On the History and Practice of Tattooing
As an art form, the tattoo is as ephemeral as life itself. It disappears along with the person who bears it. Cave paintings, sculptures, and architectural works all have a longer life span and transmit the culture of civilizations that have vanished. A tattoo always raises questions that do not so much concern die technique but rather the meaning and purpose of the tattoo. The latter is the most important aspect of the subject which is usually incorrectly described or not all. Even important ethnographic works on the history of the tattoos of primitive peoples living to dist ant corners of the globe only describe certain aspects of the world of the tattoo. And yet, as Darwin observed: "There is no nation on earth that does not know this phenomenon”.
The technique for bringing the pigments under the skin has not - changed greatly the course of history. There are, however, great variations in quality because of the ease in using tattooing instruments and because of aesthetic considerations: the tattoo should be finely drawn, with lines that are thin, black and even. And then there is the craftsmanship: the application of the correct amount of pigment; correct penetration at the proper depth, without leaving scars. Even primitive cultures have developed astonishing tattooing techniques; for example, the Inuit: stitch tattoos into the skin with a needle and colored thread.
In other techniques, the skin is divided up into areas by a series of preliminary cuts. These areas are then filled with figures. Another, less precise technique involves drawing lines and curves with a sharp stone to form complex tattoos with long rows of dots, spirals or other forms, as found in ancient Europe and among modern North American Indians. In Indochina, people use the so-called chisel or comb technique: a row of needles, or sharp pieces of ivory or bone are fastened to the end of a stick to form a rake. The artist holds the chisel with one hand and hammers quickly with a type of mallet held in the other.
The Japanese method is a sophisticated manual technique using a row of sticks with needles joined to create a particular pattern. Details require no more than three needles; thick and thin lines and colored or black areas call for larger numbers. The electric tattooing machine, first patented by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891, is now very popular. In addition to hammering devices, there are also rotational machines, often used by amateurs or in prison, where a cassette recorder or electric razor can serve as a motor with results at times astonishingly good. So much for the how - but what about the why? Tattoos can mark victory or defeat, can express joy or sorrow, or can be part of a ceremony or ritual accompanied by mantras, song and dance. Alternatively, a tattoo may express pleasure, sadism, torture or superstition. One type of tattoo functioning as camouflage during the hunt may have developed from body painting. Tattoos may depict hunting trophies or a successful hunt or may seek to placate the prey, asking its forgiveness or even its approval. Cannibalism and headhunting also appear in tattooed images. Another type of tattoo is performed on religious grounds: people want to ensure a place in heaven and tell God and the world about their devotion by means of the tattoos. In India and Tibet, tattoos provide assistance in getting through difficult periods in life. The attempt to drown out mental suffering by means of physical pain even leads to mutilation, bum wounds and amputations. People commemorate the deceased in this way or honor them by means of a tattooed "in memoriam". In the western world "memento mori" and "in memoriam" tattoos are also common. Possibly the best-known type of tattoo is that belonging to an initiation rite, as found throughout the world. It indicates the start of or transition to another phase of life, from boy to man, girl to woman, woman to mother or numerous other religious, social or other changes.
Tattoos can serve as a type of vaccination or other medicinal treatment. The Berbers and Samoans, for example, tattoo against rheumatism. Medical tattoos against eye diseases, headaches and the like can be found from Egypt to South Africa. The Inuit and North American Indians covered the skin with signs to protect against disease. The artistic welt "tattoos" of young Nubian girls in the Sudan and also common in other African states function as decoration and vaccination: small wounds strengthen die immune system. Tattoos can help to acquire certain characteristics by celebrating and honoring these very qualities in ancestors and spirits. In this context, tattoos consist primarily of those elements of the national 01 tribal history which are also of benefit to the bearers. Tattoos function as non-verbal communication. The lines on the faces of the Inuit telling the tale of a murder are also to be found among the Mentawai people. Tattooed spirals and lines on Maori faces narrate the story of the bearers' lives, genealogy and characteristics.
A more simple reason for a tattoo is the desire to induce a state of fear and terror in the enemy. In physical conflict the tattoo distracts opponents, reducing their concentration for a split second - a weakness which can be exploited. This is a principle behind the tattoos of the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands: large staring eyes on the inside of the arm are intended to put off the opponent for that fraction of a second when the arm is raised to strike. Japanese gangsters, so-called yakuzas, take off their kimonos in order to impress their opponent wife their body tattoos during the ill-famed and illegal card game, hanafuda. Mike Tyson is deliberately provocative with his tattoo of the deceased, omniscient chairman Mao Zedong, the father of all Chinese. Mickey Rourke achieves the same effect with his IRA tattoo. In the notorious Russian gulags, texts were often tattooed from shoulder to shoulder, declaiming: "A Russia without Reds" or "I thank the communist masters for my happy childhood", illustrated with a child behind a barbed wire fence. Abdominal tattoos were also common, showing Lenin and Stalin copulating with pigs. A tattoo can thus become the most extreme form of protest. It gives people the strength to survive, the ability to assert themselves in the face of daily humiliation. It expresses the freedom of the spirit in the prison of the body.
Another aspect is the tattoo as erotic ornament, making the body more interesting sexually, and demanding a response. Leather freaks, sadomasochists, rubber and piercing fetishists, masters and slaves often combine text and image in a tattoo to inform a possible interested party about the sexual preferences of their bearer.