“The body is a temple and it’s our job to decorate it.” From tatau in Polynesia to Sailor Jerry to the oppressed class that gave rise to the Yakuza, we touch on some highlights from the history of tattoos.
Huge thanks to my guest presenter Mike “Hobbit” Bickett from Geeks Under the Influence Podcast network. Check out the episode of Smack My Pitch Up he let me do with him.
For those who don’t know me personally, I’m coming to you today from Richmond, VA, the #4 most tattooed city in America, depending on which list you’re looking at, a city with 15 tattoo shops per 100,000 people. Our unnofficial motto is “The body is a temple and it’s our job to decorate it,” right after “We don’t like the way things are, but don’t you dare suggest changing it.”
Tattooing is one of the earliest visual art forms and has served as a means of self-expression for thousands of years. The process was probably discovered when ash or dirt became embedded in an open wound, leaving an indelible mark when healed. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means to mark. The earliest known reference to the word was made by Joseph Banks, a naturalist aboard Cpt. Cook’s the Endeavour, “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly; each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition”. By the 1700s, the word tattoo was in use in Europe. The term and knowledge of the practice was probably re-introduced to Europe by sailors returning from Polynesia. I say “re-introduced,” because early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies. The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed themselves with clan sigils, an early form of family crest. The practice took a major hit when Pope Hadrian banned tattooing in the eighth century, but it was the Norman Invasion of 1066, with its ink-antagonist Normans that caused it to disappear from Western Europe until the 16th century.
The oldest tattoos archeologists have found belong to two ancient Egyptian mummies on display at the British Museum. Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman, named for the are where they had lived between 3351 and 3017 BCE, had been at the museum for decades before the tattoos were discovered. How could they not notice something that that? You’re probably asking. In normal light, the tattoos look like faint smudges. It took infrared scanning to reveal the distinct figures that had been etched onto the mummies’ skin. Not only did this discovery mean that tattooing was more than 1,000 years older than previously thought, but it up-ended beliefs about how tattoos featured into the culture of Predynastic Egypt. Only females from that period had been found with tattoos, leading researchers to believe that only females received tattoos, but Gebelein Man’s arm had been decorated with what appear to be a bull and a Barbary sheep, which are theorized to be symbols of power or virility. The meaning of Gebelein Woman’s tattoos are more difficult to interpret. She has four “S” shapes on her right shoulder and a curved line on her right arm, which may depict objects used in ritual dance.
The Gebelein tattoos stole the title of world’s oldest from arguably the best-known natural mummy in the world, Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi’s tattoos, however, were geometric and abstract. He has 61 tattoos in groups of parallel lines along his body on either side of his spine, around his left wrist and down his legs, as well as crosses behind his right knee and ankle. His tattoos, like most ancient ink, wasn’t actually ink, but charcoal or ash rubbed into punctures and cuts in the skin. One theory on Otzi’s tattoos is that they are actually of therapeutic origin. Many of the Iceman’s tattoos correspond to classic acupuncture points and the tattoos on his torso may have been used as some sort of treatment for chest pain.
In the last twenty years or so, tattoos have shaken off a lot of their negative association. People no longer assume you must be a sailor, biker or convict because you have one. But they say that stereotypes come from somewhere and tattoos are interwoven with prison life throughout the world. Because tattooing is officially forbidden, the practice is clandestine, slap-dash and often, in a word, unsanitary. Puncturing the skin hundreds or thousands of times with a dirty implement in a dirty environment can easily bring on complications like tetanus and gangrene, or transmit diseases like hepatitis, syphilis and AIDS. A common problem is lymphadenitis, or inflammation of the lymph nodes, which comes with fever and chills. The pigment is made from things like burnt rubber, ash, or melted plastic, mixed with baby oil or shampoo. In some cases, the solids are even mixed with urine. It’s best to use the urine of the person getting the tattoo, for health reasons.
