THE ART OF THE FLESH
Tattooing Through Time and How It Has Evolved
If I asked you to name a type of visual art that is deep rooted in the ancient times, full of symbolism and expression of one’s faith — what would come to mind? Paintings? — Yes! Sculpture? — Of course! But what about …tattoos?
Ancient cultures, like Polynesian, were practicing tattooing over 2000 years ago. The skin drawings conveyed deep symbolic meanings to the tribes, identifying people with their clan, tattoos were cherished and worn with pride. According to “Polynesian Tattoo: History, Meanings and Traditional Design”
(https://www.zealandtattoo.co.nz/tattoo-styles/polynesian-tattoo-history-meanings-traditional-designs/), the application of tattoos was an extremely painful process that often resulted in serious infections; healing could take a year, and death was not an uncommon outcome of the procedure.
Thousands of years later, tattooing still has a very strong presence in our lives. In the 1700s the tattoos were brought to Europe by French sailors who adopted the practice from the Polynesians. In the Americas the tattooing was also worn by sailors in the mid-1800s (pbs.org/skinstories). It is interesting to observe that tattooing was reborn into the modern world in prison facilities by inmates. As described in the short film, Prison Tattoos | Full Documentary (https://youtu.be/v4TPhD1xh0M) the trend of prison tattooing started in the 1970s; prison tattoos were still packed with symbolism but mostly with the symbols of crime and gang loyalty. Millenia apart, tribal and prison tattoos had a lot in common: they both were manifestations of belonging to a clan, stating the wearer’s allegiance to it in the most explicit and permanent form. Another unfortunate similarity is that both prison and tribal tattoos were unsafe and often accompanied by infection; needles were often reused, and conditions were far from sanitary.
It is interesting to trace the evolution of tattoo from ancient tribes to prisons to the modern time. During the 1990s the art of tattoo started appearing mainstream, blossoming into wide popularity by the 2010s. Today, it is not unusual to find tattoo studios in any urban downtown area. Most of these studios are clean and safe and are equipped with the state-of-the art tools. The technology has evolved dramatically, taking tattooing to different levels. The modern tattoo machines are sophisticated and precise, which allows the tattooer to create beautiful compositions, something that was not achievable before. This brings me to the question I have been pondering for a long time: is tattooing a form of art or a service?
Really, can drawing on one’s body be considered art, or is it just a trend that will pass? People may argue this either way. Some will say that there is no art in drawing a basic shape or someone’s name on one’s body, it’s primitive and even kitschy and is just “marking up” the body. However, others would disagree with this statement and claim tattooing to be art. To me, art is a beautiful and creative composition that requires skill, precision and emotion, something that one would enjoy looking at. After I have done my research, I am fully convinced that some of the modern tattoos are works of art, and tattooing is art. Oxford Dictionary is in agreement with me defining art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.
The backpiece to the left was tattooed by Chis Blinston; Chris spent thirty-six hours tattooing this piece, the amount of details and color saturation of the picture are remarkable. Would you agree that a composition like this is to be considered art? Drawing on human skin is very different from traditional art of drawing or painting, after all, the artist is using a machine injecting ink into a human body, a canvas that may not stay still and could be in pain!
I have been fascinated with tattoos, and that prompted the research that has resulted in The Evolving Tattoo Theory. Tattoos began as a symbol of protection and good luck to the ancient tribes of Polynesia. To me, those early tattoos were form of art- they were meaningful and creative, made with the utmost precision- given the tools of that era- and I believe, people enjoyed looking at them. The evolution of technology opened new horizons and allowed to create beautiful artwork in different styles and designs. I believe that tattooing will reach new heights over the next decades- the trend is undeniably strong. The art of tattooing has been around for millennia, and it is here to stay.