Once, in a county called Oregon, a tattoo on a male murder victim’s body led police to the suspect of the crime. The tattoo was simply the first name of a young woman called “Janelle”, curled around itself and inside it sat the image of a heart. How poignant that such a symbol of affection could link a suspected killer to her lover. Body art also hit the headlines recently when one of Mike Tyson’s tattoos, spotted on camera in the film “Hangover Part 2”, led to a lawsuit – with the result that body art may soon be copyrightable. Tattooing is a powerful statement. I’d like to write about it someday, but where did the concept actually originate?
Captain James Cook is recorded as the first person to write the word “tattoo” during his voyage around Polynesia in 1769. He regarded a tattoo of the buttocks as the most painful and “only possible once in a person’s lifetime”. But that is by no means the start. In Europe, the practice of tattooing or “scarification” has been around since Neolithic times. The fifty-seven tattoos on the mummified body of “Ötzi the Iceman” were dated to 3300 BC. In Japan, the ancient art goes back even further, to 10,000 BC, and was used in the creation of spiritual and decorative markings. But it’s Samoa where the word originates – from the Tahitian “tatau”, translated as “tell”. The tradition there has carried on for thousands of years by trained artists called “tufuga”. During its history, the tattoo has fluctuated between being a peasant’s pastime and the exquisite choice of landed gentry. Even members of the British royal family have fallen for its dark charms…. Edward VII, George V and even Queen Victoria were rumoured to have one – hers was in a private location on her body.
Criminals use tattoos to associate themselves with certain gangs. Young people get tattoos to rebel against their parents. And it can even be applied as a statement against religious dogma, because many religions prohibit the marking of skin purely for beautifying purposes. No matter what the reason, whether you agree with it or disagree with the person’s choice to have one, the skill of creating and wearing a tattoo is as impressive and awe-inspiring as any other form of art.
Depending on the technique, tattooing can be painful and expensive and often marks the skin permanently, so why do so many people still do it out of choice and not purely for fashion or for ritualistic or tribal ascendancy reasons? I like to think it’s because they want to break convention, rebel against the norm. To have a visible tattoo in our culture is to be controversial, even though it’s becoming more common. It sets an individual apart not only for their tolerance of pain and their appreciation of modern art – it makes a silent statement that they are going to live the life they want regardless of whether they receive approval. Can a tattoo make a person more confident? That’s another matter. Personally, I think more confident people get tattoos.
And as for me, people who know me – and who understand how important those principles are to me – often ask why I don’t have one.
The answer is very simple: I’m shit-scared of the pain!
For a selection of some outstanding colour tattoos, take a quick look at Brandon Bond, over in Atlanta, Georgia.