Inking Identity

Tattoos have served as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts.

More recently their use has evolved to include identification and to provide medical instructions in times of emergency. Tattoos have developed from the tribal and ritualistic and the informative into a whole sub-culture and art form. They are used to express many things – for many reasons.

Tattoos are believed to have been around for over 5,000 years. Permanent tattoos are created by the insertion of colored materials below the skins surface. Temporary tattoos can be created by painting with henna or with the assistance of specially designed dresses which you sunbathe in. It is thought that the first tattoos probably were created by accident. Someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire. Once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently.

Early cultural evidence of tattoos is provided by the Bronze Age remains of “otzi” the ice-man.

Anthropologists have noted that most of the 57 tattoos have found on his ice preserved remains are on acupuncture points and that the marks may be a result of primitive acupuncture treatment. The stars of historical tattoo culture are the Polynesians who believed that a persons whole spiritual life force was displayed through their tattoos.

These would be added through life – often until the whole body was covered. They were an official rite of passage as young tribal chiefs attained milestones in their lives, starting at puberty and continuing through battle commemorations, marriage, birth of children and succession to the head of the family.

For a long time in the Western world tattoos were the preserve of sailors and criminals.

Sailors favored hearts, flowers mermaids and sweethearts. These originated as a means of identification in case they drowned at sea. A code developed alongside these decorations to denote achievements.

HOLD, on the knuckles of one hand and FAST, on the other. This is said to help the seaman to better hold the riggings.

A PIG, on the top of one foot and a ROOSTER, on the other. This is said to protect the seaman from drowning, because both of these barnyard animals cannot swim so they would get the seaman quickly to shore.

An ANCHOR showed the seaman had sailed the Atlantic Ocean.

A FULL-RIGGED SHIP showed the seaman had sailed around Cape Horn.

A DRAGON showed the seaman had served on a China station.

A SHELLBACK TURTLE denotes a seaman who has crossed the equator.

A GOLDEN DRAGON denotes a seaman who has crossed the International Date Line.

PORT & STARBOARD ship lights were tattooed on the left (port) and right (starboard) side of the body.

ROPE, tattooed around the wrist meant the seaman was a deckhand. For criminals the most important tattoo – was that of the gang they belonged to. This was a sign of total commitment to their gang (tribe).

They were also a code for what you had done (your specialist activity) and even how many people you had killed and how much time you had served in prison. Gang tattoos have a language all of their own – more information here. In the armed forces tattoos have been used as badges of honor and to commemorate battles survived. Some also have their ID tags tattooed on their chests – these are known as “meat tags”.

Tattoos were also used forcibly by the Germans as an identification system for Jews and other inmates in their concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Today tattoos are used for many purposes – decoration, rite of passage, sign of ownership to a group /gang or a person (in the BDSM lifestyle).

Tattoos can also be beautifully decorative and extremely evocative.

Do any of you have a tattoo (I do not) – far to painful for me – would you consider a tattoo?

Love them or hate them – tattoos are here to stay in all their ugliness and all their beauty.

12 comments

  • This is a beautiful article, Nicola! I do not have any tattoos, and I am fascinated by the cultural memeing they provide the the wearer and the observer — what an amazing dyad. I can’t think of a single image I would want on my body forever. I don’t know if that’s a problem or a gift for me. SMILE!

  • Don’t have any tattoos — religiously prohibited. I’d also be afraid I’d get sick of whichever image I chose and would have no recourse to easily get it removed!

    • I would be quite happy to acept that religious obligation Gordon – I too would have a problem with choosing one image. I would also have a problem of where to put one.

  • I can now admit to having had a temporary tattoo now – in the form of body painting – which is the far more socially acceptable face of body art. Before I left England to travel to Portugal I had a wolf howling at the moon painted on my upper arm. It was an intresting experience – the reworking of the brush work over and over was quite soothing . It survived two weeks of showers before departing. Would I want one permanently – NO !

    • I think that’s the fun way to go, Nicola. Temporary! SMILE! That way you can change your mind about what you want memorialized in the skin. I’ve always loved the Indian henna “tattoos” the designs are so amazing and beautiful — but I wouldn’t want one I couldn’t eventually remove.

  • If I knew someone who could assist me with applying henna tattoos I would love to give them a try as they are very beautiful indeed . I am not sure how long they last – one for the bucket list I think.

    • When I was teaching at Rutgers, it was a routine experience for many of my female Indian students to show up to class with fading henna tattoos on their hands. I always asked to look at them up close and then share them with the class as they’d explain the meaning and the style of design. So magnificent! I think they last at least a few days before they are totally faded.

  • Now that would complete the experience – to have the meaning and history as well as the ink – that would be very close to living art.

    • Right! I was teaching theatre classes at the time at Rutgers and NJIT — so the intention, design, and history fit right into the idea of creating meaning and illusion and reality all at the same moment in space. SMILE!

  • I do not have any tattoos either, but I do love how absolutely beautiful and intricate they can be. I often do wonder, however, how people can sit for such long periods of time getting such work done. I know such intricacy much take a lot patience and high ability to tolerate pain, especially for the tattoos that have a lot of finer details.

    • Most of the people I know who have intricate coloured works have them done in several sittings , with the inking done in layers and built up over time. I know a couple of people who “zone out” into an altered head space when they have them done and compare the experience to something similar to an out of body experience.

      I do know the pain is variable , tattoos on fleshy areas are less painful than those on bony areas such as the ankles .

  • I don’t have any tattoos, either, but I know a lot of people who do and they love them. It helps them celebrate important moments in their lives or they like being reminded of sad things they don’t want to forget.

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