Do You Know Your Tattoo Art History?
Tattoos are enjoying a renewed popularity, particularly with young women. While you might think tattoos are a relatively new attraction because they are so much more visible than they used to be, they are older than dirt. Some say they’ve been around since 12,000 BC.
Tattooing had different purposes in different cultures. Some were physical advertisements of particular homemaking skills, worn by women to attract a warrior mate. In some cultures, tattoos around the wrist and fingers were worn to keep the wearer safe from illnesses. Even in today’s culture, for example, young people tattoo themselves for perceived beauty. Others use specific designs to indicate membership in a gang or club.
Originally, it was believed that the person with an animal or predatory bird tattoo adopted the nature and the spirit of the image. Tribal hunters would decorate their bodies with images of fierce animal hunters to produce successful hunts. Some even included tattoos of current religious idols or spirits to keep them safe during dangerous hunting expeditions.
The frozen body of a man with 57 tattoos on his body was discovered on a mountain between Italy and Austria in 1991. He lived during 3300 BC, or 53 centuries ago, and had a cross tattooed on the inside of his left knee, six straight lines above the kidneys and several parallel lines on his ankles. There’s been some speculation that the marks represent arthritis sites on his body.
An earlier find in 1948, uncovered tattooed mummies around 2400 years old in the Altai mountains of Western Siberia. They sported a variety of animal tattoos and some mystical ones, like griffins and monsters. More than a few researchers think the mystical tattoos were decorative.
Egyptian history is full of drawings depicting various art forms identified as abstract geometric patterns. Amunet, a priestess at Thebes, lived between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. Her mummified remains were discovered in 1891 and displayed groupings of dots and dashes. The Egyptians shared this art form with Crete, Greece, Persia and Arabia. Its spread reached southeast Asia by 2000 BC.
Clay figurines were found in Japanese tombs dating from 3,000 BC or older that had painted faces that represented tattoos. These figurines were believed to have been decorated with religious or magical symbols and were stand-ins for living people who accompanied the dead on their journey.
Inevitably, tattooing slipped over the borders and showed up in southern China, spreading along the silk route. The first written record of Japanese tattooing was actually found in a history of Chinese dynasties compiled in 297 AD.
Today’s tattoo designs are not so far removed from the art form’s cultural beginnings from thousands of years ago. You can find all sorts of predators colorfully decorating upper arms of men of all ages, along with an occasional heart with “Mom” inscribed within. Women will proudly show you a butterfly on their hip, a flower decorating one of their breasts or the dragon encircling their wrist. Our ancient ancestors would have been proud.