Tattoo You. A Brief History Of ‘Tats’

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Once upon a time, in the early 80s, I was in Brazil with my boss and our local sales rep who, during a weekend, took us to the famous Copacabana Beach for sun, fun and people watching. Somehow the conversation turned to tattoos and our rep, a right wing homophobe at best, suddenly said, "People with tattoos are just criminals who belong in jail.”

At that very moment the boss' wife strolled on the beach, clad in a beautiful bikini and sporting, on her upper back, a gorgeous rose tattoo. It was very funny watching the embarrassed rep trying to get out of his own ass. But those were the early 80s and tattoos had not yet hit mainstream.

Today nobody raises a well-groomed eyebrow even at the most outrageous form of this body art. Athletes, actors, musicians, people from any walk of life or gender, are vying to show off the most original, intricate, creative tattoos imaginable. Tats have become part of Western fashion. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. It has undergone a dramatic redefinition and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression.

Looking back on the cover art for the 1981 album "Tattoo You" by the Rolling Stones, it is difficult to remember why it was considered so shocking. The illustration of a tattooed face would barely get noticed these days.

However, the album cover did result in minor controversy and concern about influencing people to get facial tattoos. While there were no actual cases of people getting the tattoos shown on the cover, it drew enough interest for the designer, Peter Corriston, to be awarded a Grammy for Best Package Design.

The word "tattoo" was brought to Europe by the explorer James Cook, when he returned in 1771 from his first voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand. In his narrative of the voyage, he refers to an operation called “tattaw.” Before this it had been described as scarring, painting, or staining.

Many tattoos serve, and served, as rites of passage, badges of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, sexual lures, marks of fertility, pledges of love, amulets and talismans, and as the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. People have also been forcibly tattooed. A well-known example is the identification system for inmates in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.

During the Roman Empire, soldiers were required by law to have identifying tattoos on their hands in order to make desertion difficult. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. Tattoos may show how a person feels toward a relative (commonly a mother), a girlfriend or about an unrelated person. Today, people choose to be tattooed for artistic, cosmetic, sentimental, memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to, or identification with, particular groups, including criminal gangs or subcultures. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate "moko" on their faces. In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is used for protection against evil and to increase luck. Native Americans used them to represent their tribe.

In the new century tattoos are undergoing, yet again, a transformation. The Skulls, snakes, knives, hearts, butterflies, dragons, bulldogs have been on the outs for awhile, and after "tat sleeves," the latest fashion seems to be text tattoos or literary tattoos: slogans, verses in Chinese or Japanese calligraphy, rock lyrics, even Shakespeare. The body has become an "open book" rather than a canvas.

David Beckham has a Latin phrase right under his wife Victoria's name: “Ut Amemem et Foveam" (So that I Love and Cherish). Angelina Jolie has a Thai prayer on her shoulder and an extremely long, obscure, Arab text on her right arm. Lindsay Lohan has chosen a tweet from "Hamlet" while Megan Fox's pick is from King Lear and it says: “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies.” The bad boy of Italian soccer, Mario Balotelli, has a 24 words text that starts with: “I am the punishment of God...”

Although the general acceptance of tattoos is on the rise, they still carry a heavy stigma among certain social groups. Tattoos are, for example, generally considered an important part of the culture of the Russian mafia. Same thing for the Yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. The Jewish religion strictly forbids them thanks to Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not etch cuttings on yourselves.” Yes, the same guy from the Old Testament that wrote "lying with mankind as with womankind is an abomination,” words that are still used by religious nuts to condemn homosexuality. Not to be undone, Muslims believe that the Prophet of Allah has cursed the person who does tattoos and the one who has one done.

A few years ago the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology published the results of a telephone survey. It found that 36 percent of Americans ages 18–29, 24 percent of those 30–40, and 15 percent of those 41–51 had a tattoo. They concluded that Generation X and Generation Y are not afraid to express themselves through their appearance, and tattoos are the most popular form of self-expression. One thing is for sure: tats might fade on the skin over time but they are here to stay.

What I can say regarding the latest trend of text tattoos is: as you can fall out of love with the person whose name you have etched on your skin, 10 years from now you might fall out of love, or find it irrelevant, with the text written on your back. No matter what, make sure the artist you pick has spell check on his ink needles.


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