There is something about the self expression of a tattoo that helps to show our modern individuality, beliefs, loves, and more; and if you are anything like the majority of the staff here at The NYRD -except for Todd- than you too, dear reader, may be sporting some ink. Your mark of independence, creativity, or passion may be in some hidden or not so hidden place on your body, but have you ever wondered why so many people nowadays seem driven to tarnish their perfect skin with poorly drawn tigers or mistranslated Chinese writing? All we know is that we are not alone, because this modern trend is a surprisingly timeless human trait.
Tit for Tats
According to a 2012 Harris poll 1 in 5 Americans, roughly 21% of adults in the United States, have at least one tattoo on their body. According to a Pew Research poll that number jumps to 40% when looking at young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Tattooing is becoming more popular than Robert Downey Jr. holding ice ream, and for a few reasons. First, tattoos are becoming more and more acceptable as celebrities, athletes, and other notable figures proudly display their ink on the big and small screens. Secondly, the Millennial Generation -who is constantly rated as more confident, connected, and more willing toward self expression- has made tattooing a part of the youth culture. Lastly, and due to all these factors, the stigma of tattoos have lessened over the years. It is not gone completely, but it no longer seems that ink is just for sailors and Sith warriors.
One tattoo artist we talked to explained how he got his start marking gang members and bikers in a dingy ink den on the wrong side of Brooklyn. Originally those were his only customers, but now his clientele are mostly young adults who wear cardigans instead of leather jackets, and get tats of Kermit the Frog instead of skulls and daggers. Of course, this also reflects a bigger trend going on in NYC and around the country. The landscape of Brooklyn has changed, with many neighborhoods going from hard-luck to hipster paradise. Gangs still exist, but they are no longer the only ones who brand themselves to affiliate with a group or ideal. Geeks, jocks, families, chess clubs, and more use tattoos to proudly display who and what they are.
We could argue a correlation between the rise of social media and the popularity of tattoos, and certainly our new cultural of unabashed social sharing and connectivity has added to the popularity of body art. We are more willing to share who we are with friends, family, and strangers, but there is more to it than that. When you look at history, this urge to carve out a visible personification for ourselves with tattoos proves to be quite a universal human tendency.
Tattoos have been a part of human culture for more than 5,000 years. There has even been evidence of tattooing dating back to 6,000 BCE, with the discovery of a man sporting a thin pencil mustache tattooed on his upper lip, thus also proving that both tattoos and hipsters are apparently timeless. Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in the early 90’s preserved in ice. He lived around 3,300 BCE, had more than fifty tattoos on his body, mostly small vertical lines that may have been used for therapeutic reasons. Every human culture has had a history of decorating their bodies for various reasons, spiritual, religious, love, war, etc. There is evidence that Moses might have had a tattoo, despite what the Bible said on the subject. Even Christian Crusaders often got the Jerusalem Cross marked on their body so that if they died in battle they could be identified and be given a Christian burial. Today, cultures, such as the Maori in New Zealand, still use tattoos to commemorate their heritage and to bridge the gap between their ancestral roots and the modern world.
There is no one true origin for the tradition of tattooing, but we do know where the English word for the practice comes from. Tattoo or Tattow is an Anglicized version of the word Tatau, a Polynesian word from Tahiti. It was brought back to the west by English explorer Captain James Cook, who is mostly remembered for his misunderstanding of the climate of Australia and his misunderstanding of the patience of Hawaiians. In Tahiti, Cook encountered heavily tattooed men and women, and because of his stories and the ink that his crew returned with from their Polynesian vacation, we got the modern word of tattoo.
Also thanks to Cook’s discovery and the stories he and others like him brought back from their voyages, tattoos became all the rage in Victorian society. Most people tend to think of Jane Austen and her ilk as a tame repressed group, but the truth is that many Victorians had at least one tat. Even Queen Victoria was believed to have a tattoo of a Bengal tiger fighting a python. Of course, most Victorians’ ink was hidden by frilly dresses, petticoats, and pantaloons, and there were always some that looked down on the fashion trend, but it was common practice of upper society at the time. It was also said that Winston Churchill’s mother had a rebelliously visible tattoo of a serpent… Hail Hydra.
Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the darker side of tattoos. Many people were inked or branded unwillingly throughout human history. Geeks and Romans tattooed slaves and mercenaries so as to discourage them from deserting or fleeing their masters. Convicts in Japan were tattooed to mark their lowered status in society, even as far back as the 7th century. Curiously, this could also be why today the Japanese still look down on tattoos as something worn only by gang members and criminals. Most sadly, of course, the Nazis tattooed Jewish and other prisoners in concentration camps with numbers so they could easily identify stripped and destroyed corpses.
Of course, over the years some people have re-appropriated those symbols. The Japanese convicts turned their shameful marks into the elaborate body art which marked their strength and loyalty to the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Many descendants of concentration camp survivors have tattooed their ancestors numbers on their bodies as a way of remembering and honoring the past. These marks of shame find new meaning and acceptance in the modern world, but really that is what tattoos are. They are a way to memorialize what has come before and celebrate who we are as individuals.
Tattoos are permanent adornments, remnants from a different time in our life that stay with us. Like us they may grow and wear out, and their meaning may change over time. We may look on them with fondness or embarrassment, but there is not denying that they become a part of us. Many people use them to commemorate a milestone, honor a loved one, or even just because it makes them feel good. Regardless of the reasons, the marks help define us, not just to the outside world but to ourselves. Tattoos are not something new and they are certainly not something to be looked down on. In our modern world of Twitter and Facebook, tattoos help us to literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, or our dragons, our crossbones, our Superman symbols, or even that unicorn we got by mistake that one time, which we don’t ever talk about.