Tattoos evoke mixed opinions. Some people think that they’re irreversible and ugly body modifications whilst others see them as deeply beautiful and artistic. What you may find surprising is that attitudes towards tattoos over the last five millennia have been equally divergent.
In an interesting article in National Geographic, Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa outlines an intriguing history of tattoos, on that dates back over 5000 years. It’s a history in which tattoos are often associated with latent spiritual longings, beauty, and ritual.
The oldest known tattoo was found on the body of “Otzi”, a Copper Age “Iceman”. Other examples have also been discovered of female mummies in Egypt and on Roman soldiers, who in many ways perfected the art of tattooing. The story goes that, though they originally saw them as an aberration against the purity of the body, after witnessing the ferocity of British soldiers who openly wore their tattoos, they changed their minds and adopted the practice.
Some of the most exotic examples include Hawaiian “tongue tattoos” of tree dots, made when in mourning. Tribes in Borneo would also tattoo the symbol of an eye onto the palm of their hand to help guide them into the next life.
Of course, there is also a darker history too. In Japan, restricted from wearing the ornate kimonos that market the upper classes, merchants took to tattooing themselves with rich full body suits. When the government made tattoos illegal, the artists went underground and they took on a new meaning, representing repressed spiritual longings and desires.
In recent modern times, tattoos were largely the domain of specific subcultures, sailors and war veterans. Today, things have changed drastically. There is a network of fairs and conventions , often where astonishing examples of full body suits and intricate artistic representations are displayed. Many of the historical examples have directly influenced designs today.