The Historical Tattoo: Origins of Body Art Designs

 

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Who had the first tattoo? No one knows.

The word is derived from the Samoan or Polynesian word “tatau”. The first written reference to tattoos is found in the book written by the naturalist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his explorations in the 1700s. But body art designs have been around since the dawn of mankind.

The mummified body of a man who lived in the Alps some 5300 years ago was tattooed with dots and lines. Egyptian mummies from around the same time period bear intricate artwork on their arms.

The Picts, people who lived in Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval times, were famous for their tattoos. At the time, there was no specific word for the drawings in Latin or early English. Julius Caesar described the Picts as “scarified”.

In Japan, the art of tattooing is believed to have originated about ten thousand years ago. Yet, it is Polynesian exploration that is credited with bringing the word and the practice to Western societies.

What was the purpose of the historical tattoo? The purpose varied from one culture to another.

Permanent body art designs were an element of traditional healing, similar to what we now know as acupuncture. In some cultures, tattoos were used to recognize a person’s status or rank.

A warrior might receive an intricate design as a gift for showing bravery. On the other extreme, a thief or prisoner might be tattooed according to his crime. In some societies, the marks were used to let the community know that a person was an outcast…someone to be shunned.

In modern times, specific body art designs have been used to show membership in a gang or to record the gang members “accomplishments”. For that reason, tattooing is forbidden in US prisons.

The Maori tattoo is still used as a symbol to show that the person belongs to the culture. It is a statement of pride and belonging. The same is true of tattoos commonly seen among Samoan people.

In most early cultures, body art designs were seen as a matter of personal choice, a simple decorative item. The spread of the Christian religion changed things, somewhat. Some Christians feel tattoos are sinful, because of Leviticus 19:28, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.”

Of course, that is a Modern English translation from the original Hebrew, as the word did not exist at the time the Bible was written. Many Christians feel it is a reference to excessive mourning or pagan rituals that are not relevant today.

Today, you are free to tattoo or not in most societies. There are even methods for having tattoos removed, in case you change your mind.

 

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