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An Introduction to Tattoos
Tattoos… Everyone has a different reaction to this word. It always caught my attention. I think the first ones I saw in a living person were my cousins. I must have been 7 or 8 years old. He had a funny caricature of a devil on his arm with “born to raise hell” written on it. I was mesmerized by it and although it wasn’t until my mid-20s that I christened my skin, I wanted one the moment I laid eyes on that little devil.
Today, tattoos are much more socially accepted than they were in the 60s, still; there are people who cringe at the idea of marking your body with ink … forever. Whether it is a religious matter, or their personal preference, they cannot deny that tattooing is almost as old as civilization itself.
The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word “tatu”, which means to mark or touch something. The earliest known person with a tattoo is the infamous “Iceman” found in 1991, in the Otzal Alps, located in Italy. Carbon dating proved he lived about 5,300 years ago. There are fifty eight tattoos on his body!! Archaeologists think he was an important figure in his society. The tattoos were charcoal and water based.
Ancient cultures used tattoos to ward off illness or bad luck. The Egyptians were the first to use needles to tattoo the body. Archaeologists, excavating graves, have also found children’s dolls decorated with tattoos. Tattoos spread to Greece and Arabia, and by 2000 BC, tattooing had arrived in Asia.
The Japanese first used tattoos to identify criminals. It later turned into an art form, producing some of the most beautiful tattoos in the world. Yakuza (Japanese mafia) use their tattoos to intimidate their rivals. The Japanese tattoo style has influenced hundreds of artists today.
Polynesians have also contributed a lot to art. Their instruments consist of sharp pieces of bone or ivory, attached to a stick. They “crush” the ink into the skin by striking the top of the instrument with a hammer-type object. The tool can consist of a sharp object, or a whole row of objects, similar to a rake.
Members of some tribes underwent hours of tattooing on their bodies as a right of passage. Those tools are still used today, for the same rituals, but it is a dying art form, performed only by those who preserve their culture. They also developed a face tattoo called “Moko”. This face tattoo consisted of lines drawn around the face that would tell the story of that person’s life.
Centuries ago in Europe, it was common to make family crests on the body, but when the Normans invaded in 1066, tattoos disappeared. 600 years later, a sailor named William Dempher, ran into Prince Giolo, known as the Painted Prince. He was brought from Polynesia to London, exhibited and became a sensation.
In the 1700s, on one of his many voyages to the South Pacific, Captain Cook encountered Oami, a heavily tattooed man, whom he also brought to England. The English were amazed and soon tattoos became a fashion among the upper class. It would be another 100 years before tattooing would make an impact in America.
The first electric tattoo machine was invented by Samuel O’Rielly in 1891. It evolved from an electric pen that Thomas Edison had invented a few years earlier. This machine is very similar to the one used today. With this invention, it was very easy to get a tattoo, so the upper class gradually turned their backs on the art, and by the 1900s the glamor of being tattooed had lost its appeal. Tattoo artists found themselves working in seedy areas of neighborhoods and tattoos went underground. Only by word of mouth could one find a tattoo artist, or even see tattoo art. Tattoos became a secret society.
Once again, Samuel O’Rielly to the rescue. He moved from Boston to New York City and opened a tattoo shop in the very popular Chatham Square, the Times Square of his time and the birthplace of American-style tattooing. There he met Charlie Wagner.
O’Rielly taught Wagner the art of tattooing until Sam’s death in 1908. Charlie then met Lew Alberts, a wallpaper designer. Alberts incorporated his designs into tattoo art and began making flash designs. Tattoo flourished in Chatham Square for nearly 20 years until the depression hit. The spirit of the tattoo then moved to Coney Island. Stores were opened wherever military bases appeared to be. Mostly sailors got tattoos and each tattoo brought a different story from a different place.
After World War II, tattoos were less popular. Their association with bikers and jailbirds had a major impact on the decline of tattoos in American culture. An outbreak of hepatitis in the 1960s brought tattoos to the knees. Needles were not being sterilized and reports of blood poisoning flooded the newspapers. New York outlawed tattoos and closed its Coney Island shops. The tattoos moved to New Jersey, Philadelphia and as far away as San Francisco.
Today, tattoos are legal again in New York, and were recently legalized in Massachusetts. Artists hold international conventions where they exhibit work, perform work, and give tattoo workshops. Many of them have an art degree. Cleanliness is an unwritten rule in business these days. Stores would not survive if the owners did not maintain a clean place of business. Tattoos have once again reached the upper echelons of society. Movie stars, rock stars and corporate executives now adorn their bodies with tattoos. Each tattoo has a special meaning for the wearer. Whether it’s a tribute to a loved one, or a child, mom or dad, a simple line or a detailed body suit, tattoos have left their mark on the history of the world.
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