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Tattoos and shaping of desirable body Essay

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Updated: Oct 11th, 2018


In the ancient period people adopted many cultural practices and the use of tattoos was one of them. Tattoos served different purposes in various societies. For instance, in ancient Egypt, people used tattoos as part of body decorations. In some societies, people used them to identify a group of individuals.

Around 2000 B.C, the Chinese also started using them for the purpose of identifying notorious offenders in their society. In Japan, members of criminal gangs could also use them to identify their colleagues in the gangs. In addition to these, soldiers in England also used tattoos for identification.

The word ‘tattoo’ seems to be fairly modern. “The word was derived from the Polynesian or Samoan root word tatu, a verb meaning to strike” (Gilbert 23). This word first featured in 1796 in the diary of a prominent captain in Britain called James Cook. “A tattoo is a marking made by inserting indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment” (Rainer 34).

In some cases, tattoo means a military operation, and it can also refer to continuous drumming. In England, the use of tattoos became prominent in the Victorian era. The tattoo machine also originated During the Victorian period.

During that era, many explorers were fascinated by the communities that used tattoos, and they always took some individuals who had tattoos for exhibitions. This paper seeks to analyze how tattoos were used in the Victorian era, and how they also affected other social values. The above highlighted uses of tattoos will also be examined in detail.

Cultural context of Tattooing

A study of tattoo origin and how people perceived it in different cultures is invaluable. This is because it facilitates the understanding of its social impacts to the societies that practiced it. Tattoo practices advanced in the following regions as follows.

Tattooing in Europe

There is scarce evidence about tattooing practices that were conducted in ancient Europe, especially before the introduction of the art of writing. “Tattoos do not lend themselves very well to preservation in the material record” (Allen 123). However, archaeological evidence normally depicts the practice of tattooing among the European tribes. For example, ancient equipment for tattooing was located in France.

Other artifacts linked to tattooing were also discovered in sites located in Europe. Those artifacts included tools, ochre lamps, pencils, and also borne implements that were probably used as body piercing objects. These artifacts are intriguing and they were identified as one of the tattooing objects. Nonetheless, a comprehensive ruling about the use of those tools cannot be reached because nobody is sure of their specific uses. This is because ancient human skins that were decorated using tattoos cannot be found.

Prehistoric individuals who had marks on their bodies and foreheads can actually embody the use of tattoos. For instance the body of Ortzi that was found close to the Austro Italian border provides concrete evidence of primordial tattooing in Europe.

He had tattoos inform of small crosses which were inscribed on his left knee. He also has some blotches on his ankle. Anthropologists that examined Ortzi’s skin contended that the tattoos on his body were probably due to the incisions that doctors made on his skin in the process of treating him.

Greek sources indicate that eastern European tribes tattooed themselves. According to archaeological evidence, tattoos signified high status in society, and they could only be used by influential individuals. These cultures developed a long with horse riding activities that enabled them to have more advantages in military expeditions. In 1993, a discovery of mummified bodies was made in burial mounds situated on Altai Mountains that are found in Siberia.

Two bodies of those bodies had beautiful tattoos. The tattoos were spread on their bodies especially on their arms, shoulders, and legs. The tattoos looked sophisticated and they could much the current qualities. The tattoos represented some creatures like tigers, snakes and fish. Skin pricking techniques were applied in making those tattoos. This technique was not similar to the Siberian sewing-in technique.

In Asia, tattoos had magical connotations. For instance, they offered protection, and they also determined success in hunting and fishing activities. Herodotus noted that the Scythians used tattoos as part of their body art, and he also believed that their contact with other cultures enabled them to adopt this practice.

Athenaeus traced the origin of tattooing among the Thracians. For example, a Thracian vase that was found in fifth century had tattoos inscribed on it. “He wrote that the Scythians invaded Thrace and humiliated local women by marking their bodies with blue dots” (Rainer 56). The women who had marks on their bodies could then use decorative designs to conceal their marks.

When the Romans and Greeks dominated Europe, decorative tattooing was regarded as barbaric. This believe gradually disappeared and the uses of tattoos also changed. Criminals and slaves had their bodies marked as part of the punitive measures that they were given. This act made people to detest tattooing practices that were conducted by Romans and Greeks. Moreover, military and devotional tattoos, together with tattoo removal began among Romans and Greeks.

The Persians introduced punitive tattooing among the Greeks. The Greeks used tattoos to identify their slaves and prisoners by fixing tattoos on their foreheads. Romans also used tattoos for control measures. For instance,” gladiators, slaves, and offenders, could be distinguished using certain tattoos” (Rainer 67). Offenders with tattoos often felt so much humiliated and this deterred others from engaging in vices.

Tattooing of soldiers also assisted in classifying soldiers from different territories, and it also bonded soldiers in various units. Apart from punitive functions, tattoos were used in religious cults that preceded Christianity. Members of those cults were tattooed to signify their allegiance to fertility goddess.

