With the issue of tattooing still contentious in contemporary society, Natalie Voorheis explores the origins of the ancient tradition
In 1991 archaeologists discovered a naturally mummified 5,300-year-old man in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. The man, who they nicknamed Otzi, was in an excellent state of preservation, with 57 tattoos clearly visible on his skin. Otzi’s tattoos, far from being the sophisticated images we associate with tattoos today, mostly take the form of short vertical and parallel lines. Despite their rudimentary nature, they are evidence that the practice of tattooing was being carried out as early as the Copper Age.
Current academic opinion suggests that in the past, people did not get tattoos for aesthetic reasons but as part of a pain-relief treatment, similar to modern-day acupuncture. Radiological examinations of Otzi’s bones show significant degeneration which would have caused discomfort in areas such as the ankles, spine and in the knees, all of which are heavily tattooed. Otzi’s body signifies the earliest known example of tattooing.
Throughout history, the art of tattooing has played a significant cultural role in great civilisations such as the Egyptians and the Greeks. The Egyptians reserved the art of tattooing specifically for woman. During the Egyptian New Kingdom, which began c1550 BC, the tattooing of abstract geometric patterns of dots and dashes gave way to a more representational mode of artistry. A wall painting from the period found in Western Thebes of a dancing girl with a tattoo of the god Bes on her thigh is one of the earliest known examples of a representational tattoo.
In more modern times, the late 1700s is an important period in the history of tattoos. During this period, Captain James Cook, the famous British Naval explorer made several trips to the South Pacific. On these expeditions, Captain Cook and his sailors encountered the prevalent tradition of tattooing amongst the people of Tahiti. After one trip, they returned to London with a heavily tattooed Polynesian called Omai. His striking appearance and the tattoos that the sailors had themselves acquired caused a sensation in British society, and a fashion for tattoos began to emerge in Europe.
Tattoos have long been a means of identifying oneself with a group or culture and the rise of tattoos associated with gangs, particularly in large American cities such as Chicago and LA, is a modern extension of this. For members of gangs such as the Surenos, the MS13 gang and the Crips, nothing symbolises a commitment to their gang more forcefully than the gang tattoo. These images, which have served to create social divides between mainstream society and gang members, equally represent complete allegiance for the gang members to their chosen gang.
However, modern celebrities such as Cheryl Cole, Rihanna and David Beckham have helped push tattoos into mainstream culture. Today tattoos are no longer as taboo as they once were. More and more, they are commonly regarded as a means of creative expression. The internet has also proved to be a fuelling factor in the spread of tattoo culture. Never has it been easier to share artwork or simply Google a concept and gain access to thousands of images thrown in seconds.
The University Observer spoke to esteemed tattoo artist Brendan Harte on the matter, who has worked on the Dublin tattoo scene for 25 years and runs his own business, Dragon Tattoo, from Dublin’s city centre.
Harte explains: “It’s changing. Years ago you wouldn’t get a job as a bar man if you had a tattoo, but now it’s becoming more acceptable…years ago it would have been mostly young people [getting tattoos] where their parents might complain but now the parents are getting tattoos as well.”
Despite the increase in popularity of tattoos, Harte was quick to note that “there is that discrimination there, you could still be refused a job because you had a tattoo. But I generally tell people to get them where you can hide them especially, even still, girls.” Harte followed this by firmly stating that no matter what, “it is definitely your right to walk down the street with a tattoo if you want to”.
Of the students interviewed on the UCD campus, many expressed views of striking polarity. First-year Arts student, Mark Graham, comments: “I don’t think tattoos create a social divide. I think it’s other people’s problem if they judge them.”
In contrast, Mark Hughes, a second-year Biochemistry student explains: “If I saw someone with loads of tattoos all over their body I’d kind of consider them a bit creepy and I’d avoid them.” Meanwhile, Stephen Tennant Humphreys, a Social Science student, concludes: “I don’t think tattoos create a social divide. But I would say that tattoos would definitely contribute to a perception of someone.”