The practice of painting artwork onto human skin dates back to as early as 3100 BC. Archaeologists have recovered tattooed mummies in different locations across the world, including Egypt, Siberia, China, Greenland and Sudan. The evidence of ancient tattooing practices is overwhelming; however, different cultures donned tattoos for a variety of reasons. A closer look at why tattoos were so important gives a clear recollection of the rich history of the practice.
The Importance of Tattoos in Ancient Times
Ancient tattoos served different functions. The perceptions and symbolism of artwork are, however, unique to each society. Some of the key functions shared across societies include
In ancient societies, tattoos were used to identify people from the same community. The artwork was subtle in most cases, but some tribes created large tribal art. Identification was critical for differentiating friends from foes. Moreover, the artwork was used to trace an individual’s lineage in some communities. Tattoos also represented alliances between communities. Wearing a tattoo was like walking around with your ID card.
Similarly, people in the modern world wear tattoos to identify with particular groups. Irezumi, the Japanese tattoo, was used by gangs as late as the 21st century to identify members and differentiate factions. Moreover, tattoo culture spread to smaller communities like sorority clubs, fraternities, and sports teams where membership involved getting similar tattoos.
Some communities were known to attach high value to tattoos. As a result, tattoos were primarily reserved for the royals and the rich. Moreover, getting a tattoo was quite pricey. Dye was a precious commodity, especially the coloured varieties.
Tattoos were also used to differentiate people of different statuses. In some communities, rulers donned large sleeve tattoos, while chiefs had smaller prints. Furthermore, religious authorities wore tattoos as a symbol of their position in society.
Traditionally, the tattooing process was seen as a rite of passage. In many communities, a tattoo marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. For example, communities in Southern Sudan wore face tattoos as a symbol of adulthood. The practice is still rampant in the area. Tattoos were also used to mark the transition to marriage, pregnancy, and death.
Aside from marking the transition, the pain of getting a tattoo was considered a form of initiation. Traditional tattoo practices involved piercing, puncturing and cutting through the skin to introduce the dye. It was a painful process.
Tattoos have served as beautification marks for millennia. In eastern communities, women wore tattoos across their hands and legs as a sign of beauty. For example, tattoos were imprinted on the bride before their wedding to accentuate their visual appeal. The same practices echo in modern societies where women wear temporary tattoos for their weddings. Men also wore tattoos to look good. For example, the tribal tattoos among African communities raised men’s profiles and improved their appeal
The Types of Tattoos
Traditional tattoo styles have stood the test of time and inspired many contemporary designs. Some of the oldest designs include:
This is a unique Japanese tattoo style that includes sleeve designs and mystical artworks. The tattoos date back to the third century and have seen a long history of modifications. Although the tattoo culture saw resistance in Japan, it’s been welcomed in the rest of the world and inspired numerous contemporary styles.
Tribal tattoos were common in African and Caribbean communities. They had a unique pattern with inspiration from nature. Fortunately, the designs have stood the test of time and remain one of the most popular styles in contemporary tattoo culture.
Many traditional tattoos were based on animals. Common designs include lions in Africa, tigers in India and birds in Asia. The same motifs are echoed in contemporary tattoo cultures. Furthermore, the animal designs include mystical creatures like dragons seen in Chinese and Japanese tattoos.
Although contemporary practices take after traditional styles, they have unique approaches. Modern tattoo guns have unmatched precision that’s great for adding details to designs. Moreover, modern tattoos explore versatile colour combinations, making it possible to design realistic designs.
Contemporary tattoo designs are heavily influenced by traditional tattoo cultures. As a result, a good understanding of the history of tattooing sheds light on our current culture.