Oetzi, the Iceman discovered in the Swiss-Italian Alps, was a traveller. No-one lived up there in those freezing conditions, so he must have been going from one place to a different one. He was a traveller, possibly an outcast. He lived 5,300 years ago and he wore 53 tattoos. The marks are still clearly visible on his parchment-like skin.
The Celts of Europe and particularly those of Briton were renowned for their use of tattoos. Briton actually involves ‘people of the designs’ and the Scottish Picts were the ‘painted people’. The British are still the most tattooed people in Europe. How’s that for tradition living on?
Tattooing is an ancient form of body art, although it probably had religious significance. Tattooing must have travelled with travelling people. Tattooing must have spread around the globe, wherever man went trading. Sailors are, or at least were, very superstitious people and sailors the world more than are renowned for their tattoos.
Despite, let’s say, 5,500 years of tattooing tradition, it is only now becoming acceptable in ‘polite society’ in the developed world thanks mainly to film stars, pop idols and sports personalities, but how do people in other regions of the world regard tattoos? In the developed world, they are almost purely ornamental now, but do other countries have other uses for them still?
Some countries, Eastern and Western, used to brand or tattoo criminals, so these individuals used to attempt to keep their tattoos covered up after they were released from prison. In the Fifteenth Century condemned men were tattooed with a rose so that if they escaped they could easily be recognized. These men would certainly have covered their tattoo.
Romans used tattoos to identify their troops, their slaves and their gladiators. British (ex-pat) and American slave-owners used tattoos to identify their slaves and even tattooed them ‘Tax Paid’. Romans tattooed the foreheads of slaves with ‘Stop me I am a runaway’. The Nazis tattooed the forearms of concentration camp prisoners with their ID number.
Tattooing in its modern Western variety comes from Polynesia and was transported back to Britain by Captain Cook in the Eighteen Century. It was known as tatau, but the word steadily became anglicized and spread throughout Europe among the seafarers, sailors and explorers.
Tattoos are associated with violence in many countries. In Japan, large body tattoos are used to identify members of the different Yakusa gangs. The Russian mafia applies them too. A 2004 survey in Britain revealed that 72% of those surveyed with head, neck or hand tattoos had spent at least three days in gaol in comparison with 6% of the non-tattooed populace.
The Latin word for ‘tattoo’ is ‘stigma’ from which we get the word ‘stigmatize’, which gives an accurate impression of what European societies in general think about tattoos. In other countries, such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, tattoos are frequently used to ward of bad luck and attract good luck.