Tattoos are created by inserting colored materials underneath the surface of the skin.
The word tattoo is said to have come from the Polynesian word ‘TA’ which means striking something, and the Tahitian word ‘TATAU’ which means ‘to mark something’. In recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids and when the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread as well. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia picked up and expanded the art form. Around 2000 BC tattooing spread to China.
The Greeks used tattooing for communication among spies. Romans marked criminals and slaves, and this practice is still carried on today. The Ainu people of western Asia used tattooing to show social status, and are noted for introducing tattoos to Japan where it developed into a religious and ceremonial rite. Polynesians developed tattoos to mark tribal communities, families, and rank. They brought their art to New Zealand and developed a facial style of tattooing called Moko which is still being used today.
In the west, early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies, and the Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests. It thrived in Britain until the Norman Invasion of 1066, but it disappeared from Western culture from the 12th to the 16th centuries. While tattooing diminished in the west it thrived in Japan. In time, the Japanese escalated the tattoo to an aesthetic art form.
William Dampher is responsible for re-introducing tattoo art to the west. A sailor who traveled the South Seas, in 1691 he brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo, who became the rage of London. Soon, the upper- class were getting small tattoos in discreet places. For a short time tattooing became a fad.
In 1891, Samuel O’Riely patented the first electric tattooing machine. It was based on Edison’s electric pen, which punctured paper with a needle point. The basic design with moving coils, a tube and a needle bar, are the components of today’s tattoo gun. The electric tattoo machine allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced, and readily available tattoo. As the average person could easily get a tattoo, the upper classes turned away from it. By the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of town. Heavily tattooed people travelled with circuses and “Freak Shows”.
The birthplace of the American style tattoo was Chatham Square in New York City. At the turn of the century it was a seaport and entertainment centre attracting working-class people with money. Lew Alberts had trained as a wallpaper designer and he transferred those skills to the design of tattoos. He is noted for redesigning a large portion of early tattoo flash art. With World War I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons. In the 1920s, tattooists opened shops in cities with military bases close by, particularly naval bases. Tattoos were known as travel markers. You could tell where a person had been by their tattoos.
In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much credit can be given to Lyle Tuttle, who tattooed celebrities, particularly women. Magazines and television went to Lyle to get information about this ancient art form. Today, tattooing is making a strong comeback, and it is more popular and accepted than it has ever been. All classes of people seek the best tattoo artists. This rise in popularity has placed tattoists in the category of “fine artist”, and the tattooist has garnered a respect not seen for over 100 years.
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