These tattoos are almost a pictographic language, telling the history of an inmate’s life of crime. A clock with no hands means a lengthy sentence, as does a cobweb, which some inmates add a row for each year they serve. A teardrop can mean a murder conviction, or attempted murder if it’s an outline. It can also be worn as a vow of revenge when a friend or relative is killed. A five-pointed crown is the emblem of the Latin Kings gang. 666 and 000 belong to the Crips, while 023 belongs to the Bloods. 7 doesn’t denote luck, but the letter “G”, stands for God or Gangster. 14 is used by Hispanic gangs in California, but is also used by white supremacists to symbolize a particular fourteen word quote. RRR means Respect, Reputation, Revenge. A tattoo of 50/50 may be worn by a non-gang member. Three dots by the eye stand for ‘mi vida loca’ or ‘my crazy life,’ referring to the gang lifestyle in general or it refers to the Holy Trinity of Christianity. Five dots, a quincunx, represents the prisoner inside the four walls of his cell. Bonus fact: Thomas Edison had a quincunx tattoo on his right arm. While we aren’t sure why, but we do know that he invented an electric pen that is the precursor of modern tattoo machines. And it’s “tattoo machine,” not “tattoo gun.”
The language of prison tattoos is especially deep in Russia. Arkady Bronnikov, a senior expert in forensics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for more than 30 years, visited correctional institutions in Ural and Siberia as part of his official duties. From the mid-60s and mid-80s, he interviewed, photographed, and gathered information about convicts and their tattoos, building one of the most comprehensive archives to date, which was published as Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia.
The inmates interviewed by Bronnikov claimed that they started getting tattoos only after they had committed a crime. As their convictions add up and sentences become more severe, the tattoos multiply. In minimum-security prisons, for example, around 70% of the convicts have tattoos; in medium-security, it’s 80%; in maximum-security, it rises up to and over 95%. That gradient is similar in female facilities, though women are tattooed at about half the rate of men. In a reverse of what you would expect, criminal leaders don’t have a large number of tattoos, usually only sporting a pair of seven or eight-pointed stars on their collarbones. There are grave consequences for a convict wearing a tattoo he didn’t earn. He may be forced to remove it himself by cutting the skin off with a piece of glass or sanding it off with a brick. The alternative is severe beatings or worse.
The skull and crossbones indicate that he’s serving a life sentence. Wrist manacle indicates a sentence of more than five years. If you’ve lived a wandering life or are in the habit of escaping, or at least trying to escape, from prison, you may wear the image of a ship with white sails. A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. If you turned 18 in prison, you may be tattooed with a rose. A longing for freedom, either from prison or the criminal life, can be denoted by a lighthouse or the statue of liberty. A bowtie tattoo is forcibly applied to thieves who turn informant. Rage against the government is symbolized by a double-headed eagle, military-style medals, and devils or wild animal baring their teeth, known as “oskals” or the big grin.
A spider crawling on the right shoulder is indicative of a thief. If the spider is crawling up the shoulder, the thief is still active. If the spider is crawling down, the thief is done with the criminal life. Depending on the location on the body, stars can convey a prisoner’s status. On the knees, the stars are a sign of a prisoner who commands respect, as in ‘I will never kneel for.” Only the most respected prisoners can wear stars on their chests. A dagger through the neck suggests that an inmate has murdered someone in prison and is available for hire; the number of blood drops coming off the tip of the knife may signify his body count to date. A naked woman being burnt on a cross symbolizes a conviction for the murder of a woman, with the number of logs on the fire denoting the number of years of their sentence. A tattoo of a mermaid can indicate a sentence for the rape of a minor or child molestation. Known as “amurik,” or “cupid,” these convicts face retribution by other prisoners. The eyes on the torso suggest that they are ever-vigilant or that someone is watching over them, while eyes on the stomach suggest that the inmate is gay. Prisoners used to wear tattoos of Stalin or Lenin over their heart not out of fealty, but as an attempt to thwart the firing squad, who would not shoot a portrait of their leader. It rarely helped, as it was just as easy to shoot them in the head.
