History of the Tattoo Term Paper

Pages: 5 (1713 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Art  (general)

¶ … origins of this art form and how tattoos have endured through time. The art of tattoo has been practiced around the world for thousands of years, especially in the Polynesian islands, where tattoo has been a way of life for at least 2000 years. Today, tattoos are hip again, after remaining under the radar for decades. They are more intricate and detailed than ever, but they are still one of the most personal forms of art that a person can engage in, and they are permanent, so they create an enduring history of the art when tattoo artists create them.

While there were some ancient tribes in Europe who practiced tattooing, the practice really died out there, but it was always strong in Polynesia. Samoan tattoo artists have been living and working on the island for over 2000 years, and the art spread to other island nations, such as Hawaii and New Zealand, and then spread around the world when European explorers discovered the art. Asian cultures also practiced tattoo, so the practice has existed throughout the world, but never at the rate or popularity that it exists today.

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It is generally acknowledged the Polynesia is the heart of the origins of tattoo, and how they practiced the art is representative of how most early tattoos were created. PBS editors write, "The legacy of Polynesian tattoo began over 2000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them. Once widespread in Polynesian societies across the Pacific Ocean, the arrival of western missionaries in the 19th century forced this unique art form into decline" (Editors). Almost all Samoan men had tattoos, many were covered in tattoos from their torsos to their knees, and the tattoos were also a mark of social rank, such as the chief of the tribe, so they had great ceremonial meaning as well. The editors continue, "The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a great concern" (Editors). Thus, tattoo had great cultural significance in the Polynesian islands, but it also signified rank and status. Women also engaged in tattooing, but their designs were smaller, and they usually only had them on their hands or their legs and thighs.

Term Paper on History of the Tattoo Assignment

The tattooing process has always been painful, as well. In Polynesia, if a man could not stand the pain of tattoo he was labeled a coward, and if he did not finish his tattoos, he was often ridiculed for his cowardice (Editors). The Samoan tattoos were created with combs covered in ink, and the artist would use a mallet to hammer the tattoos into the flesh. The tattooing would continue until the tattoos were complete, or the man could no longer endure the pain. Many traditional and historic designs included a boat, signifying the boats that originally brought the islanders ancestors to their homes in Polynesia (Editors). Ultimately, the Polynesians used their tattoos to show loyalty and devotion or to commemorate an important feat or occasion, and even today, many tattoos are created for the same inspiring reasons.

Tattooing spread to Europe when European explorers reached Polynesia and saw the artwork. Perhaps some sailors received their own tattoos, and Europeans saw them for the first time. In addition, some explorers brought some tattooed natives home to Europe, and displayed them at fairs and such, so more people got to see what the art form looked like. At any rate, the practice began to become popular in Europe again, especially in the British Navy, where it became quite common for British sailors to sport tattoos. The Editors continue, "[T]he art form, unbound from tradition, flourished on the fringes of European society" (Editors). As it became more acceptable, even the aristocracy began to experiment with tattooing. Young King Edward VII got a tattoo before he took the throne, and it gained even more popularity after that (Editors).

However, tattooing was still a painful and difficult process, and infection in the early days was very common. The worry about infection was one of the legacies of tattoos, and because early practitioners did not understand the need for cleanliness and sterility, poor tattoo practices could even lead to death, which helped add to the overall allure of the process.

While tattooing spread slowing across Europe and North America, it was dying out in Polynesia. When Christian missionaries came to the islands to "save" the Natives, they saw tattooing as evil and unchristian, and they discouraged it. The Polynesians never fully gave up tattooing, but it lost much of its popularity as a result, and in some areas, it died out completely. Some artists managed to keep the craft alive, and although it did become less prevalent, it never died out completely, and today it is seeing a great resurgence throughout the area.

In 1846, a man named Martin Hildebrandt opened a permanent tattoo parlor in New York City, and perfected a process of mass producing tattoos using special machinery and inks. As with Europe, tattooing still mainly engaged sailors and military men, and Hildebrandt did a brisk business tattooing military insignias, and then tattooing Union soldiers off to fight in the Civil War. Southerners engaged in the practice, as well. Tattooing gained more popularity during the 1940s and World War II, when it was common for servicemen to have tattoos while they were in the service. However, tattooing was still viewed by many as a lower form of art, if art at all, and many people believed that the only people who sported tattoos were sailors or bikers, and that "polite" society did not engage in tattooing.

Today, tattooing has reached record popularity again, and it is difficult to find a young person who does not have a tattoo. A journalist notes, "A June 2005 survey conducted by the American Society of Dermatological Surgery reported that the number [of Americans with tattoos] is now as high as 24% -- roughly one in four. Among Americans age 18 to 29, that number jumps to 36%" (Keel). Tattoo parlors are no longer places where sailors and bikers hang out, just about every walk of life can be found in tattoo parlors today, from college professors to teens experimenting with their first artwork. The tattoo artists of today create even more elaborate and colorful designs, and many are original artworks, created especially for the client to commemorate special events or their personal interests.

In addition, most people recognize that tattooing is an art form today. Shows like "Miami Ink" have brought it to mainstream America's attention, and even housewives and grandmothers sport tattoos today. The editors continue, "Each individual has his or her own reasons for getting a tattoo; to mark themselves as a member a group, to honor loved ones, to express an image of themselves to others" (Editors). In this, it is still much like the early tattooing in Polynesia, which represented art, but also the culture itself, along with important events and occasions. Today, many people get tattoos to commemorate loved ones, special events, and other important occasions, and many have tattoos that represent each member of their family. For example, a team member of the Chicago Bulls, Kirk Hinrich, got a tattoo to honor his grandfather. A sports writer says, "Hinrich got the tattoo, a chain wrapped around his left wrist, as a tribute to his maternal grandfather, Frank Burton Huston, who passed away at age 95 on July 24" (McGraw 5). Today, this is a common practice, and it makes the art of tattooing seem even more alluring and important at the same time.

Another thing that has helped popularize tattoos today is the fact that more people have them, and celebrities sport them, as well. Author Keel continues, "Athletes and entertainers with tattoos are ubiquitous" (Keel), and the people that care about them and want to emulate them want tattoos just like theirs, which has only added to the popularity. Probably the only question about the popularity of tattooing today is, "how long can it last?" Each generation of society goes through changes and alterations. Even 20 years ago, it was uncommon for anyone other than a military man or biker to have tattoos, especially large tattoos, and today it is just the reverse. In another 20 years, will tattooing fall out of fashion again, and will today's heavily tattooed youngsters seem horribly old fashioned to their grandchildren? That remains to be seen, but one thing is sure. No matter what happens in the future, tattooing will not disappear, the art form is as permanent as the lasting and colorful designs it creates.

It is interesting to note that because tattooing has become so popular in western culture today, Polynesians are recovering and renewing their craft. The editors note, "With the greater acceptance of tattoos in the West, many tattoo artists in Polynesia are incorporating ancient symbols and patterns into modern designs.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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