Evolution of Tattoos: From the Iceman Hunks to the Mainstream

The practice of tattooing has been around a long time. Where there is evidence of even the earliest civilization, there seems to also be some accompanying evidence for tattooing. Take the oldest preserved mummy on earth: Otzi—the devilishly handsome rogue who no doubt was breakin’ hearts and snappin’ the necks of any feeble deer that dared pass him at a walkable speed. The kind of catch you bring home to the hut. But, there was trouble in the paradise that 3,300 B.C.E. Earth must have been. Research shows due to a large unhealed wound on Otzi’s hand and an arrowhead lodged within his body, that his death was both probably not his decision, and also not from old age [5].

When unearthed from the giant block of glacier he spent the last few thousand years thinking over his sins in, Otzi had over 50 carbon tattoos. Now, while we may infer that at the tender age of 11 Otzi became a man and went through some sort of rebellious stage where he stuck it to his parents with the first sleeve tattoo, to do so would be to impose upon him a limited and contemporary mindset. Thankfully, modern science has rid the man of most of his secrets. As the tattoos were all observed to have been produced over points of the body where Otzi was subjected to considerable strain during his lifetime, they were most likely used as an early equivalent to acupuncture and therapy rather than symbols [5]. So, if you have a timeline out, check off ‘Utilitarian’ for tattoos in the great B.C.E.

While tattoos have solidly established themselves, what has constantly evolved in relation to them is the purpose of the markings and societal perception. That’s where the timeline helps. The iceman’s home-remedy was the mark of deviation and exoticism in the 17th and 18th century, and as mainstream and consistent today as public radio or moms wearing tankinis to waterparks. As of 2008, almost one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 are tattooed.

Tattoos made their first real attachment in North American life after the American Revolution as a way for sailors to avoid impressment by British ships. Though American sailors would use government-issued protection papers, the descriptions of them therein were often so vague that British commanders would ignore them altogether. I’m sure there were just as many guys named ‘Joe’ who were 5’8” and brunette in the 16th century as there are now. One way of making the descriptions more specific was to describe a tattoo—something highly personal in terms of subject matter and placement. Oftentimes, clerks writing the papers would also sketch the tattoos in for added assurance. [6].

As luck would have it, the Latin word for tattoo is ‘stigma’ [3]. A word today most often denoting the disgraceful perception or reputation of particular circumstances, qualities, or people. So to settle the debate, fate does have a sense of humor and it has a predilection for irony. This exact implication began to attach itself to tattoos before the ink had even dried into the American sailors.

As a result of the encounters with foreign tribes where tattooing was prevalent as a sacred religious rite performed by priests or priestesses, tattoos were perceived by the American public as a distinct marking of the exotic. Carnivals and circuses featured tattooed ‘savages’ as part of their freak shows until the early twentieth century when they were replaced with tattooed Westerners instead (See: American Horror Story: Freak Show). So, if you’re still following along, please note ‘Exoticism,’ in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the fancy faded, sideshows declined, “the freak shows dwindled, and the cultural viewing of tattooing was forced increasingly into the ‘sleazier’ parts of town” [4].

After World War II, tattoos became associated with bikers and criminals—fabricating a defiant and rebellious image. Coupled with the 1961 outbreak of hepatitis, and mainstream Americans had almost too many reasons not to participate. In addition, the practice alienated women for a majority of the twentieth century; tattoos were a dependably ‘masculine’ practice in the 40s and 50s. In fact, “if a nice girl wanted a tattoo, she was required to have a marriage license and to be accompanied by her husband [4]. As a woman, a mere 60-odd years later, I quite literally shudder at the thought.

Finally, in the 1970s, tattoos saw the dawn of another day—mostly thanks to a man with a will and a way by the name of Lyle Tuttle. He spearheaded and crafted the middle-class communities’ appropriation of tattoos, and thus led the yellow brick road right into the promised land of American mainstream. He advocated for updated health regulations and created tattoo magazines aimed specifically at the middle class. In addition, Tuttle created tattoo images that reflected the social movements of the time such as the peace, gay, and women’s movements. Prior to this, most of the available images were highly ‘masculine’ (motorcycle icons, aggressive animals, etc.) usually placed on the bicep. His new designs, however, were both more ‘feminine’ and appealing to the middle-class. Simultaneously, tattoo artists began emerging from more theoretical fine arts backgrounds [4].

One manner in which “the cultural status of tattooing has steadily evolved from that of an anti-social activity in the 1960s to that of a trendy fashion statement in the 1990s” [2] is through popular musicians and celebrities of the time influentially flaunting them. Today, supermodels such as Cara Delevingne have multiple visible tattoos while simultaneously functioning as members of society both appraised for looks and used as indications of trend. By normalizing the practice to the point of having ‘Bacon’ tattooed to her foot and getting matching tattoos with fellow models spontaneously, she has become a major player in popularization through social media. Similarly, shows such as SpikeTv’s Ink Master that televise the tattoo process and results have helped popularize the application and culture.

In the twenty first century, tattoos resemble something else entirely than what they did for Otiz, the iceman hunk, or 18th century Americans. Today they are a means of personal identification and a public expression of private meaning. They went from an utilitarian use, an extension of exoticism, to now being deemed colloquially as ‘body art’ and their applicants ‘artists’ with fine arts backgrounds. Though far from being totally accepted, the general understanding of nearly one in four between 18 and 50 is presumably positive, and I for one think it is quite beautiful to impart something meaningful to you indelibly into living skin. Instead of being a stigma, today, they are much closer to the sacred markings of stigmata.

Works Cited

[1] photo courtesy of PeopleAlerts.net, “Cara Delevingne Tattoo – PeopleAlerts.” PeopleAlerts. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

[2] “THE CHANGING CULTURAL STATUS OF THE TATTOO ARTS IN AMERICA.” The Changing Cultural Status of Tattoo Art: A Report. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

[3] “Send This Page to a Friend!” Stigma. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

[4] Socializing Bodies: A History of the Tattoo. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

[5] “SOUTH TYROL MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY.” The Tattoos. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

[6] “Tattooing in the Ancient World.” Alleksandurnikolov. N.p., 06 May 2014. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

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