Christian iconography is quite common. However, in the context of the Soviet prison system, or “the zone,” those images have absolutely nothing to do with religious beliefs. The Madonna and Child is one of the most popular tattoos and can have a number of meanings, from loyalty to a criminal family to a belief that it will ward off evil to an indication that the wearer has been behind bars from an early age. A church or monastery is the sign of the thief, with the number of cupolas on the church translating to the number of convictions. Crosses are commonly tattooed on the chest to show devotion to the thieves’ traditions and that the bearer belongs to the caste of thieves.
From the home of vodka and tsars, we travel east to the land of sake and emperors. The traditional method of applying tattoos is tebori, using a bamboo tool and needle to repeatedly, carefully, tediously, painfully poke the design into the skin. Colors carried their own significance. The first tattoos were shades of grey and black, but by the early 18th century the palette expanded to include red. Dark red was made with green vitriol, a mineral that caused fevers and rashes. The redder your tattoo was, the tougher you were. Tattooing had been illegal until 1948, unless the person you were tattooing was not Japanese. It was reasonably acceptable to ink a foreigner. The most common non-Japanese person in Japan for centuries were sailors. Thus, these rare Japanese tattoos and their unique styles were carried throughout the world.
The relationship between tattoos and the criminal element is especially strong in Japan. Whether you picture the noble samurai of ancient Edo or the brightly-colored kawai culture of modern Tokyo, the words “caste system” and “untouchable” probably aren’t the first to leap to mind. The lowest caste of Japanese society, dating back to medieval times, as the burakumin, an innocent-sounding name that literally means ‘people from the village.’ It’s nicer than the names of the two groups that make up the burakumin – the Eta, “the impure people,” and the Hinin, the nobody or non-human. Japan had adopted Confucianism from China, which divided people into four categories – scholar, farmer, artisan, merchant. If you didn’t fit into one of those categories, you were essentially not a part of society. The adoption of Buddhism actually helped to restrict those on the bottom with the concept of kegare, which is like sin, except it’s not only what you do, but also things that happen to you. If you did something unclean, like touched the placenta during childbirth, or if something happened to you, like someone close to you dying, you would have to cleanse and purify yourself. The Burakumin had been relegated to lives of constant kegare, which meant they could never really purify themselves. For the Eta, this was jobs no one else would do because of the kegare, jobs like tanning hides or handling dead bodies. For the Hinin, it was things like begging, prostitution, stealing, and, interestingly, acting. Since the 11th century CE, they have faced Jim Crow-like discrimination, even though they are racially the same as the rest of Japanese society. The government didn’t count them in census because they were regarded as barely human, moved them to sequestered neighborhood and forced them to wear clothes to distinguish themselves. Authorities also tattooed them as marks of criminal or antisocial behavior. This practice lasted for over 1,000 years.
There was really no reason for the Burakumin *not* to invest themselves in crime. When gambling began to spread through Japan, they were the ones who ran the games. As they began to amass some wealth and a form of power, they began to form gangs to protect it, the Yakuza. By one estimate, three out of four Yakuza members come from the untouchable class. They took the tattooing that had been forced on them as a mark of shame and made it a point of pride. Tattoos are so closely associated with the Yakuza that some businesses openly ban customers with visible tattoos.
Bonus facts: When American cartoons like The Simpsons and kids shows like Bob the Builder are imported by Japan, they are first edited to add a fifth finger to the normally four-fingered characters. Why all that effort? Missing fingers are another key characteristic of the Yakuza. The cutting off of fingers is a common punishment for failure, a practice called yubitsume. The Yakuza also gave the world Nintendo. Want to hear that story, or something else? Pop over to FB or IG and let us know.
Whereas the Yakuza are known throughout the world, tattoos are also emblematic of the Ainu people of northern Japan, the direct descendants of the first people to inhabit the islands as long ago as 12,000 years. For the Ainu, both the wearing and the applying of tattoos was exclusive to females. The position of tattoo artist was customarily filled by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts.” According to their traditional accounts, tattooing was brought to earth by their “ancestral mother,” the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi. Their most common and easily most conspicuous tattoo is a large smile shape, covering nearly the width of their face. I don’t want to reference The Joker, but it is the most efficient reference in this non-visual presentation. They begin with a small spot on the upper lip and add to it over time. They also tattooed their hands and forearms with patterns of stripes, curves, or braids, beginning as young as age five.
Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like implements of steel and before that obsidian. The sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Shallow cuts were made and soot from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions. The Tattoo Aunt would sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.”
Throughout history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu and other ethnic peoples under their authority, like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, to deprive them of their cultural practices and press them toward assimilation. The Ainu refuted these laws because tattoos were believed to protect them from evil spirits entering the body, as a prerequisite for marriage and preparation for the pain of childbirth, and necessary to be accepted by the souls of their ancestors in the afterlife. One report from the 1880s states, “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They …. repeat frequently, “It’s part of our religion.” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”
Tattoos are also a rite of passage into womanhood for the Maisin of Papua New Guinea. Until they have covered their entire faces with exotic curvilinear patterns, they are thought to have “blank” faces, not yet ready for marriage. Women are also the tattoo artists exclusively in the Kayan people of Borneo. Adolescent girls were tattooed at puberty to confer adult status, to attract men, and to provide protection against evil spirits. Their pigments are made of soot or powdered charcoal, to ward off malevolent spirits, and may include special charms, like a ground-up piece of a meteorite or shard of animal bone. to make their tattoos even more powerful. For the outline, the artist attaches up to five bamboo splinters or sewing needles to a stick. After dipping them in pigment, the artist taps them into the skin with a mallet. Solid areas are filled in with a circular configuration of 15 to 20 needles. In certain Borneo tribe, the whole process actually begins with a special ceremony with chanting and animal sacrifice.
The Iban believe that the soul inhabits the head and taking an enemy’s head gives you their soul and power. Even though head-hunting was made illegal over a century ago, the occasional head is still taken today. Upon return from a successful head-hunting raid, warriors would be recognized with tattoos, usually of anthropomorphic animals, on their fingers. The women of the Iban were adorned for accomplishments in weaving, dancing, or singing. As they grew older, women were often covered by a weave of inked images spreading around their legs, across the tops of their feet, and along the hands and forearms. Their tattoos also tell the story of their social status. High-caste women can afford more ornate tattoos and wear motifs that are taboo for low-caste women; slaves are not allowed tattoos at all.
For those who hunt seals and not men, the Inuit of Alaska and Canada, women received larger and more complex facial tattoos than men. These are both marks marks of beauty and spiritual talismans. The artists of the Inuit are, no longer a surprise for my gentle listener, older women. They applied the pattern freehand, using special needles and soot mixed with oil. Women typically bore a large V-shape pattern on the forehead to the nose. An oval shape on the cheeks and parallel lines on the cheek from the lower lip toward the jawline were also common. Both men and women would tattoo stick figure like human forms along the foreheads that symbolized their ancestors.
Tattooing performed at the time of puberty was perhaps the most important rite of passage for indigenous women among the tattooing tribes of California and the Native American Southwest.he practices surrounding the tattoo custom also enabled women to exercise control over their bodies during the course of their lifetimes and onwards into the afterlife. This was because the power of tattooing was derived from magical forces that transcended time, space, and human existence itself. Here again, older women were the artists, leading me to ask, why don’t I know of a single female-identifying tattooist with a single gray hair. Share the social media posts about this episode and tag any you know, so they know they’re keeping up an ancient tradition. Prior to tattooing, the girls might be kept in seclusion, forbidden to speak, or put on restrictive diets, depending on her tribe. Their faces may be painted or covered all over with mud or clay. The Sinkyone of California will take the girl for a ritual bath, then sing and dance around her before she is poked copious times with a needle of deer bone. That beats the hell out of the American experience of being given a pamphlet from Kotex and a note to get out of gym class.