The Evolution of Tattoos: From BC to 2016

Since the early days of the BC era, tattoos have existed in the ancient cultures as symbols of resources, strength, legacies of wars, or simply as designs of strength and beauty in femininity. Around 50 B.C., Cleopatra served as the most powerful Women in Egypt, ruling the dynasty with henna tattoos. Although these markings were temporary, Cleopatra’s ink nevertheless served as markings on the body that enhanced her strength and beauty as a leader. 

So what happened between 50 B.C. and the early 21st century? Where did tattoos go and why were they no longer apparent on men or women’s’ bodies? 

Well, it’s always existed fluidly throughout the centuries. Tattooing has reared its head in all cultures, especially in Asian countries. Although, this fact doesn’t necessarily mean all Asian countries had the same views on the practice of tattooing. Although tattoos in early Chinese culture did exist within tribes and warriors, the practice of tattooing was viewed as barbaric and damaging to the physical appearance of the body. Tattoos were even portrayed in this way through Chinese literature in novels during the 12th century period. The art of tattooing continued into the 14th through the 17th century in China, in woman known as the Dulong group, who wore their markings as a right of passage, or the Dai tribes, whose tattoos represented strength during the Ming Dynasty. 

In Samoa culture, on the other hand, men and women have proudly represented tattoos for thousands of years. Before the 1800s, it was a ritual tightly bound to the Samoa culture for all Samoa men to get marked with a traditional tattoo that represented a form of cultural identity. Men tended to be heavily tattooed with such symbols of Samoa identity, as well as their rank and status within society. Although their tattoos were not as extensive as the men’s, it was also a regular, ritualistic practice for women to be tattooed.

Although now, celtic tattoos seem to be used as a cultural connection to Ireland or to appreciate the beautiful knot work, that wasn’t always the case. Celtic tattoos were primarily used by Celtic warriors, a group of soldiers who took control over Mid and Western Europe, during the iron ages and middle ages. The Celts used such markings to intimidate their opponents during battle. 

Tattoos were also used among Native American culture, as observed by John Smith during the 17th century. While women painted their bodies with images of nature represented in plant and animal life, men used symbols to represent war, bloodshed, strength, and status among their tribes. In some cases, the tattoos were permanent.

Although tattoos first began appearing in the late 1800s in the U.S. in western civilization, it really started to boom in American culture in the early 1900s. Women who were covered in tattoos, such as Maud Wagner, used to be considered a spectacle, a freak show that people would flock to in wonderment. Yet, across the pond, British men and women during this period who marked themselves with tattoos used to be perceived as royalty, or having a high social status. One example is George Burchett, know as the King of the Tattooists, who tattooed royalty such as King Alfonso XIII of Spain and King Frederick IX of Denmark. George Burchett himself was covered in tattoos, as well as his wife Edith who served as a canvas for him.

As we move further into the 20th century, many men who served as Navy sailors during the 1940s were heavily tattooed, inking their skin with symbols of war, serving in the navy, and devoting themselves to their country. One example of this is Norman Collins, more famously known by his tattoo artist legacy name Sailor Jerry, who was a Navy man himself. During World War II, Sailor Jerry depicted the lifestyle of sailors which consisted of drinking alcohol, getting tattooed, and being around women. 

After the 1950s came to a close, changes and revolutions began to take on a whole new forefront in the 1960s and 1970s. Gay rights and women’s liberation was pushed forward with a new kind of strength. The restrictions and boundaries of being conservative and not showing skin, let alone showing ink, was revived during the 1970s. This concept that women wore tattoos for empowering reasons during times where Cleopatra ruled, was restored by Janis Joplin, an influential woman and female artist who displayed her wrist tattoo on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. 

Now in the 2010s we seem to be entering into a period where tattoo sleeves appear to be the new craze, having an armful of tattoos that all connect with each other. Yet, this concept of connecting tattoos also has its roots in culture, existing for many years with Polynesian tattoo masters, who uses symbols to represent a deeper meaning through the connection to Polynesian culture. Today, sleeves can also be represented as a beauty standard. Such is the case in British culture, where attractive celebrities such as David Beckham who serves as an example of physical appeal for the men of England. One in five English adults have tattoos. 

Today in 2016, the artistry of tattoos is becoming more innovative, pushing the boundaries of what can be done with a needle by creating color portraits and three dimensional pieces that make viewers wonder in amazement. Such freedom of creativity and the choice to express your emotions or artistry over your own body is crucial. Because it is your choice, not anyone else’s.

Although there are such cultural symbol tattoos that have increased in popularly in today’s society, such as mandala tattoos that ties into the Buddhist and Hindu cultures, the mandala tattoos also represent art and beauty for those who simply enjoy the intricate patterns. 

Whether you like them or hate them, tattoos have had a long history in cultures all over the globe. Yet it has only been in the past 100 years that tattoos have really expanded into a realm where simply a growing desire to express our own individuality on our own bodies is becoming increasingly more accepted. 

We are free to ink our skin if we choose to do so, with symbols of strength and warrior emblems, family and cultural connections, or simply markings that appeal to us and our own personality. Tattoos serve as a reflection of our changing and developing society.

Lauren Peterson