There are two types of people in this world: those who have tattoos and those who are afraid of those who have tattoos. . . . unknown
Anyone remember that movie from the 1970s entitled: "Tattoo"? It starred Bruce Dern (one of my favorite psychopaths), and told the story of a demented tattoo artist obsessed with a model (Maude Adams). He abducts her, holds her hostage and expresses his undying love by covering her entire body with his creations (against her will, of course). Although this is certainly an extreme situation, tattoos have been a part of the American cultural scene for a very long time. Their dark and lingering appeal transcend the stereotypical images of "tough guys and gals" and all of their underworld friends. In this disposable society, tattoos symbolize permanence and they retain a power and mystique all their own. A tattoo is a personal statement, but is it graffiti or art? You be the judge. Here is one fresh perspective on this ancient and mysterious tradition of self mutilation.
If you think its hard to forget a lover when you buy them a gift on time, consider how much more difficult it would be when their name and/or image is indelibly stored deep within your scar tissue. (The lyrics to Cole Porters "Ive Got You Under My Skin" take on a new and painful perspective when you apply tattoos to the subject at hand.) They are created by placing colored pigments in between the permanent base layer of your skin and the constantly changing top layer. Machines utilize a hollow needle filled with permanent ink, while an electric motor pushes the needle in and out of the skin at the rate of three thousand punctures per minute. The needle inserts a drop of ink about one-eighth of an inch below the surface of the skin each time.
Down through history, many famous personalities have adorned their bodies with tattoos. Songstress Pearl Bailey had a heart on her upper thigh; David Bowie a lizard across one ankle. Cher tops them both in numbers and assortment, bearing a cluster of flowers on her butt and a black rose on one ankle, just to name a few. Tsar Nicholas of Russia had a star tattoo, although no one is certain as to exactly where upon his royal body it was. Both Winston Churchill and his mother, Jenny, had tattoos; he an anchor on his arm and she a snake upon her right wrist. Thomas Edison bore five dots on his left fore arm in a dice-like design. John Wilkes Booth had his initials inked on the back of his left hand and Barry Goldwater bore a crescent with four dots in the shape of a snake bite somewhere upon his political person. Even one model of "Barbie" has a dragon tattoo running down her entire back and another bears one butterfly on her stomach (not in but on). The list, like the beat, goes on but two questions remain: Why do more than thirty million North Americans and countless more millions world wide subject themselves to such mutilations and where on earth did the tattoo come from anyway?
The answer to the first question, my friends, is not blowing in the wind. Instead, it lies somewhere near that gray area of our brains where primal urges run amuck and broccoli is not an acceptable food option. According to Thomas Lockheart, who has inked more than thirty thousand tattoos, "the tattoo may be only skin deep, but its significance can run as deep as the soul." For everyone the trip is unique and deeply rooted in individual perceptions of "Maccho Man" and "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar." I once knew a couple who was considering having their wedding rings tattooed on their ring fingers because the price of gold had risen so sharply. (Both are out of rehab now and doing fine, last I heard.)
The word may have its roots in the Tahitian word, tatu, which means, "to mark something". Tattoos are almost as old as mankind and it is believed that the first incident happened accidentally, with people falling or stepping into pigment-carrying, sharp instruments or materials, like charcoaled branches from left over fire-places or wooden spears and/or arrowheads hardened in fire. The first record of a tattoo dates back to 4,000 BC, when a man was found in Italy preserved in the permafrost of a glacier. Carbon dating and artifacts suggest the remains are more than 5,000 years old. His skin bore a cross on one knee and a series of lines above his kidneys. These markings indicate that the man might have been a shaman or otherwise holy member of his clan, as tattoos were reserved for priests or members of secret sects in many ancient cultures. Egyptian mummies as well as clay figurines bear tattoos that date back at least four thousand years. The fact that this cadaver is older than any Egyptian source may or may not shed a new light on where tattoos originated, but it is certain that the practice traveled from Egypt along the merchant routes into Greece, Persia, Central Asia and Arabia.
According to a third century account of the Scythian conflict with the Thracians, the Scythians tattooed symbols of defeat upon the Thracians as a way of "turning the stamp of violence and shame into beautiful ornaments." The Iberians who preceded the Celtic tribes wore tattoos. The Gauls, Teutonic tribes and the Picts did as well, and the Romans used them to "brand" their criminals and slaves. The Saxons brought more refined and artistic tattoos to the British Isles and it was customary for warriors and sailors to have their tribal symbols inked on their bodies. The custom continued in North America where merchant sailors wore tattoos as a talisman against drowning at sea. Native American Indians believed that war paint would protect them in battle and as far away as Burma there were those who believed that a tattoo over the heart can stop bullets. In the nineteenth century, Field Marshall Earl Roberts said, "every officer in the British army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. Not only does this encourage espirit de corps, it also assists in the identification of casualties."