Tattoo Tales

The history of tattoos began over 5,000 years ago and is as varied as the people who wear them.

Published: 23rd February 2012 12:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:01 PM   |  A+A-


From Harry Potter to Harley Davidson bikes, from Barbies to butterflies — you name them and they are all over you! Surprised? These are some of the hundreds of patterns that you can pick from, if you want to get a tattoo. Who has not sported a fancy, groovy temporary tattoo just for fun?

Today tattooing has developed into an artistic medium and every tattoo acts as a cultural marker for both the artist who creates it and the person who wears it. If you thought this skin art was a recent and contemporary cultural development then you are in for a really huge surprise.

The history of tattoos began over 5,000 years ago and is as varied as the people who wear them. The word tattoo itself is said to have two etymologies or word origins. It is derived from the word ‘ta’ in Polynesian which means to strike something. The second word is the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means to mark something. A tattoo is usually created by inserting coloured indelible ink beneath the top layer of the skin’s surface.

In the 1990s anthropologists discovered the mummified body of Otzi the iceman, who according to scientists lived in the fourth to fifth millennium BC. The discoverers were fascinated by the fact that there were 53 different  tattoos etched on his body. Otzi’s tattoos have been documented as perhaps the oldest ever created in human history. Historians and scientists believe that in ancient days tattoos were applied for medical and therapeutic reasons.

Different cultures around the world have practised the art for centuries, especially the indigenous people of Japan known as the Ainu, the early Egyptians, the Maoris of New Zealand and the Polynesian people. Interestingly, the island of Great Britain gets its name from tattooing. The ‘Britons’ translated as the ‘people of designs’ and the ‘Picts’ who originally inhabited the northern part of Britain literally meant the ‘painted people’.

The most popular and the most intricate tattoos are perhaps found in the Pacific cultures. In the Pacific cultures the art of creating a tattoo bears a tremendous significance. The tattoos are designs that represent a person’s life force and the art of tattooing is considered an important ritual passed down from ancestors. For them, tattoos were not merely ornamentation but were added on throughout a person’s lifetime until they covered their entire body.

The Polynesians believed that tattoos acted as health guards and were responsible for a person’s physical and spiritual well being. They are  perhaps the most popular and most skillful tattoo artists in the world today because of their rich traditional skin art history.

In the early 18th century, sailors were usually associated with tattoos. Travelling around the world the sailors returned home with their personalised tattoos. Tattoos soon began to be popularised by travelling circuses in the early 19th century where tattooed people were exhibited in side shows.

In India, though tribal designs are common the most popular symbol according to artists is that of Hanuman who is a symbol of swiftness and strength.

Today hundreds of temporary tattoos (which can be wiped off or washed out very easily within a week) are worn by people from various walks of life, which are medically safe and which carry a message or useful information about the wearer or purely for pleasure.

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