Pilgrim tattoos also became popular in the middle ages, and it was part of the devotional tattoos. People who went to holy places received ritual tattoos, to indicate their completion of pilgrimage. For example, William Lithgow had pilgrimage tattoos. Tattoos also remained in use even in the medieval period in Europe. Tattooing later spread to other territories like America, and this process was facilitated by explorers and monks who often travelled.

Tattooing in Asia

Chinese and Japanese tattoos have significantly contributed to the current tattooing culture. The first account of tattooing in Asia occurred around 200 B.C. The Yue individuals practiced tattooing for protection against monsters and dragons. “Tattoos were also common among Chinese slaves, criminals, prostitutes, servants, concubines, and soldiers”. Tattoos served both punitive and identification functions.

For instance, the Chinese could cut unfaithful concubine’s eyebrow and then fill it with some pigment as a ways of punishment. Unfaithful husbands were given forehead tattoos. On the hand, convicted criminals had ear tag tattoos. Individuals who were tattooed for wrong reasons faced myriad consequences in the society.

For example, people could ignore and isolate them. Tattooing was also used to compel soldiers to remain in service. This is because they could still be identified even if they deserted the army. After sometime, the stigma associated with tattoos faded and the affluent individuals also started using them. In the nineteenth century, there was a rise in demand for tattoos in Asia. This saw the emergence of tattooists. The tattoos were inscribed using different colors and designs.

Tattooing in Pacific

Many societies have been practicing tattooing but only for specific purposes. However, in the Pacific region tattooing is part of the cultural heritage. Tattooing in Pacific Islands was borrowed from Asia. Tattooing symbolized ones status, and it was also used during mourning. Initiated boys also used tattoos to symbolize the change of their status.

Tattooing among boys was also meant to test the confidence among initiates. This is because the process of inscribing the tattoos was painful and this could prepare them for challenges they would face as adults. The tattoo designs in this region were mainly geometric. Lines, checkers, spirals, and solid colors formed the tattoo design.

The tattoo designs in this place were fascinating because they were beautifully designed. Hence, they were fascinating to the explorers. Some of explorers tattooed their bodies, and they took that practice to Europe. Tattooing was practiced by soldiers, sailors, and the prosperous individuals also embraced them. The missionary influence, however, led to the decline of this practice. They were out to get rid of unacceptable customs and practices. A part from tattooing, cannibalism, and human sacrifice were also eradicated.

Victorian Society and Tattoos

The Victorian era refers to the reign of Queen Victoria in England. She ruled the kingdom between 1837 to 1901.The Victorian era came after the Edwardian reign. This Victorian era had a remarkable stability, and there was also a great economic development. The Victorian morality was different from that of the Georgian era. “The Victorian morality can describe any set of values that espouse sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime, and a strict social code of conduct” (Caplan 156).

Most of these values were adopted in other places. The Victorian morality, were reflected in all aspects of life. For example, religious values were highly respected. This is because the church was one of the most powerful institutions. The Anglican Church controlled many schools and other government departments. The church also expected people to be submissive, and obedient. These values brought fundamental changes in England.

Tattooing was also conducted during the Victorian era. In this case, tattooing business was conducted just like other commercial activities. For example, adults who wanted tattoos could have them fixed to their bodies at a certain fee. This kind of exchange resembled other commodity exchanges.

James Bradley, who studied the Victorian era, noted that tattooing was a significant practice during that time. People perceived tattooing as an emotive and intimate act. The tattooing practices in the Victorian era mainly originated from the colonial period. Japanese tattooing also had an influence on the Victorian era tattooing. The type and size of a tattoo that a person inscribed indicated his economic background.

For example, the affluent could inscribe big tattoos, while the less privileged had small and poorly designed tattoos. “There was nothing trivial about this form of tattooing, for it indicated the depth to which economic relations infiltrated the tissues of the body” (DeMello 267). Apart from monetary attachment, a tattoo signified ones ability to endure pain. Heavily tattooed individuals had to be ready for criticisms because they could be negatively perceived by others.

Therefore, the tattoo was treated as a product, and it had various meanings to individuals who used it. A given tattoo design did not have a specific meaning to people. This is because people used and constructed their own meanings to them. A tattoo could mean varied things depending on the cultural context that an individual used it. Individuals from one cultural background had the same understanding of a given tattoo.

For instance, in the nineteenth century, if a person engraved an anchor tattoo, it showed that he was a fisherman or a sailor. In the Victorian England, many people including the aristocrats practiced tattooing. For example, Prince of Wales visited Jerusalem, and he got a tattoo design that resembled Jerusalem cross.

During the Victorian era, many tattoo artists exited, but the aristocrats hired popular Japanese tattooists to engrave for them tattoos. They used Japanese tattoos simply because they were more refined, and unique compared to the indigenous ones that were widely used by the people in low classes.

