The History of Tattoos

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A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on the skin by a process of pricking and ingraining an indelible pigment into the punctures or by raising scars. This is the definition; however, to many a tattoo has more of an abstract, personal meaning. Tattoos symbolize individuality, experiences, status, religion, and art. They come in many shapes, sizes, colors, designs, and styles. The history behind the tattoo is just as fascinating as the tattoo itself. Whether flaunted or hidden, sought as art or bought out of a whim, the tattoo has left its mark on generation after generation (Krakow). The purpose of tattooing varies from culture to culture, person to person, and its place on the time line. The essay will examine the following eras: BC and tribal, 20th century, and modern.

It is noted that tattooing (a Tahitian word meaning “to mark something”) has existed since 12,000 years BC. As noted in “A Brief History of Tattoos,” women in Borneo tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. In tribes, tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness and bad spirits. In recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the erection of the great pyramids. As the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread along with it. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia picked up and expanded the art form (“A Brief History of Tattoos). The Greeks used tattooing for communication among spies by identifying them and showing their rank. Romans marked criminals and slaves, a practice still carried on today.


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...on, Michael. “Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-Control.” La Revue Canadienne de Sociologie et d'Anthropologie 41 (May 2004): 125-146

Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Garcia, Tomas (Keepsake Tattoo). Personal interview. 10 Nov. 2014

Hawkes, Daina, Charlene Senn, and Chantal Thorn. “Factors That Influence Attitudes toward Women with Tattoos.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 50 (May 2012): 125-146

Krakow, Amy. Total Tattoo Book. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1994. Sace, Paul. “History of Tattoo.” 15 November 2014

Steward, Samuel. Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks, 1950-1965. Portland: Harrington Park Press, 1990.

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