While traveling with a group of breakaway Mormons through Arizona in 1858, 14-year-old Olive Oatman and her younger sister were kidnapped by “likely Yavapais” Indians after they murdered her parents. Then she was adopted into a tribe of Mojave Indians and her face tattooed, according to tribal custom.
She is believed to have been the first white American woman to be tattooed.
Among the earliest to sport tattoos were the Persians, believing that some designs would ward off evil spirits; and one report said that women wore certain designs “to keep their husbands in love with them and preserve the warmth of family love.”
Then the Greeks learned about tattooing from the Persians, but used them for less romantic reasons:
They tattooed slaves and criminals for easy identifications should they escape. The Romans followed up with tattooing the bad guys with an abbreviation of the word “fugitive” on their foreheads.
The word “tattoo” may have come from the Tahitian word “tatau” that worked its way into European languages after Captain Cook learned it when visiting Tahiti.
Europeans had plenty of other words that meant tattooing: “decorated, engraved, marked and punctured,” and the early Greeks and Romans called them “stigmata.”
In addition to the Tahitians, tattooing was traditional with other Polynesians, including the Maoris of New Zealand and the Samoans — with many of their designs popular in today’s tattoo parlors.
The oldest known tattooing among Native Americans dates back to the 1500s, according to the carbon dating age of a frozen Inuit female mummy found on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska.
A Jesuit report in 1652 noted seeing Indians with tattoos “on the face, the neck, the breast, or some other part of the body, some animal or monster, for instance, an Eagle, a Serpent, a Dragon, or any other figure which they prefer … I know not whether a single individual was found, who was not painted in this manner, on some part of the body.”
Another Jesuit missionary in Canada, Joseph-François Lafitau reported in the early 1700s that some indigenous people of North America interestingly used tattooing on the jawline to relieve toothache. The report said that they “had determined that certain nerves that were along the jawline connected to certain teeth, thus by tattooing those nerves, it would stop them from firing signals that led to toothaches.”
In Western countries, tattooing was usually confined to seamen and the lower classes until the 1960s and the hippie movement, “when it slowly entered mainstream changing from deviant behavior to acceptable form of self-expression.”
In the early 1900s, the place to get a tattoo often was the circus. There was usually a tattoo artist with every troupe.
Tattoo lovers in America used to be mainly sailors, bikers and gang members, but since the 1970s, tattoos have become a mainstream here and around the world for both men and women of all economic classes — including Britain’s royal family — and in age groups from the later teens to middle age.
Now, even some Barbie Dolls have tattoos.
Popular as they are becoming however, tattoos are not accepted everywhere.
In Japan, only the Yakuza crime families support tattoos. One report says, “Tattoos in Japan are heavily denounced and even the smallest amount of ink on one’s skin has people assuming a criminal nature … Even the most beautiful piece of body art done by the most talented artist will still result in disapproving looks and negative comments.”
The Chinese also have a record of tattooing going back thousands of years, and likewise used the practice mostly for branding criminals. To this day, tattooing is frowned upon in China.
That is not the case in Australia.
Nearly all of retired school teacher Geoff Ostling’s body is covered with tattoos — created by Aussi artist eX de Medici — and he’s proud of them. He’s agreed to a request to will his skin to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra for permanent posthumous display.
Like preserving an animal hide, skins from tattooed human bodies can be converted into pelts after skinning and preserved with chemicals.
“For much of the (19th) century, tattoos were associated in the eyes of many with groups to be avoided or feared,” says BBC History Magazine, “but from the 1980s, they began to be seen less as signs of potential social deviance and more as legitimate pieces of self-expression.
“This process was aided by the popularity of tattoos among role models such as sportsmen, singers, actors, and it’s thought that in Britain today one adult in five has a tattoo” (in the U.S., about one in three).
Since the 19th century, royalty and the upper-class across Europe have considered it chic to sport tattoos.
