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  • Steven Erquiza

How did Tattoos Started?

Tattooing was a common practice in many parts of the ancient world. There were tattoos in both ancient Egypt and Japan. The Maori of New Zealand has been practicing the sacred Ta Moko tattooing for centuries as a way to know who they are and to know who their community is.

However, in all of these cultures, no one claimed to have invented the art of tattooing. Tattooing practices have been known in North America and Europe since antiquity. The Greeks depicted their tattooed Thracian neighbours, the Indo-European-speaking people, on their pottery. The picts, the indigenous people of what is today northern Scotland, were documented by Roman historians as having complex tattoos.

The oldest tattoo that's been preserved comes from Otzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummified body frozen in ice discovered in the mountains of Italy in 1991. In 2019 researchers saw 2000-year-old tattoo needles from southeastern Utah's Pueblo archaeological sites. The cactus spines bound with yucca leaves still had the remnants of tattoo ink on them.

Tattoo historian Steve Gilbert explains that the word "tattoo" combines Samoan and Marquesan words called tatu and tatau. It is to describe these practices. The sailors who explored Polynesian islands combined the words as they shared their travel experiences.

Then you can't help but ask if tattoos existed before in North America and Europe since times of antiquity. Why did the westerners coin these 2 words instead of using words that already existed for these art practices?

Around the 1400s, tattoos became an easy way to draw a line between colonized and European colonizers, who were seen as "uncivilized." Tattooing was still practiced in North America and Europe, but many of those tattooing practices had been done in secret when European colonization was in order.

That was partly the result of attempts to "christianise" parts of Europe by purging towns and villages of "pagan" and nonconformist, nonreligious practices that included tattooing. As Catholic churches expanded their influence and power through missionaries and campaigns beginning in AD 391, tattoos were not accepted in the community. They were considered "unChristian."

Western colonizers expanded through Africa, the Pacific Islands and South and North America in the 1400s and 1500s. They found groups of native peoples who were tattooed. These individuals that were tattooed were called "untamed natives." They needed the help of "good,God-fearing" Europeans to become fully human. Individuals with tattoos from these cultures were taken back and paraded through Europe for amusement and profit.


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