Tattoos have been used for a long time as a way for people to express their emotions.
As a tattoo historian, I often like to ask people where they think tattoos originated from. I hear about countries like China, Japan, “somewhere in Africa or South America”, or Polynesia. What’s interesting is that in the last five years of these conversations, no one has responded so far that the tattoos could be from Europe or North America.
The geographic areas included in these answers, and what they are missing, reveal a deeper truth about the history of tattoos: What we know and think about tattoos is heavily influenced by oppression, racism and colonialism.
History of tattoos
Tattooing practices were common in many parts of the ancient world.
There were tattoos in ancient Japan and Egypt. The Maori of New Zealand have practiced the sacred Ta Mōko tattoo for centuries as a means of indicating who they are as individuals as well as who their community is.
However, no culture can claim to have been the first to invent this art form. Tattooing practices were known in Europe and North America since ancient times. The Greeks represented their tattooed Thracian neighbors, the Indo-European speaking peoples, on their pottery. The Picts, the indigenous people of what is now northern Scotland, have been documented by Roman historians as having intricate tattoos.
The oldest surviving tattoos come from Ötzi the Ice Man, a 5300-year-old mummified body frozen in ice discovered in the mountains of Italy in 1991. In 2019, researchers identified tattoo needles 2,000 years old from archaeological sites in Pueblo, southeastern Utah. Cactus thorns tied with yucca leaves still bore remnants of tattoo ink.
Colonization and tattoos
Tattoo historian Steve Gilbert explains that the word “tattoo” itself is a combination of Marquesan and Samoan words – tatau and tatu – to describe these practices. Sailors who explored these Polynesian islands combined the words as they exchanged stories of their experiences.
The question then arises, if tattoos have existed in Europe and North America since ancient times, why have Western cultures appropriated and combined these two words instead of using words that already existed? in themselves?
As I discovered in my research, sometime around the 1400s, tattoos became an easy way to draw a line between European colonizers and the colonized, who were considered “uncivilized”.
Tattooing was still practiced in Europe and North America, but many of these tattooing practices had gone underground by the time European colonization was in full swing.
This was in part the result of attempts to “Christianize” parts of Europe by purging towns and villages of “pagan” and non-conformist and non-religious practices – including tattooing. As Catholic churches expanded their influence through missionaries and assimilation campaigns starting in AD 391, tattoos were frowned upon as “non-Christian.”
History of tattooing: not like us
As Western colonizers entered places like Africa, the Pacific Islands, and North and South America in the 1400s and 1500s, they found entire groups of tattooed indigenous people.
These tattooed individuals were often presented as proof that the “wild natives” needed the help of “good God-fearing Europeans” to become fully human. Tattooed individuals from these cultures have even been brought back and paraded across Europe for profit.
A tattooed Indigenous mother and son, kidnapped by explorers in the late 1600s in an unknown location in Canada, were two of those victims. A flyer from the time said: “Let us thank Almighty God for this beneficence, which He has declared to us by His Word, so that we will not be like these savages and these man-eaters.
People would pay to admire these enslaved human beings, making their captors a healthy profit and reaffirming in the public mind the need for European expansion, whatever the human cost.
This abduction of tattooed people had destructive effects on the cultures they came from, as often the most tattooed individuals, and therefore the most likely to be abducted, were rulers and holy people.
It should be noted that most captives did not live for more than a few months after arriving in Europe, succumbing to foreign disease or malnutrition when their slavers did not feed them.
This ‘tattooed savage’ narrative was taken even further when tattooed individuals began to appear in carnival and circus ‘monster shows’.
These performers not only pushed the narrative of tattoos being “wild” or “other” by performing as monsters, they also made up tragic stories. The artists claimed to have been attacked and forcibly tattooed by marginalized people, such as Native Americans, whom the general public considered “savages.”
One of these artists was the American Nora Hildebrandt. Nora recounted being captured by Native Americans who forcibly tattooed her.
It was a more poignant story than the reality that his longtime partner, Martin Hildebrandt, had been his tattoo artist. Her story was particularly confusing, as Nora Hildebrandt’s tattoos were primarily patriotic symbols, like the American flag.
The voices of the colonizers resonate in the present. Tattoos carry a certain stigma in Western societies. They can often end up being called a “bad lifestyle choice” or “garbage”. Studies as recent as 2014 discuss the persistence of stigma.
I see tattoos as an art and a way to communicate an identity. By answering the question “where do tattoos come from?” I would say they come from all of us, regardless of what the early colonizers might have wanted people to believe.
This article was originally published on The conversation through Allison hawn To Arizona State University. Read it original article here.