Our recent Tshirt weather has exposed not only sunburnt arms and legs to the world it has provided all supermarket shoppers with a mobile art exhibition of tattooed limbs and torsos. Gone are the days of the discreet bluebird on the wrist or a few Chinese symbols on the upper arm. Now we see men and women with limbs totally covered with intricate images that demand examination but it would, I feel, appear somewhat intrusive to peer at the body designs and question the provenance so I decided, instead, to ask Wikipedia.
Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. The first known tattoo, a moustache, was discovered on a South American mummy from 6,000BC and when Otzi, the Iceman, was discovered in the Alps in 1991, scientists found 57 carbon tattoos consisting of simple dots and lines on his lower spine, behind his left knee and on his right ankle. As they all lined up with acupuncture points it is thought they were used for some medicinal purpose.
Egypt, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, North and South America, it is difficult to find a society that hasn’t used tattoos for spiritual, decorative, cultural, rank and high status reasons. China considered it barbaric and it was common practice to tattoo the Chinese character for ‘prisoner’ on the face of a convicted criminal.
The word tattoo is believed to have originated from the Polynesian word ‘ta’ which means striking something and the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’. When the Samoan islands were first visited by Europeans in 1722 three Dutch ships caste anchor by the island of Manua. A crew member on one of the ships later wrote:
“…They do not paint themselves, as do the natives of some other islands, but on the lower part of the body they wear artfully woven silk tights or knee breeches.” As the men never went ashore they didn’t get close enough to realise that these were in fact tattoos, an unbroken tradition on the island for over 2,000 years and a skill passed down from father to son. This long and painful ordeal was not undertaken lightly as the risk of infection was high but for the young men of Manu this was a ritualised necessity and any unfinished tattoo was a mark of shame that would be worn throughout life and brought dishonour on the family.
Captain James Cook first wrote about tattooing during his voyages to the South Pacific in July 1769: “…As this is a painful operation, especially the tattooing of their buttocks, it is performed but once in their lifetimes.” (Like me you are probably wondering about Cheryl Cole’s roses right now – all that pain, discomfort and cost for something you can neither see nor easily appreciate!) Cook’s expedition botanist and many of the ordinary seamen and sailors came back with tattoos, so starting a tradition that would soon become associated with men of the sea. Gradually the upper classes and Kings of Europe were getting their own tattoos and even Edward VII and George V are said to have succumbed to the pen, with tattoos that probably involved elaborate and ornate renditions of the Royal Coat of Arms or Royal Family Crest. It was only the broader middle classes that rejected the idea.
In 2012 a Harris poll found that more women than men were being tattooed, citing 23% of women in the USA as opposed to 19% of men. In 2013 Miss Kansas became the first Miss American contestant to show off tattoos during the swimsuit competition. The insignia of the US Army Dental Corps was on her left shoulder and a Serenity Prayer was tattooed along the right side of her torso. The commonest Serenity Prayer is: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Just in case anyone out there is short of ideas!)
There are scores of websites showing the ‘worst ever’ and ‘most hilarious’ tattoos but the following are, apparently, the 10 tattoos to avoid at all costs:
10 – Gaming Junky
If you like the game, play it, just play it, don’t get a tattoo. Preferences over video games are bound to change over time.
9 – Religious images
Having Jesus tattooed on your body is not a good idea because you can never be sure if your tattoo artist is going to get it right. Such tattoos are far from being cool not because they are religious but because they can go ‘wrong’ in so many different ways.
8 – Superhero tattoo
Having Superman, Spiderman or Batman on your torso just looks cheesy.
7 – Cartoon
Images of Tom ‘n Jerry and Scooby Doo may remind you of childhood innocence but they should be left in the memory, not tattooed on your torso.
6 – Celebrities
Having Bruce Lee or Marilyn Monroe tattooed on your body is creepy and such a preoccupation with a celebrity could be seen as somewhat unhealthy.
5 – Facial tattoos
If you get a facial tattoo prepare yourself for never being taken seriously again; nor are you likely to stand any chance of getting a good job.
4 – Emotional tattoos
You may love your Mum and Dad, children and babies, but do you really want their beautiful faces’ ruined by having them tattooed on your upper arm.
3 – A pop-culture reference
You might think a pop-culture reference tattoo looks super cool at the time but more often than not it just ends up looking dumb.
2 – Tramp stamp
It’s a slang word of abuse and not trendy; having it on the lower back is certainly not a good idea – it is considered vulgar, insulting and cheap.
1 – Partner’s name
This is by far the most commonly inked item and nearly always a bad mistake. Nearly everyone who gets such tattoos regrets them sooner or later.
Last year a London man was tattooed with a portrait of his late father which used ink mixed with a small portion of his father’s ashes. I think this probably falls under number 4 on the ‘avoid at all costs’ list but he may well have read the Polynesian tattooist song and taken it to heart: “Your necklace may break, the Fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.”
For more information google ‘History of Tattooing’ including: