Originating perhaps as significant identification or ranking systems and evolving through time to take on a variety of meanings and approaches, today’s artistic approach to the tattoo can be as obscure and complex as some of the designs are themselves.
Tattoos are hardly a recent phenomenon. This form of body art has been in existence for at least 5000 years and the practice likely dates to the very beginnings of mankind. The celebrated finding of the Iceman in 1991 provided evidence that people have tattooed themselves for 5,300 years, the Iceman’s age. “Carbon 14 dating done on the bones and tissue of the Iceman proved that he had died some 5,300 years ago.” (Wiman-Rudzinski). This prehistoric man was adorned with blue-tinted markings that covered much of his fingers. Innsbruck University Professor Konrad Spindler hypothesized that his tattoos were either for decorative purposes or were thought to have mystical powers by the Iceman and his tribe to ward off sickness, relieve pain, bring luck in the hunt, etc. Another possibility is that the tattoos specified his social position within the group. Whatever the reason, the Iceman wore 58 tattoos which were astonishingly well preserved for being that old. The tattoos likely were applied with charcoal and consisted of simple lines and spots. Interestingly, the Iceman also had worn an earring (Wiman-Rudzinski). In addition to tattoos, people have evidently worn earrings for more than 5000 years as well. Earrings remain the most popular type of body piercing. Nose-rings have been known to exist for 4000 years with origins in the Middle-East but little evidence that this was practiced elsewhere until the Sixteenth Century when it surfaced in India. Mayan and Aztec High Priests pierced their tongues for thousands of years in rituals designed to better facilitate communication with the gods. Nipple piercing is known to have been practiced by Central American natives for an untold number of centuries for a variety of reasons including as a symbol of transitioning into manhood. Julius Caesar’s Roman honour-guard pierced their nipples to symbolize unity, strength and pride. Women in the Victorian age of the late 1800’s pierced their nipples, some going as far as piercing both then hanging chains off the rings connecting one with the other. They considered this practice a demonstration of glamour. Piercing the navel dates back to the ancient Egyptians but only those of royalty were permitted to wear naval rings. The penalty for a person not of the Pharaohs family to have their naval pieced was severe. “Peasants who broke the rule were sentenced to death. On the other hand if a peasant girl was born with the perfect belly button she was sometimes permitted to have it pierced, therefore moving her social status up the ladder” (Coyle, 2008 pg. 3 para. 3). Persons of the highest social status in ancient Briton were commonly tattooed as were ancient Romans. One Roman tribe in Northern Italy was named ‘Picti’ which translated means ‘the painted people.’ However, among most Romans and Greeks as well, tattoos were called ‘stigmata,’ and were generally associated with being marked as someone’s property. The word ‘stigma’ was derived from this usage. Stigmata were also common in some religious cults of that time. Eventually, being tattooed became popular with Roman soldiers but when Constantine, the