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A History And Symbolism Of Tattoo

Updated February 5, 2021
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Tattoos have been discovered on mummies dating back to 3250BC. Otzi the ‘Ice Man’ had 61 tattoos covering his lower back, torso, lower legs and left wrist. History reasons that the intention for these tattoos was commonly to symbolise religious beliefs, wealth, and social status.
During the 1700s captain James cook undertook many voyages, some to the Tahitian islands. During these endeavours he was introduced to tatau, the practice of marking one’s skin. “The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation….”
—Captain James Cook’s journal, third Pacific voyage (1776–80). Tattooing has a rich history worth understanding steeped in traditions and cultural capital, once misunderstood but now becoming a normalised idea of beautification and symbolism this visual culture continues to develop and envelop more followers.

Tattooing after being outlawed under the rule of Pope Adrian I in 787 CE, led to a decline of tattoos in the western world. However, sailors often superstitious believed tattooing marking tattoos as a safeguard from harm while at sea, and a way to remember those left ashore. During a time when flogging was a justified form of punishment, sailors often had a crucifix tattooed on their backs in the hopes of preventing a worse lashing. A pig and rooster tattooed on the feet was tattooed in hopes to prevent drowning at sea, possibly because the wooden crates containing these animals often made good flotation devices in shipwrecks.

Swallows have been used as a symbol for sailing 500 miles as well as being used as a talisman for returning home. Swallows were also believed to carry a sailor’s soul home if he were to die at sea.

Anchors are a symbol for stability and are often seen written with the name of a loved one. Its often a reminder to stay steady.

The nautical star is seen as an icon representing an idea of staying on course. It’s a representation of the north star which was used by sailors to help guide them in the direction home.

An affiliation between tattoos and criminal behaviour is also a justified interpretation considering it has been used within prison systems and gangs to convey social rank, crimes committed how long you’ve served, as well as where you’re going. In Russian prisons a ‘thief in law’ will receive certain tattoos as part of ritualistic process of initiation. Tattoos were often used to control other inmates, those considered ‘downcast’ these men were often marked on their faces dictating their subordination. Those considered downcast were scorned by the other inmates and ate alone. Tattoos became a popular language amongst inmates, if one was deemed not to have earnt their tattoo naming them a ‘thief in law’ they were often killed on sight. These tattoos held a certain cultural value for the prisoners and were used to communicate oneself instantly to another inmate.

Arkady Bronniokov states that “Tattoos are a passport and biography; they reflect the convict’s interests, his outlook on life, his world view, there are certain ‘distinguished’ tattoos that a convict earns the right to wear—visible signs of his authority and prestige. A prisoner has nothing of his own, no decent clothes, only the changeless prison garb. The only thing that belongs to him is his body and because of this it can be violated, bartered, or turned into a picture gallery.”
During the 1930s images of Stalin and Lenin were often seen tattooed on the abdomen, the prisoners believed that the authorities would be less likely to sentence them to death via firing squad. Unfortunately, for these men they were often shot in the back of the head instead. The culture behind these tattoos grew as the Thieves in Law did, giving rise to more complex designs used as a means of iconography between the men.

Stars are an important sign used to convey status to other inmates, they are only worn by high ranking members of the thieves in law. the meaning of these stars can differ slightly dependent upon body placement. When the star is placed upon the knees it signifies that the bearer wouldn’t kneel before anyone. Stars on the clavicle are of a higher rank and are only worn by the most respected members. Ships were often tattooed to indicate that a prisoner had attempted to flee prison or had lived a nomadic life of crime. Spiders are used to convey a prisoner’s lifestyle choices, a spider seen crawling upwards signals that the bearer is still pursuing a life of crime, while a downwards facing spider represented the bearer had repented and walked away from a life in crime. Eyes placed on the chest signal that an inmate is watching over other prisoners and keeps his eyes wide open, while eyes when placed on the lower stomach or buttocks represent that an inmate is homosexual.

Prisoners are banned from tattooing each other, with a lack of supplies the prisoners had to get creative. Tattoo guns were fashioned from a sharpened guitar string, a pen, and a small motor possibly from a stereo. Despite a lack of resources, the tattoos are skilfully done. In prison the tattoo artists are called ‘prickers’, prisoners will often transfer to a different unit or prison to be tattooed by a skilled artist. The punishment for tattooing is taken seriously and prisoners are punished severely, often they are beaten before being thrown into a solitary unit. Despite the punishments many prison tattoo artists continue the practice once released. Many inmates upon release can find it hard to obtain work especially if their tattoos mark them as a thief.

Tattoos have been known to symbolise accomplishments and military rank as well as coming of age traditions and beautification. Filipino tattoos are steeped in tradition which some people are practicing keeping alive. When Spanish ships arrived in the Philippines in 1521, they dubbed islands “La Isla De Los Pintados” meaning the “Islands of the Painted Ones”. Today this practice is close to extinction, as an effect of American authorities outlawing the practice of headhunting. Warriors often received a new line with every head they took. These lines inked on a man’s chest symbolised a man’s strength as a warrior. Women often bore tattoos on the chest arms and wrists, as marks of beauty. Designs varied dependent on the region the woman or man came from. Tattooing (Batok) was also used for health and spiritual reasons, some marks were considered healing, and some communicated knowledge passed down between generations.

The Bontoc Ingrots used many designs as symbols and talismans. The chaklag a design that ran upwards from each normal and went across the shoulder and extended down the arms was used to communicate that the man had taken a head.

Among the Kalinga warriors had tattoos named ‘gulot’ (meaning cutter of the head) marked on the back of their hands and wrists after their first kill. Men who had killed two men or more had complex designed tattooed on their chest and arms, these tattoos known as bikking, included snake scales and centipedes, which were believed to be protective symbols. Small crosses marked on the face indicated that a warrior was of the highest rank. Simpler marks were used for therapeutical reasons and were placed on areas considered to need healing.

In 1900 it was stated by those of the Bontoc village that ‘tattooing may not occur at any other time, and that no person, unless a member of the successful ato (a political division within the village) may be tattooed’. A thorn attached to a bamboo stick is used as the tool. The thorn is usually one from a lemon plaint call ‘Sait’. The bamboo stick is called ‘Gisi’, and the short stick’patik’ is used for hand tapping. Ink is made from soot mixed with some water in a coconut bowl. A blade of grass is used to mark the skin with the design to be tattooed first. The resources used for this practice are traditional and hold a rich cultural value.

As Clinton R sanders (2008) stated ‘Tattooing has become more widely practiced, (that is more popular), and has therefore, come to be seen as less odd, unusual, rebellious, or otherwise deviant”.
Although tattooing has been seen as deviant act within western culture for some time, as the practice become more mainstream it is being more widely accepted and has fewer social repercussions than before. Although more widely accepted people can still struggle to obtain suitable employment due to their tattoos.

Long considered a hallmark of American deviance, the tattoo has undergone drastic redefinition in recent decades. No longer the purview of bikers, punks and thugs, tattooing is increasingly practiced and appropriated by mainstream, middle class individuals (DeMeIIo 41; Irwin 50). For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. Estimates on the number of Americans with tattoos generally range from one in ten to one in five (Kosut 1036; Stirn, Hinz, and Brähler 533).

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A History And Symbolism Of Tattoo. (2020, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/a-history-and-symbolism-of-tattoo/