The tattoo: its origins and uses

When are the first tattoos?

The origins of the tattoo date back, so to speak, to the dawn of time. Archaeologists have discovered reindeer bone needles as well as mortars bearing traces of pigments. These remains, dating back 25,000 years, suggest that the first men were already engaged in adorning their bodies. However, there is no body to support this hypothesis. Only these rudimentary tools evoke this possibility.

On the other hand, it is established with certainty that the first known tattoo dates from 5300 years ago. It was found on the body of a hunter, nicknamed Oetzi, in a glacier on the Italian-Austrian border. This man had 61 tattoos formed of parallel lines along his spine, as well as crosses and dashes on his knuckles. A study of these bones revealed that these areas bore signs of osteoarthritis. It was deduced that his tattoos had been made for medicinal purposes.

The symbolism and use of the tattoo

The patterns found on this hunter were very simple. Conversely, the Scythian warriors (Ⅶth century BC) sported complex and colorful patterns like their animal art. Their bodies were tattooed with many ornaments inspired by their fantastic bestiaries.

Elsewhere in Europe, many tribes wore tattoos to scare off Roman legionnaires. For these peoples, the tattoo was reserved for warriors and a symbol of strength and courage. But that was not the main use of the tattoo. In those remote times, body ornaments had more medicinal than aesthetic virtues. In ancient Egypt, for example, women were tattooed on the lower abdomen with motifs evoking fertility. Many mummies dating from 4000 BC have testified to this. For other peoples, like the Assyrians, tattoos allowed them to express religious beliefs.

Shame, punishment and infamy

If for the peoples mentioned above, tattooing was considered an art, other cultures have used it for much less noble purposes. The permanent branding of the skin was used by the Babylonians as a punitive act. For the Thracians, it was a mark of dishonor. The Greeks, on the other hand, tattooed the foreheads of their slaves so that they would be immediately identifiable in the event of a flight. They called the tattoo “Stigma”, which at the time meant “snake mark”, then by diversion “shameful mark”. From this etymology came the word “stigma” still used in modern vocabulary.

The Romans borrowed the punitive tattoo from the Greeks. They found the practice barbaric, and therefore particularly suitable for branding infamy and disgrace. They also used it to identify their slaves: the initials of their owners were tattooed between their two eyes as a sign of belonging. A runaway slave was invariably marked with the letters FHE meaning “Fugitivus Hic Est – This one is a fugitive”. In Greco-Roman times, the tattoo was worn by the lowest layers of the population, slaves, criminals, gladiators. It was suffered and not chosen. All these facts testify that most of the ancient civilizations were tattooed and this for very different reasons.

Tattoo and Christianity

It was Emperor Constantine in 331 AD who banned facial tattooing. “You shall not defile the face which God created in his image”. He advocated tattooing slaves and criminals on the hidden parts of their bodies. The year 787 sounded the death knell for tattooing. Pope Adrian prohibits any practice, in his eyes pagan, to the exclusion of religious tattoos. Also, many were the new converts who had crosses or fish tattooed, as a sign of adherence to Christianity. It was not until the 3rd century and the first crusades that tattoos became popular again. Indeed, the Church, in order to motivate the volunteers to go and die in unknown lands, promised them a Christian funeral on the condition that they wear a tattooed cross on their arm. Since then,

The tattoo in the Middle Ages

Despite religious prohibitions, the tattoo never completely disappeared. From the ⅩⅣth century they were highly prized by craftsmen who wore them as evidence of their trades or their skills. Thus, architects got tattoos of compasses, lumberjacks of axes, carpenters of saws, masons of trowels. These body markings were made at the end of the learning period.

The practices of tattooing were not limited to Europe, they were practiced in the four corners of the globe, all ethnic groups combined. From the Inuit to the Berbers via Borneo, all peoples, all ethnic groups wore tattoos.

The tattoo in Oceania

On the other hand, the techniques and tools used to ink the skin were very different according to the times and cultures. The original idea was the same: ink or pigment was placed under the skin after having pierced it. The healing imprisoned it forever in the dermis.

Traditional tattoo instrument

If the tribes of the Far North used a needle and a thread impregnated with ink to trace the patterns, the Maoris preferred the incision. The skin was cut using a shark’s tooth to form patterns, and the wounds were then covered in pigments which remained captive after healing. For their part, the Polynesians used combs cut from the ivory of marine animals. These combs were placed on handles, like a rake. The tattoo artist struck on the instrument in order to make it enter the comb into the skin. This technique and these patterns are still used today. These tattoos had purifying virtues (thanks to the flow of blood). They also marked a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, a symbol of courage or beauty. An untattooed woman, for example, could not marry. In these tribes, the tattoo was expensive. The tattoo artist was paid in food, weapons or jewelry. Thus, they were reserved for the highest castes, for important people. And thus testified to their power.

The return of tattooing in Europe

Resident of the Marquesas Islands

The most intricate tattoos were practiced in the Marquesas Islands, Polynesia, New Zealand and Hawaii. It was from these archipelagos that James Cook reintroduced tattooing in Europe in 1771. He imported the name as we know it today. The Polynesians called it “Tatau” which meant “tapping” in reference to the technique used, and was pronounced “tattoo”.

Its sailors returned in 1771 from this scientific expedition with tattoos on their bodies, like souvenirs. More and more sailors brought back designs inked into their skin as a memory of their expeditions. The tradition was born and began to spread! The sailors tattooed themselves on board, according to stopovers and their free time at sea. Their skin told of the countries visited, their heartaches, the emblems of their ships, the distances covered, the battles won or defeated.

Doctor Ambroise Tardieu

The practice intensified as the ship’s doctors began to take an interest in it. Doctor Hutin, for example, a Frenchman, made a study on tattoos in 1853 and Doctor Tardieu wrote a book dealing with the risks of tattooing because of the lack of hygiene on board. Doctor Grouzer estimated that in 1894 5% of sailors were tattooed. His counterpart, Doctor Octave Guiol noted in 1896 that this proportion had doubled. The American anthropologist AT Sinclair evaluated in 1908 that 99% of seagoing sailors were tattooed.