Tattoos, from ancient to modern
Most of what has featured so far on this list deals with matters of beauty and eroticism, and, of course, body art certainly plays a role in that. However, body modification has also traditionally had much to do with implying ferocity, strength and courage in warfare.
Where the tradition of tattooing begins is so buried in the soil of time and tradition that it is pointless trying to dig it up. Evidence of tattooing can be found on mainly female mummies unearthed in various parts of Egypt, the earliest dating back to 2,000 BCE. However, Otzi the Ice Man was also tattooed, and his origins have been placed at about 3345 BCE. Yet other examples, at least according to the Smithsonian, have been dug up in ancient cemeteries in the Nile Valley, potentially dating back as far as 15,000 BCE.
There is also strong evidence that ancient Britons were tattooed, and in fact the Romans named one northern tribe the ‘Picts’, or the ‘Painted People’. The practice has also been observed in ancient Roman tradition, where tattoos were used largely as mark of ownership on slaves. Pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile also show evidence of a tradition of tattoo, and, of course, there is the story of Olive Oatman, held captive by the Mohave Indians during the late 19th century, and returned after five years bearing the traditional facial tattoos of the Mohave.
In the 19th century, as British naval exploration began to touch every corner of the world, the tattoo began its long association with various navies – think anchors, the Jolly Roger and ‘I love Doris’. The word ‘Tattoo’ evolved from the Tahitian word ‘Tatu’, and it was on the leisurely sojourns on these beautiful islands the British seaman picked up the tradition. From there is was taken up by the aristocracy, particularly after it was revealed that the English King Edward VII bore a tattoo, as did his heir King George V.
Perhaps the most recognizable and dramatic tattoos of the ancient world are the Polynesian and Maori tattoos, in particular the facial tattoos associated with the warrior casts of both of these societies. These are some of the most beautifully rendered and artfully conceived tattoos anywhere, and the essence of Maori tattoo design permeates very much the modern tattoo movement, competing perhaps with the perennial Celtic motifs, a race also, incidentally, with a strong tradition of tattooing.
The traditional name for Maori Tattooing is ‘Ta moko’, and there is nothing random about it. Like any totem or tribal symbol, the various designs evolved over generations, each bearing a specific reference to the wearers family and tribal affiliations, and their place within the wider social structure. Body tattoos, or course, where more decorative and erotic. The entire experience was something of a rite of passage, because if modern tattooing smarts, then traditional Maori tattooing, using tradition methods, hurts a whole lot.