It is difficult to say when a person first applied a pattern to his skin. But for certain it is known that the history of tattooing is at least 60,000 years old. The most ancient tattoos were found during excavations of the Egyptian pyramids. Mummies are about four thousand years old, but the drawings on dried skin are clearly discernible.
However, the tattoo appeared much earlier – with the primitive communal system. It served not only as an ornament, but also as a sign of a tribe, clan, totem, indicated the social belonging of its possessor, and moreover, was given a certain magical power.
The reasons for the appearance of custom tattoos are also not entirely clear. According to one theory – this is the logical progress from natural skin lesions, accidentally received by people of the Stone Age. Wounds and bruises merged into bizarre scars that distinguished their carrier from fellow tribesmen in an advantageous way, like a brave warrior and a lucky hunter. Over time, primitive families expanded, merged into small organized communities and the skin was already specially marked, having a specific meaning within a certain social group. It happened at the end of the Ice Age …
Deep historical roots, tattoo-geography is no less impressive. Different kinds of tattoos were practiced by the fair-skinned peoples of the whole world, and in the blacks they were replaced by scarring. Everyone was tattooed – different tribes of Europe and Asia, Indians of North and South America and, of course, inhabitants of Oceania.
It is the Indian tribes of Indonesia and Polynesia, where the practice of tattooing is continuously transmitted from generation to generation, serve as the best anthropological evidence of the social significance of tattoos. Almost all aspects of the life of these people are associated with tattoos – from birth to death – and, of course, there is no such part of the body over which the local artist would not bother.
The face is always in sight. Therefore, it is the face that is adorned first. The Majori tribes from New Zealand wear masked tattoos – Moko. These amazing intricacies of patterns serve as a constant combat coloring, and an indicator of the prowess and social status of their owners. According to local customs, if the deceased soldier had Moko’s mask on his face, he was awarded the highest honor – his head was cut off and stored as a relic of the tribe. And the corpses of unadorned warriors were left to be torn to pieces by wild animals. The Moko samples are so individual that they were often used as personal signatures or fingerprints. At the beginning of the last century, selling their lands to English missionaries, Maiori, signing the “deed”, carefully depicted an exact copy of his mask Moko.
Tattoo is associated with the so-called “transitional” rituals, whether it is dedicating a young man to a mature man or moving from this life to the next world. For example, the tribes Diak from the island of Borneo believed that in the local paradise – Apo-Kezio – everything acquires new qualities, the opposite of the earth: light becomes dark, sweet – bitter, etc. Therefore, ingenious and prudent diacs tattooed in the darkest shades. Modified after death, the tattoos became bright and shining, and this light was enough to safely guide their owner through the dark abyss between the land and Apo-Kezio.
In addition, different peoples tattoos were endowed with a wide variety of magical properties: children were protected from parental anger, adults were protected in battle and hunting, old people were kept from illnesses. However, the magic of the tattoo was used not only by “savages”. In the 18th and 19th centuries, British sailors depicted huge crucifixes on their backs in the hope that this would protect them from corporal punishment, which was widely practiced in the English fleet. The Arabs considered the most reliable protective talisman a tattoo with quotations from the Koran. In all the examples given, the tattoo, one way or another, increased the social status of its owner. But in some cases it served as punishment.
In the Japanese province of Chukuzen of the Edo period (1603-1867), as a punishment for the first crime, brigands were placed a horizontal line through the forehead, for the second – arc-shaped, and for the third – another. As a result, the composition that made up the hieroglyph of INU – the “dog” was obtained. In ancient China, one of the Five Classical Punishments also had a tattoo on his face. Slaves and prisoners of war were also tagged, making it difficult for them to escape and facilitating their identification. Both the Greeks and Romans used tattoos for similar purposes, and the Spanish conquistadors continued this practice in Mexico and Nicaragua. Already in our century, during the First World War, in Britain, deserters were tagged with a “D” tattoo, in Germany – they beat numbers to the victims of concentration camps, and what to hide, in our Union in the regime camps, the same thing was practiced …
But in ancient Europe tattoos were in general use among Greeks and Gauls, Britons and Thracians, Germans and Slavs.
The priests, our ancestors, used clay stamps or pintaders for tattooing. These unique presses with elements of ornament allowed to cover the whole body with a continuous rhombo-meander carpet pattern, which is extremely necessary in the magical rituals of the ancient cult of fertility. Unfortunately, with the spread of Christianity, the custom of tattooing began to be ruthlessly eradicated, as an integral part of pagan rituals, and was practically extinguished. Moreover, in the Old Testament it is clearly stated: “For the sake of the dead, do not cut your body and do not incriminate yourself with writing.”
The ban was so severe that the tattoo was not practiced among Europeans until the 18th century. But, ironically, when Christian missionaries were sent to distant lands to turn into their faith “savage” tribes, sailors from their ships acquired there elegant tattoos in memory of travel. The infamous captain James Cook has made the most significant contribution to the recovery of tattoos in Europe. Returning from the voyage in 1769, he brought from Tahiti not only the word “tattoo”, but also “Great Omai”, a completely tasted Polynesian, who became a sensation – the first living tattoo – a gallery. And soon no self-respecting idea, fair or traveling circus could be dispensed with without the participation of the “noble savage”.
By the end of the XIX century, the fashion for the Aborigines slept, instead of them at fairs began to act themselves, Americans and Europeans. For example, a certain lady Viola sported portraits of six American presidents, Charlie Chaplin and many other celebrities, causing the enthusiasm of the crowds of our century … But, though the people loved to gawk at the decorated circus artists, they themselves were not in the least rushing to tattoo. It was the privilege of sailors, miners, foundry workers and other such “trade unions” who used the tattoo as a symbol of brotherhood, solidarity, fidelity to traditions. The modern popularity of tattoos in the West owes much to them. At the same time, they are responsible for the creative stagnation in the western tattoo of the XIX-early XX century. The meager imagination and dubious artistic taste of the main customers led to the restriction of the tattoo “repertoire” of marine themes, vulgar sentimentalism and banal aphorisms.
Sadly, the fact remains that civilization has reduced ancient art to the level of cheap consumer goods. The lack of demand for decent products discouraged tattooists, deprived the incentive to creativity and new stylistic developments.
And it was then, in 1891, that the American O’Reilly invented an electric tattoo machine that replaced all sorts of homemade tools and devices, but even technical progress did not move the matter from a dead center.All the first half of the 20th century, Europe and America went with a standard set of uncomplicated popular prints.
And only thanks to a powerful splash in the youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s did a new generation of tattooists appear, whose creative ambitions and courageous experiments once again raised the tattoo to the rank of art. They widely borrowed the traditional images of other cultures – the Far East, Polynesia, American Indians – creating exciting hybrids, new styles, schools and directions. Thus began a new, modern stage of a thousand-year tattoo – a story that undoubtedly deserves a separate detailed story.