The explorer William Dampher brought the tattoo to the contemporary west when he brought the heavily tattooed Polynesian Prince Giolo to London in 1691 and put him on exhibition. He became the rage of London. The British public welcomed the novelty. Europe had not seen tattoos in 600 years. It would be another 100 years before tattoos would make their mark on the West.
The slow spread of tattoos in the West was due to their slow, painstaking procedure of application. Puncture of the skin by hand and subcutaneous injection of ink was unappealing. Tattooing was viewed so poorly that it went underground; becoming a secret society few were accepted into. This ritualistic approach to tattooing is prevalent throughout of its history.
It is believed that the tattoo originated in Ancient Egypt. Archaeologists at Ashmolean Museum in Oxford claim tattoos were first applied to female clay figurines and their human counterparts as early as 4000 BC. Such neo-pagan practices so eerily reminiscent of voodoo that pre-date Christ by nearly four millennia clarify why so many find tattoos mysterious and disturbing.
The migrant Ainu people of Japan adopted tattooing early and considered the tattoo divine. Modern Japanese dismissed such notions of the tattoo and viewed it ornament. Japanese tattooists called the Horis refined tattooing to an art form. Their use of color, sheer intricacy of designs, and use of contrast made their tattoo marks appear almost three-dimensional. Even as art-historians appreciated tattoos as an aesthetic, the human suffering required to endure tattooing mystified many.
Sir Joseph Banks was the first European on record who speculated why. During his 1769 visit to Tahiti, Banks wrote: “What can be a sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it; possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.”
Superstition may well be the reason so many early tattoo wearers endured the pain of tattooing but such notions are scorned or chided by their wearers today. Tattoos seem to be a fundamental area of common ground across cultures. From Africa to Europe, to North America and its thousands of native tribes, the acceptance of tattoo pain and permanence appear integral to very societal structure.
The pantheistic and animistic connotations of tattoos cannot be overlooked. The belief the tattoo wearer calls upon the spirit of his marked image – the dragon, eagle or flower – implies a return to a nature of the human form. Regardless of the reasoning behind them, tattoos are a practice in symbolism as much as art and their ritualistic nature cannot be understated or ignored.
Some civilizations use tattoos for demarcation of degree of crime, others tattoo young girls as rite of passage to womanhood. Tribal Samoan women are married based on the tattoos they wear. Dayak warriors’ tattoos symbolize how many lives they have taken in battle. Such tattoos assure their wearers status for life.
The rewards of such tattoos in tribal life seem to justify the physical pain required to endure their application. Today’s global village makes tattoos and the rites of passage their represent seem out of date.
Teenagers war with each other to fit in with the right crowd, and have the right clothes. Twenty-somethings fight each other harder for the entry-level job that’s
going to take them to the top, or to get into graduate school. Established businessmen will stop at nothing to preserve their balances. Humans seem to love status and will submit to whatever rituals assure them of it.