The history of tattooing is as old as the hills. One can say that the culture of decorating one’s body with designs and patterns was, is and will be contrary to some people’s claim that tattooing is a phenomena associated with criminal world or fashion that passes quickly.
Different people have decorated their bodies with tattoos ever since the world began. In Egypt, there are cases of finding mummies covered in symbols. Painting one’s body was highly important in cultures of South and North American Indians as well as the tribes of Papua New Guinea. Back then, paintings on the skin were of ritual character and carried certain information about social position and achievements of a warrior. South American Indians used spikes and claws of an owl to decorate their bodies. Designs of animals, dragons or other monsters were made permanent by rubbing charcoal into open wounds. According to the missionary records from the seventeenth century: ‘to get desired ornaments, the natives subjected themselves to some unimaginable pains. This operation is especially dangerous in the cold. Many of them died or had some strange fits, and the victims are regarded as martyrs.’
Advanced technique of decorating one’s body with exotic designs and beautiful symbolism had been developing among the peoples of Polynesia for thousands of years. The technique of making a design on the skin permanent, a tattoo, was created there and the word tattoo derives from the Polynesian TATAU or Haitian TATU. The former means ‘strike something’, the latter ‘mark something.’ The paints were made from burned plants mixed with coal and coconut oil, inserted under the skin with the help of needles. The designs had magical meaning and great artistic merit. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sailors from Europe, who sailed to those geographical regions, describe the natives as painted from head to toe and in 1691 William Dampier, a traveler, brought a tattooed Polynesian called Giolo and thus caused a great stir in London. First scientific descriptions of the tattooing tradition among Polynesian peoples come from Joseph Banks, a crew member of James Cook’s expedition to those regions in the seventeenth century.
The tradition of tattoos applied in prisons could have originated in the Far East to some extend. In the year 720, a Japanese emperor showed his mercy by changing death penalty to tattooing, which was a harsh punishment in Japan. The convict was Hamako, imprisoned for mutiny. This practice was later used to mark criminals for life.
The culture of tattooing arrived to Europe quite late, only in the nineteenth century. First exotic drawings on the skin were brought by English sailors. In 1862, after one of the crusades to the Holy Land, the Prince of Wales had a cross tattooed on his forearm. After the visit to Japan, his sons also brought back tattoos made by master Hori Chio.
In Poland, tattoos were associated with criminal environment and the patters made in the army for quite a long time. By many psychologists it is still perceived as a specific form of self-mutilation and elder people consider it bad and unwise. First tattoo parlors were opened in 1980’s, so it hasn’t been a long time since we could change people’s attitude towards this exotic body decorating. Fortunately, the culture of tattooing feels at home now in Poland. It has come out of the underworld which can be observed at annual conventions where tattoos of high quality are shown and which bring them closer to average people who are willing to see something exotic and out of ordinary. And thus encouraging people to get a tattoo to their individual needs.