Question: What do Otzi the Iceman, the All Black New Zealand rugby team and Thomas Edison have in common?
Answer: They all have a connection through the art of tattooing. ‘Otzi the Iceman’ is the oldest (known/seen) tattooed person, dating back to at least 3300BCE and having 57 carbon tattoos, thought to be for healing purposes; the All Blacks have featured a number of Maori players, who have used facial tattoos to show status within the tribe for thousands of years; and Thomas Edison developed the first basic tattoo ‘machine’, after bringing the patent to America from Danish inventor Oersted in 1819. Funny what you find out when looking up skin art. With links through unlikely sources, tattooing has been a prominent feature of many cultures over thousands of years. But what exactly is it, and how did it start?
Tattooing is the process of inserting indelible ink into the dermis (mid-) layer of the skin. After the initial ‘injection’, the ink is dispersed, and the presence of a foreign substance causes the immune system to ‘engulf’ the pigment, trapping it as the epidermis (top skin layer) flakes away. In short, in trying to fight the foreign substance, it would seem the skin actually causes it to become permanent. In most countries, this is done using an electric machine; however in Japan, traditionally tattooing is done using a non-electrical, hand-made tool, in a method named tebori.
Other forms of tattooing include cutting the skin and rubbing with ink or ash, and even ‘flesh-tattooing’ – which is, as the name suggests, cutting into the skin to cause a scar-type tattoo. I am always one to do my research thoroughly, and so decided to look up this ‘flesh-tattooing’ – I can only say it is not something I would recommend….it looks extremely painful! Luckily, most people tend to stick with the more common ink tattoos.
Tattooing in the common sense was first formally referred to by Joseph Banks, naturalist on The Endeavour in 1769, who had recorded the ‘tataus’ of the Samoans, but has been around since at least 10,000 BCE (the Jomon period in Japan). ‘Otzi The Iceman’, as mentioned, is the oldest known tattooed person; however he is not entirely unique. Other tattooed mummies have been found, such as the Mummy of Aminet from Ancient Egypt, the mummies at Pazyryk on Ukok Plateau, and the Mummy of Scarlett from Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
Known as ‘ink’, ‘tats’, ‘art’, ‘pieces’ or ‘work’, and the tattoists as ‘artists’, there has been evidence of tattoos being used for decorative, cultural, spiritual and criminal purposes across all parts of the world, including Europe, the Americas, Taiwan, Japan, Africa and plenty more. Now more commonly used purely as personal decoration, its origins had far more importance placed on the designs – for example, in Taiwan, facial tattoos of the Atayal tribe, called Badasun, showed that a man was able to protect his homeland, and a woman was ‘qualified’ to weave and perform housework. Nothing like a permanent coloured scar to show your ability to wash up!
Tattoos courtesy of Mike at Eccentric Ink
Despite having such deep-rooted and wide-spread history, tattoos haven’t always envoked a positive reaction. For example, tattoos are entirely banned by the Jewish faith (as well as by a minority of Christians), as mentioned in Leviticus 19:28 (“You shall not…incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.”), and are forbidden in Sunni Islam. The Japanese government, in a bid to protect their image and impress the West, even went so far as to outlaw tattoos in 1868 (approx.) Tattooing was still practiced underground, mainly throughout the criminal community, and still attracted tourists. The Allies re-legalised tattooing in 1945; however it is still associated with criminality, and even the Japanese mafia, and some businesses in Japan, such as fitness clubs, ban those with tattoos, even to this day. Of course, one of the most infamous forms of tattooing, was used by the Nazis, to identify Jews destined for concentration camps. Many survivors still bare theirs as a reminder of the hardship faced, and the luck they had in escaping the fate of others.
Tattoos courtesy of Arviy at Eccentric Ink
On a more positive note, tattoos became popular in Europe after a long period of decline (coinciding with the spread of Christianity), when they were reintroduced by sailors, returning from places such as Polynesia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, etc. For a long time, tattoos were associated mainly with the military, in particular the navies; however the skin-decoration spread, slowly but surely, and became a cosmetic procedure adopted by many people. Stereotypes still surround the art – ask most people who’d be most likely to have a tattoo, and my guess is most would say someone of the alternative persuasion. However, far from being restricted to hairy bikers, tattoos are popular amongst those of all music tastes. A study in 2003* showed that 19% of the UK population have at least one tattoo. Of those, 21% are 18-29, 35% are 30-39, and 44% are over 40. Tattoos are more popular with girls than guys, which may surprise some – 15% of the male population have tattoos, and 22% female. In contrast, the USA has 16% of its men tattooed, and 15% of its women. 16% of the total US population have at least one tattoo. Of those, according to the British Journal of Dermatology, around 75% eventually regret one or all of their tattoos – however, with further digging in the form of the first study, only 16% of Britons and 17% of Americans regret their tattoo. Sounds like someone is trying to put youngsters off getting tough stickers? According to the stats, that doesn’t seem to be working, and if my fav tattoo store Eccentric Ink has anything to do with it, the numbers of tattoo freaks will only rise. That reminds me, I need to get my next one priced up – in the meantime, there are some designs that could be understandably regretted….. Here’s a few we found on ugliest tattoos that we think people will have started to regret.