Some affluent individuals could even visit Japan to have their bodies tattooed by highly qualified tattooist. “A few years after the opening of Japan in 1853, intricate and beautifully stylized tattoos became all the rage among the elites in Europe, a fad that lasted from 1880 to 1920” (Sanders 134 ).

Therefore, Japanese tattoos were introduced in England and they became fashionable. For example, “in 1882, Edward’s sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York were tattooed by the Japanese tattooist Hoti Chiyo, and George V also received a tattoo of a dragon on his arm” (Rush 456).

However, the British princess never displayed their tattoos in public. Many sources that describe nineteenth century events indicate that tattooing was commonly practiced by seamen, and also by soldiers. Van Dinter noted that soldiers and sailors incorporated new ideas into European tattooing by adding non western symbols and ideas to it.

One fascinating thing about the culture of tattooing is that the middle class influenced the high class to adopt it as one of the fashions of that time. This was quite peculiar because fashion trends normally begin with elites, and then descend to the peasants. In 1846, tattoo shop was opened for the first time in New York, and it mainly served soldiers who wanted tattoos.

Prior to the introduction of tattoo equipment, tattooing posed many health risks. For example, bleeding, and swelling could sometimes occur due to the use traditional tattooing techniques. This led to restrictions on tattooing and some taboos were also created to reduce tattooing activities. For example, women were not allowed to eat oily food staffs after tattooing their lips, and they were also advised against touching the tattooed parts.

Rituals and customs associated with tattooing always varied among the communities, but they all aimed at making the process safe. In 1891, Samuel Reilly developed electric tattooing equipment. This machine transformed the practices of tattooing so much. This is because it made the process of tattooing less painful and dangerous. Many people could also easily access tattooing services. Moreover, the new technique did not involve skin penetration. Hence, infections associated with tattooing reduced.

Apart from serving other purposes, tattoos also provided aesthetic qualities especially to those who were keen on enhancing their beauty. Therefore, ugly tattoos were hated because they would interfere with ones beauty. Beautiful tattoos were mostly applied by young women who wanted feminine images that could attract men. On the other hand, men wore masculine tattoos as a way of enticing women. The aesthetic value associated with wearing tattoos made them popular during the Victorian era.

Among the gangs, tattoos symbolized long term commitment and membership. Some tattoos could also convey some information among criminal gangs. “For example, a giant swastika on the forehead included the wearer in a neo Nazi-gang, but also excluded him from regular society” (Caplan 345).

It also indicated ones defiance to the established social norms. The Victorian authorities in some cases administered punishments to criminals by branding them using specific types of tattoos that could be fixed strategically on their bodies. Hence, they could be easily monitored by everybody.

While some people really liked tattooing, others who were unwillingly tattooed really detested the act. For example, John Rutherford narrated his nasty experience of how he was captured and forcefully tattooed on his forehead. Besides this, tattooing also received criticism from leading figures, who often linked it to prostitution, urban life, and criminals.


The nature of tattoos can sometimes make them appear superficial. However, when tattoos are keenly observed they look more sophisticated. “It is not only on the skin, but also embedded in the living skin, making it unique among all art forms” (Gilbert 178). Tattoos convey various meanings and identities.

Tattoos had profound impacts on the European culture that stretched beyond a fad among young people. Tattoos served punitive, aesthetic, religious, and administrative functions. Tattooing is among the ancient practices that have managed to survive at present.

Technology and society have refined tattooing practices. “However, the uniqueness of a tattoo as an art form and the layers of meaning that can be taken or imposed upon it have contributed to its continued survival from prehistoric times to present” (Sanders 135). The manner in which people practice tattooing is quite distinct from how it was done in the past, however, common themes remain.

People are getting more captivated by tattoos, and its acknowledgment is also on the rise. “It is hard to predict the future of tattooing culture, but it will surely continue to be a part of the human experience as it has for millennia” (Rainer 198).

Modern tattooing evolved in the1960s, when tattooing as part of body art now became recognized as part of skin art. Tattooing has gained much prominence today especially in Europe and America. This practice is sometimes called tattoo renaissance.

At present, one can easily find a tattoo shop in any neighbor hood in Europe, and its use is quite prevalent among the youth in urban areas. This cultural explosion of tattooing has sparked both scholarly and popular interests. For instance, many people and scholars have written quite a lot of literature on this issue.

Works Cited

Allen, Tricia. The Polynesian Tattoo. London: Mutual Publishing Company, 2010.

Caplan, Jane. Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. New York: Princeton University Press, 2000.

DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. London: Wiley, 2000.

Gilbert, Steve. The Tattoo History. New York: Juno Books, 2000.

Rainer, Chris. Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking. New York: Earth Aware Editions, 2006.

Rush, John. Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding, and Implants. Hoston: Frog Books, 2001.

Sanders, Clinton. Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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