TATTOO'LL DO NICELY; Tattooing Is Extremely Painful and Inconveniently Permanent, Says Desmond Morris, So Why Has This Tradition Persisted for Thousands of Years?

Article excerpt


Tattoos, it seems, are back in fashion, with icons such as David Beckham and Britney Spears proudly parading their body art in public. But decorating the human skin with permanent markings is an ancient practice - the word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word 'tataou', meaning the tapping of the skin. In primitive tattooing, the patterns were made by repeatedly striking the skin with a sharp pointed stick that had been dipped in a black dye.

These blows forced the dye under the skin, drop by drop.

There are prehistoric figurines from Stone Age Europe that are covered in tattoo markings, and the early Egyptians adorned themselves in this way 5,000 years ago. Later, when European explorers set off to map the far corners of the earth they found tattoos everywhere they went. And if you have ever referred to yourself as 'British', you might be interested to know that you are calling yourself a citizen of a 'tattooed tribe' - the word Briton comes from the Breton term meaning 'patterned in colours'.

When Julius Caesar arrived on these shores, he was surprised to find that the inhabitants wore elaborate tattoos, and he arranged to have some of the decorated women shipped back to Rome as a novelty. There, tattooing became a new craze and was fashionable for many years until it was eventually stamped out in AD325 by the early Christian fathers, who looked upon it as a pagan abomination. In a sense they were right, because one of the earliest functions of this type of skin marking was to honour the pagan gods and protect oneself from evil spirits.

Wherever the early Christian missionaries went, they did their best to stamp out tattooing, and in many places the traditional arts were almost lost. But in 19th-century Europe, the puritanical Christians did not have it all their own way. When travellers returned from the Far East and other remote regions with tales of high-status tattoos, the practice once again began to flourish.

It was popular among sailors, to show how welltravelled they were, and, surprisingly, among the aristocracy.

Both King George V of England and Tsar Nicholas of Russia had themselves tattooed, as did many fashionable court ladies of the day, including Winston Churchill's mother.

In the 20th century, tattoos became widely associated with Hell's Angels and other bikers, heavy metal bands and criminals.

But in the new millennium things began to change. It started with descending aristos and ascending celebrities. Adventurous society rebels adopted a little 'rough-trade' chic, and some of the newly rich rising up from the lower ranks of society, courtesy of modern pop culture, felt the need to display their streetwise origins.

Stars of the music world and a few of the more exotic sportsmen began to enter the scene. Robbie Williams transformed himself into a threatening gangster figure by adopting the elaborate tattoo patterns of the fearsome Japanese Yakuza. Mike Tyson made himself appear even more frightening than before by displaying a tattooed face, rather like a Maori warrior. David Beckham, notorious for revealing his feminine, sarong-clad side, began to acquire more and more macho tattoo emblems on his well-toned body. Now we see that the new wonder boy of football, Wayne Rooney, is also following suit, as fast as his tattooist's needle will allow. Soon, I suspect, the art of tattooing will start spreading into other social spheres, becoming just one more way of dolling oneself up to face the world. …