear and tattoos, a striking aspect in change for this art form.

Canada’s Toronto Star reported in September of 1997 that when Beth Seaton, professor of mass communications at York University conducted a study of the clientele at one of Toronto’s most popular tattoo art studios, she found that 80% of the customers were “upper middle-class white suburban females.”

The medical journal Physician Assistant tells of the changing in trends: “Tattoos were most common among motorcyclists, criminals, gang members, and individuals with psychiatric problems… However, these stereotypical associations have changed over the past 20 years… Tattooing in women has quadrupled, and it is estimated that almost half of the tattoos now being done are on women.”

(Source: here)

With the increasing popularity, state and local governments across America have taken to the times by way of creating and altering laws surrounding what has become one of humanity’s oldest art forms. Interested in those state laws? Lovetoknow has a easy to navigate write on just that!

Collegecrunch.org provides these fascinating stats:

What I personally found most interesting about this particular artistic and symbolic discovery was that many times it was missionaries in various far and away areas first noting their presence. Why you ask? Well to bring this article full circle, my friend that popped her tattoo cherry most recently, she’s a missionary herself. A Hollywood based Christian Missionary. (How 2.0 is that?)

Interested in reading and learning more about the riveting worlds of body art? It’s rich international history?! Let me recommend an 80+ title goodreads list on just that: tattoos and skin illustrations (yeah, you’re gonna wanna click that)

Featured image photo credit: women2fashion.com

About maggie.

Maggie Barnes is a nonprofit and for profit business content specialist / social media consultant; and social sciences web writer interested in everything from psychology and sexuality, to technology, race, and economics. She is passionate about good communication and information accessibility.


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