New Worlds: Tattoos

I have hopes that Book View Cafe’s hosting woes will soon be solved, but until that happens, the New Worlds Patreon will continue to run here! (And y’know, 2019 is a splendid time to support your local worldbuilding blogger. I’ll soon be putting out the second collection, and all patrons at the $3 level and above will receive an electronic copy!)


At the beginning of the second year of this Patreon, I did two posts on body modification. Despite devoting so much time to the topic, I only touched on tattoos in passing — because they’re a complex enough topic that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them while also talking about piercings, stretching, bone reshaping, and so forth. Now, as we approach the end of that second year, let’s loop back around and give tattoos their due.

We don’t know for sure how old tattoos are because soft tissue doesn’t preserve well, and the tools of the trade (needles and pigment) aren’t readily distinguishable from the needles and pigment used for other purposes. But we know that Ötzi, the ice-mummified man found in the Alps, had sixty-one tattoos on his body; that rather suggests a well-established tradition, not something he’d made up himself the previous week. Since he died over five thousand years ago, we can safely say the practice is quite ancient.

As with body modifications of other kinds, there can be a lot of reasons for a society to practice tattooing, and a lot of social connotations attached to having ink. On one end of the spectrum, criminals such as thieves or military deserters may be tattooed with a mark declaring their crime — the merit being that (before the advent of lasers) tattoos are not easily removed, so it’s difficult for the offender to hide his crime. Romans sometimes marked slaves, and the Nazis at Auschwitz infamously tattooed numbers onto their prisoners.

Even when it’s a voluntary process, tattooing often has lower-class connotations. In Europe, where the practice fell into disuse for a long time, it was mostly associated with sailors — although contact with Polynesia starting in the eighteenth century led to something of a brief fad for the practice, with even British peers getting ink. In Japan, irezumi is a richly-developed artistic tradition, but it still has strong associations with yakuza criminal organizations. And in the United States, tattooing has started to enter mainstream respectability, but many people — especially in older generations — still think of tattoos as having to do with convicts and gangs, and advise covering up marks when going for job interviews and the like.

But that’s by no means a universal attitude. On the other end of the scale, the gorgeous and complex tā moko of the Māori people were historically associated with high-status individuals, and the specialists who create the designs were consider tapu — another concept from earlier in the New Worlds series. (It’s also worth noting that tā moko were traditionally created with a kind of chisel, rather than a needle, leaving a grooved line in the skin.) Throughout the Polynesian cultural sphere, tattoos have generally had a very positive connotation, strongly tied to the community and its traditions . . . which is why European colonial powers often tried to forbid the practice.

It’s common for tattoos to be seen as more than just aesthetic decoration. We can’t say for sure why Ötzi got inked up, but for many early societies, the meaning of the practice was profoundly spiritual. I haven’t studied tattooing traditions in great detail, but off the cuff, I suspect that’s in part because of the way the design becomes integrated with the body: I can pierce a hole in some part of myself and stick some jewelry in it, but the jewelry remains an external thing, not part of me. A tattoo, by contrast, merges more or less seamlessly with the skin, permanently joining the body — barring a little fading.

Where can people be tattooed? Pretty much anywhere they have skin. Some locations are obviously more painful than others — anywhere well-supplied with nerves, whether that’s private bits like genitalia or public ones like lips — but sometimes the pain is half the point, with the tattoo announcing that the wearer had the stoicism to endure hours of torment. A mark given in punishment would be somewhere visible, but very limited in the skin it covers; by contrast, Japanese or modern American work can cover the whole arm, chest, or back, or even the entire body, and the Samoan pe’a is essentially a tattooed pair of pants.

As for designs, those have similarly encompassed the entire swath of possibility. Ötzi’s marks are all simple lines, sometimes running in parallel; Polynesian designs are usually abstract and geometric, with complex patterns of lines, dots, and filled areas. But just because these things aren’t representational doesn’t mean they lack meaning: the society in question may have a rich tradition of symbolism behind their choice of design.

Or you can go the representational route. Japanese irezumi is a standout example; that tradition leans toward large areas of skin completely filled with designs of clouds, dragons, tigers, and more. Many modern tattoos in the West are representational, whether it’s the stereotypical heart with an arrow through it and a ribbon bearing the name of a sweetheart or something fiercer. People can and do get tattoos of anything from trees to motorcycles to chairs — anything that has meaning and visual appeal for them.

Speaking of ribbons with names, there’s also the option of tattooing yourself with words. What’s interesting to me here is that as far as I can tell, this is a relatively new practice — or rather, historically words were used only for negative purposes, like marking a slave’s forehead with “stop me, I’m a runaway.” I’m not aware of any long-standing tattoo tradition that marks the body with words for positive reasons. Which is surprising to me, given the existence of both calligraphy traditions and magical uses of language! If you know of any exceptions, please do let me know; I’d love to be made aware of them.

Tattoos are culturally fascinating to me because they’re so rarely neutral. They’re either a mark of prestige or one of danger — modern times being an exception, but that’s true on many fronts. They always have meaning, whether that meaning is communal or individual . . . which means they always have stories attached.

Do any of you have tattoos? If so, what’s the story behind them?

Comments are closed.