Tattoos, an age old art of body modification made by inserting ink, dyes, pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the dermis layer of the skin. Even though the art of tattooing has been around for millenniums, the word ‘tattoo’ itself is relatively new. It stems from the Samoan word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to strike’ effectively define the kind of handiwork done during a tattoo making process and originated in the 18th century. Before the Polynesian word came into use, the West called the process of tattooing as painting, scarring or staining.
The art of tattooing have been relevant from the neolithic age. The oldest human with tattoos was found in the glacial ice in the Alps. ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ is the name given to the mummy by archeologists. His body had 61 tattoos and his age was traced back to the 4th Millennium or 3250 BCE. Various other tattooed mummies were also excavated from 49 sites all over the world including Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines and the Andes.
Different cultures had different beliefs regarding to tattoos. For example: ancient tattooing was mostly practised by Proto-Austronesians which could have been related to head hunting, Papuans and Melanesians used distinctive obsidian skin piercer to get inked, the Chinese mostly associated tattoos with criminal, bandits or heroes and sometimes slaves to display ownership, the ancient Greeks and Romans used tattooing to penalize slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war, during 17th century Christian pilgrims tattooed their body with the Jerusalem Cross to commemorate their voyages to the holy lands etc.
Tattoos fall into three broad categories: purely decorative, symbolic and pictorial. Many tattoos served as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, amulets and talismans, protection, and as punishment, like the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts.
Despite having rich history and varied cultural beliefs on tattooing, the social stigma of addressing a tattooed human as a degenerate or a lowlife is there. However, with changing times the social acceptance has also gradually been increasing, leading to the tattooing industry growing larger and larger. It has turned out to be a income source for many and a way to independently express through one’s bodies with the body being the canvas and imagination being the limit.
Visuals by: Kunal Kaustav Duwarah
Article by Puhar Pallab Bharali , The North-Eastern Chronicle