Convicts, blue bloods, seamen, and circus freaks; Pacific Islanders, Arctic dwellers, and ancient Egyptians: the historical list of the tattooed is long and winding. Continually reinvented in each time and place, the tattoo reveals a consistent paradoxthe impulse to create an indelible mark on that most transient of canvases, the human body. The permanent ink of tattoo can express bravery, creativity, spiritual awakening, or defianceand sometimes, all of these things simultaneously.
According to Tattoo History: A Source Book,edited by Steve Gilbert 52, injecting pigment into the skin for lifelong adornment has been identified as an active practice of many cultures. Archeological sites in Europe have yielded instruments believed to be used for tattooing during the Upper Paleolithic period, and mummies unearthed in such distinct locales as Egypt, Siberia, and Peru feature various marks of tattoo. In the classical era the Greeks and Romans tattooed their slaves and criminals, and documented the fierce tattoos of Britons, Gauls, Goths, and other barbarians. As Christendom grew stronger, though, tattooing increasingly fell out of favor. Pope Hadrian I banned the practice in 787, sending Western tattoo in to an eclipse that would last for almost a thousand years.
Meanwhile, in the kinder climate of the South Seas, tattoo was enjoying
a golden age. The most highly developed expression of the art form in
the ancient world, Polynesian tattoo varied from island to island but
was characterized by geometrical designs that covered the entire body
like intricate black lace. Performed with crude implements and natural
pigments, the process was slow and excruciating, yet was experienced as
a desirable passage to adulthood and displayed with great pride. Captain
James Cooks expeditions to the South Pacific in the late eighteenth
century helped create European awareness of this practice, naming it henceforth
in English after the Tahitian word tatou.
In Japan tattoo evolved from a method first used to mark prisoners into an aesthetically complex practice shaped by other trends in the visual arts. The eighteenth century gave birth to various expressions of Japanese popular culture, including sumo wrestling, Kabuki theatre, and ukiyo-e wood block printsthe pictures of the floating world that illustrated popular novels and plays of the day. When the Chinese novel Suikoden was translated into Japanese, its story of a band of outlaws fighting corruption captured the national imagination and helped promote tattooing in the bargain. Leading ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi created the definitive illustrations of the novel, each featuring one of the heroes elaborately tattooed with emblems of his personality, such as flowers, dragons, or tigers. Widely available, these images invoked a popular demand for tattoo in spite of official prohibitions against it.
Ukiyo-e was also the source of the artwork that Japanese tattooists adapted for their work and passed on from generation to generation. The hallmark of traditional Japanese tattooing remains its use of a unified full color design covering the back, chest, arms, or legs. Each portion of the image is associated with traits such as courage or loyalty. Rather than simply placing a static image on the human body, Japanese tattoo strives to reflect the dynamic connection between the person and his chosen symbols.
The Polynesian and Japanese threads of tattoo converged in nineteenth-century England, where tattooing became more popular than anywhere else in Europe. Visits to the South Pacific taught English sailors the basic trade, and many came back to set up shop in English seaports, while officers and dignitaries traveled to Japan to be tattooed by the masters at work there. The Prince of Wales (later Edward II) not only received a Japanese tattoo but also later sent his two sons to Japan to be decorated by the same artist. His example encouraged other European royalty and socialites to go under the needle, and a brief tattoo fad spread among the elite in 1890s England and America. Soon enough, however, the aristocratic craze faded and tattoo regained its slightly unsavory reputation.