That includes Britain’s King George V and Edward VII, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and the kings of Spain, Denmark, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
But after new electric-powered tattoo equipment entered the scene and made tattoos cheaper, the art-form became more popular with the less affluent, while interest dwindled with the upper-crust.
What do tattoos tell us?
Marie Randle, from Liverpool Hope University said in a study “Tattooing has become more popular in recent years…and there is a growing fascination with the tattoos of celebrities,” singling out British soccer super-star David Beckham with his many tattoos.
She listed four main reasons people get tattoos:
Degree of self-esteem (low, if lots of tattoos), rebelliousness, group identity and aesthetics.
A team of researchers report in the World Journal of Psychiatry, “Tattooing the skin as a means of personal expression is a ritualized practice that has been around for centuries across many different cultures … Accordingly, the symbolic meaning of tattoos has evolved over time.
“Within modern Western societies through the 1970s, tattoos represented a cultural taboo typically associated with those outside of the mainstream such as soldiers, incarcerated criminals, gang members, and others belonging to marginalized and counter-cultural groups.”
A U.S. Army magazine article says for many soldiers, “tattoos are a way to express themselves as individuals — especially when their day-to-day lives revolve around conforming to Army standards.”
Career soldier First Sgt. Aki Paylor who served in Iraq said, “Every tattoo I have on my body says something about who I am, where I’m from, or the things I’ve been through.” He has the Warrior Ethos tattooed on his left forearm:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
“I’ve got 16 years in the service … The Army is not just a job; it’s a way of life. For me, the Warrior Ethos — that’s who I am.”
In 1997, more women than men in America had tattoos for the first, says Margot Lehman, author and English professor at Lehman College at CUNY, pointing to evidence that increased tattooing by women coincides with their increasing successes.
A 2012 Harris Poll reported that 23 percent of American women had tattoos, compared to 19 percent for men.
One study claimed that women sometimes use tattoos as “forms of bodily reclamation” after traumatic experiences such as breast cancer or being abused.
On the dark side:
Dishonoring the art of tattooing are criminals and criminal gangs such as MS-13, seen almost nightly on TV news.
A popular tattoo symbol with gangs is the Devil, and the hand signal extending the index and pinky fingers is meant to represent devil horns.
The teardrop tattoo represents the deaths of someone close to them, or the murders the wearer has committed.
A clown or joker tattoo warns others that the wearer is fearless and violent.
For good or bad, tattoos are attention-getters, conversation-openers and judgment-makers. They are an ancient art-form that has become another modern medium of communication — advertising messages that are usually lifelong.
Tattoos today fill a communications void created by so much electronic gadgetry diverting our attention. Tattoos are often conversation starters, and return us to face-to-face communication.
If tattoos present a positive and artistically beautiful message, then that’s a good thing and tattoos will become long-term competitors for attention with Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
So as one commentator explained, “It’s not surprising that there’s a growing trend toward communication via body ink.
“We don’t have to talk, we just have to look.”
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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What happened to Olive Oatman?
After five years living with the Indians and having her face tattooed, Olive Oatman was reunited with white society. In 1865, she married wealthy businessman John Fairchild and they lived in Michigan and Texas, where she died of a heart attack in 1903 at age 65. Reverend Royal Stratton wrote a best-selling book about her: “Life Among the Indians: Captivity of the Oatman Girls.”
Tough tattooing in Polynesia…
“The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a great concern but to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a coward.”
— History of Tattoos, KSPS
Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos…
“To me, it’s just another way to be different and try to separate myself as my own man. If I get judged for something like my tattoos, so be it.”
— Colin Kaepernick, former NFL player
Tattoos not addictive…
“Psychologist Viren Swami at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK says that getting a tattoo is actually the opposite of addictive behavior. People need to take a lot of time to save their money and consider the consequences of a tattoo, which is the exact opposite of someone with an addiction, who goes out to buy a cheap hit of something that will make them feel good in the moment.”
— BBC Report
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