Tattooing is an ancient practice that is present in various cultures around the world.
The traditional Japanese tattoo is known as Irezumi, which is simply the Japanese word for "tattoo". Tattoos with spiritual and decorative motifs are believed to have existed in Japan since at least the Paleolithic period (10,000 BC), due to the patterns seen on the faces and bodies of figures of the time. In the beginning, tattoos in Japan were a status symbol, or were used in rituals. However, in the Kofun period they began to take a negative connotation, similar to China.
It was not until the Edo period that tattoos returned to take on a more decorative meaning, and started the development of what we now know as the traditional Japanese tattoo.Traditional Irezumi figures are dragons, flowers, tigers, and mythological creatures. The same artists who painted on paper were the ones who made these tattoos, mostly using the same elements that they used to carve wooden stamps and paint: chisels, gouges, and ink known as Nara ink.
Although there is currently an academic debate over who was wearing these intricate tattoos, the Irezumi was associated with firefighters, brave figures with sex-appeal, who used them as spiritual protection. In the Meji period, in an attempt to maintain a good image towards the West, the Japanese government banned tattoos. Irezumi again took on a negative and criminalized connotation, associated with the yakuza. This stigma is still present in Japanese society, where it is even forbidden to enter some common saunas if you have tattoos.
Tattoos in ancient Rome and Greece were used to mark and penalize slaves, prisoners of war, and criminals. The Athenians tattooed owls on the Samians' back after defeating them.
Decorative tattooing as a practice was known, but was viewed negatively. As for religious tattoos, they were mainly done in Egypt and Syria, and were common among certain religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean. Evidence of tattooed soldiers and weapon makers has been found throughout Ancient Rome. The Greek verb stizein (στίζειν), which means "to prick", was used to "tattoo". The word stigma (στίγμα) derives from this term, and was the common word for "tattoo" in both Latin and Greek.
Native peoples of North America have a long history of tattooing. Although there is no way to determine the origin of the tattoo in the native peoples, the oldest sample of this practice is an Inuit woman with tattoos on her skin, mummified and frozen, who belonged to the 16th century.
For Native American peoples, the tattoo was not simply a mark on the skin. This practice was intimately related to their culture and way of seeing the world, as well as their connection with family and society. The Inuit used the word kakiniit for tattoo, and the word tunniit for facial tattoo. Some nations tattooed a woman's face and other body parts when she had her first period to symbolize the passage to maturity. Tattoos represented the beauty, maturity and strength of a woman, and they even thought that it was not possible to later transcend to the spiritual world without tattoos.
According to reports by Joseph François Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary, the natives used the tattoo as a treatment for toothache, having determined certain points on the jaw that were connected to the nerves in the teeth. For European colonizers in the early 20th century, tattooing was an evil practice. After the American Revolution, to avoid being detained by the British Navy, soldiers had to have government issued protection papers. However, the descriptions given in these papers were so general that the British Navy simply ignored them.
Tattoos became a way to be identified and avoid imprisonment. During this time, tattoos were not popular in the rest of the country.Tattoo artists were usually on board of the ships, using what they had on hand as pigments. Sailors used to tattoo their initials and those of loved ones, important dates, symbols, and crucifixes on the hands and arms.
Central America and Latin America
Unfortunately, there is not much information about the history of tattooing in Central America and Latin America. This may be due to the fact that the different tribes throughout the continent painted their bodies and faces symbolically, but not permanently. In some parts of Central America, tattooing was practiced as a commemoration of those killed in battle.
Finally, in an expedition to what we know today as Panama, the Spanish conqueror Gonzalo de Badajoz encountered a village in which prisoners from other tribes were marked by opening grooves in their faces with a sharp point or a thorn and then pressing some kind of powder damped with a red or black juice. This process left a permanent mark, and it was incredibly painful.
Today, tattooing is a popular practice worldwide. Although there are still many stigmas around tattoos, more and more people are daring to get one, and little by little they are getting normalized. The reasons for getting a tattoo are many: most do it for memorial reasons (in honor of a relative, a place, a memory), but many do it for spiritual, religious, and even purely aesthetic reasons.
Globalization, the internet and technological advances have also facilitated access to tattoos, and techniques such as handpoke allow those interested to learn how to tattoo even if they do not have the economic means to buy all the equipment required to do it with a machine.
These technological advances also bring a new era in terms of design and style, since they allow tattoos to be made that were not possible just a decade ago. Minimalist designs in strange areas such as fingers and ears, as well as the emergence of micro realism, set the latest trends. We are excited to think about what could happen in the next ten years!
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