While they may appear to be a contemporary rage - it's estimated 1 in 10 Americans has or has had at least one tattoo, almost 5 in 10 among Americans aged 18 to 29 - humans have in fact been adorning themselves with tattoos, piercings, paint, scars and other forms of permanent and semi-permanent ornamentation for tens of thousands of years. It's likely the late-Paleolithic cultures of 30,000 years ago did more than just paint cave walls."Every known culture has pursued some kind of body ornamentation," said Enid Schildkrout, chief curator at the Museum for African Art and curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "It's a form of symbolic expression, like art and music."
There's a substantial body of work to support Schildkrout's point:
- Egyptian, Inca and Maya mummies, for example, have all been found sporting tattoos. Otzi the Iceman, a 5,000-year-old mummified man uncovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991, bore at least 57 tattoos.
- Ancient Celts permanently painted their bodies using a blue dye extracted from woad, a member of the mustard plant family. Roman invaders called them Picts, from the Latin word picti, meaning painted or tattooed.
- Clay figurines marked with painted faces and engraved tattoo marks indicate the Japanese were practicing body art as early as 3,000 B.C. Tattooing has long been common among virtually all South Pacific cultures. The word "tattoo" derives in part from the Tahitian "tatau," which means "to mark something."
Just about the only place tattoos have not left an indelible mark is in Africa and Australia, where darker skin made the practice less dramatic and effective. In these places, scarification (or cicatrisation) is practiced. Designs and symbols are cut into the skin, the wounds then rubbed with substances like clay or ash to produce raised weals or bumps called keloids.
The motivations for body art are as varied as the places it was - and continues to be - practiced. A big reason, of course, is self-expression and aesthetics.
"People think it makes them more attractive, that it sets them apart," said Rose Tyson, curator of physical anthropology at the San Diego Museum of Man, which recently debuted an original exhibition on body art.
A 2004 Harris poll found that 34 percent of Americans thought tattoos made them appear sexy and 29 percent thought they made them attractive.
But tattoos, piercings and the like serve larger purposes, too.
Traditional "moko" tattoos of the Maori in New Zealand, for example, are literally carved into the skin. These elaborate patterns indicate social status, lineage and tribal affiliations.
The Moche of Peru (200 B.C. to A.D. 600) and the Aztecs of Mexico pierced ears, noses and lips to specify social importance or personal wealth. Nuba men in Sudan still paint their bodies with kaolin, a white clay, to mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood, as do Chokwe girls in central Africa. Inuit women tattoo their chins to indicate marital status, while in Borneo, women tattooed symbols on their forearms to indicate their particular abilities and men permanently inked markings on their hands to commemorate enemies killed in battle.
Vince Hemingson, a tattoo historian and documentarian ("The Vanishing Tattoo"), says most indigenous tattooing is disappearing. Primitive methods of tattooing, such as tapping the tips of ink-dipped spines or sharpened bones into the skin with a small hammer or pulling a dye-saturated needle through the skin, have given way to electric tattoo machines, which first appeared in 1891.
"Most indigenous tattooing will be gone from the planet in another generation," said Hemingson. "Even that which remains will be a mere shadow. It's all about globalization. Everybody wants to be more like the West. Traditional tattoos were about spiritual or cultural practices. They weren't even necessarily an individual choice. They were marks defined by community and society. But all that soon disappears when indigenous cultures make contact with outsiders, usually Europeans."
Not everyone agrees with Hemingson.
"I don't think the traditional forms of body art are dying out," said Tori Heflin, curator of the Museum of Man's upcoming exhibit. "These rituals are highly important in various cultures around the world."
On the other hand, the popularization of tribal artwork does not necessarily carry the same meaning. Ancient Celts painted themselves with intricate swirls and knotwork to reflect the complexity of life and their social bonds. An American teen may get a similar tattoo simply because it looks cool.
But that isn't a good or bad thing, said Schildkrout, who curated a body art exhibit at the American Natural History Museum in 1999-2000.
"Body art isn't an evolutionary progression, at least in terms of primitive to less primitive," she said. "If you look at the essence of body art, at what it's meant to express - identity, gender, status - those things always remain the same."
A gang member in L.A., a Yakuza criminal in Japan and a Maori tribal leader in New Zealand all employ body markings for the same intended purpose: to establish their identity and place within a group.
Likewise with Western teens and their parents.
"I think it's probably a way to show that they have control over their bodies," she said.
One of the motivations for body art is rebellion, of stepping away from the norm, said Schildkrout. In the Harris Poll, 29 percent said they thought tattoos made them look rebellious. They weren't all teens.
Schildkrout noted that one of the fastest growing groups of tattooed people is women over the age of 50.
EBB AND FLOW
Throughout human history, body art has waxed and waned, affected by almost every conceivable influence:
- The Catholic Church suppressed tattooing for centuries in medieval Europe as a defilement of the human body.
- The Japanese "body suit" of tattoos was created in the 18th century as a response to an edict permitting only the Imperial family and very wealthy to wear rich or elaborate clothing.
- Victorian England frowned upon tattoos. But in 1771, Capt. James Cook returned from his epic exploration of the South Seas with a heavily tattooed Polynesian prince named Omai, who quickly became an illustrated sensation.
British aristocracy embraced tattoos as a colorful way of differentiating themselves from the lower classes until electric tattoo machines made the practice easy and cheap.
- A hepatitis scare in the 1960s, fueled by cases of tattoo clinics using unsterilized needles, significantly quashed the popularity of tattoos in the United States for several decades.
"Tattooing got a kind of freak show reputation," said Hemingson. "Only people on the fringes got tattoos, or those in the military where tattoos have always been accepted as a part of the culture, a way to strengthen bonds."
These days, of course, tattoos are again very popular and highly visible, as are body piercings from head to toe. These practices may - and probably will - change or fade, but body art will always leave its mark.