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A Brief History Of Tattoos

A Brief History Of Tattoos

I love tattoos, I think I’ve mentioned that before, so I’ve decided to add a little more to my own knowledge of tattoos while entertaining your fine selves. I find tattoos fascinating and in the course of my research about styles, pain levels and healing, I’ve picked up some interesting facts about the art itself. For example, the word tattoo comes from the Tahitian ‘tatau’.

I’m starting with a brief history because it does not have its roots in religion as a general rule, and it led to the style of tattoos that I am most drawn to. But I also think it’s a great idea to share more about it as an art, a fashion and a culture. There are still a lot of people who react incredibly negatively to tattoos, and I believe it’s a fear reaction and a lack of knowledge about them. So let’s get learning, eh?

To find the origin of tattoos you’d have to go back thousands of years, but to find the origin of the tattooing we see all over the UK, you have to go back about 200 years, with an explosion in popularity after the tattoo gun was invented at the end of the twentieth century. Its roots are in the nautical, sailors got tattoos as mementoes or as superstition, but there was a brief craze with the rich around the time the tattoo gun appeared. Forgetting this brief, rich people fad, we’re going to look at the bigger picture and where tattooing lingered in culture.

Sailors were most often people outside the traditional confines of society - how many historical films have you seen where setting out to sea was the solution? - and so they had no qualms about marking themselves as separate from the masses. These outsiders became the only space for tattoos in Western culture, and thus the connection to the sea. Interestingly, the phrase ‘hold fast’ comes from sailor’s superstitions - it was tattooed across the fingers to help hold ropes ‘fast’ or securely.

Once established with sailors as the mark of the societally rejected, tattoos became commonplace with hobos, sideshow freaks, prostitutes and also made their way to the military. The military seems odd, but as a group, there is a strong sense of identity and a need to show loyalty to the regiment, document kills or say which battles they were present in. It was through the military and the Second World War that tattoos slipped more into the mainstream. Hundreds of thousands of men were at war, and with life hanging in the balance, getting a tattoo didn’t seem so ridiculous. During this time, Sailor Jerry made his name, and it continues to this day through tattoos and rum.

After this, tattoos continued to grow in popularity with the outsiders of society, and the bad reputation of tattooed people continued. Then it began to seep into the identity of aggressive music, such as punk, which gave way to even more people making the commitment to getting tattooed. Once it hit the aesthetic of one or two music genres, the influence spiralled from there, and here we are today. Tattoos are common, still not completely socially acceptable, but everywhere.

Did you know that one in five British adults is tattooed? And one in three under the age of thirty have at least one? Women are also more likely to be tattooed than men by a small margin. That’s a far cry from the days of sailors tattooing their knuckles to hold a rope better.

I’m going to continue with a series of posts about tattoo history, styles and advice, so if you have any particular area you’d like me focus on, let me know.

I used these two sources for my post, just to be transparent. The Guardian article had some nice facts surround by the opinions of a man having a go at tattooed people for not being able to adequately explain themselves and their tattoos to him, while not realising he can’t himself explain why he hates them so much. It’s odd.



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