The year when the word “tattoo” entered into English usage is 1777, referring to the inked images on the skin, and it was put into the dictionary. From the records of the 1769 expedition of Captain James Cook to the South Pacific, it is known that there was a Tahitian word tatau, which actually meant “to mark.” But, the actual word “tattoo” existed before Captain Cook and his voyages, for about 150 years before. In one interesting coincidence, the earlier meaning of the word was “a rapid rhythmic rapping,” and the term has been used by the military personnel when they referred to the call sounded before Taps. This coincidence arises from the fact that the sound that was made by tattooing in Tahiti was, in fact, some kind of rapid tapping, as the set of needles, which looked like a small rake, which was hit with a stick to drive ink under the person’s skin. Even though Tahitians used the word tatau and Captain Cook wrote “tattaw,” it may be that he together with his crew eventually substituted a near sound-alike word from their background. Since the era of early sea exploration voyages, the tattooing practice in Polynesia fascinated a lot of people in the West and at other places as well.
Many, if not most, of the island groups of the South Pacific, practiced tattooing. For example, in Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Samoa, Borneo, New Zealand, the Marshall Islands, as well as Tahiti, Melanesia, Micronesia, Rapa Nui, Fiji, Tonga and somewhere else, the practice of tattooing has reached some extraordinary heights of achievements, and have also shared many features across these different cultures. As the earliest evidence shows above, the artifacts in Polynesia include both decorated human figures, as well as tattoo tools, which dated to ca. 1000 B.C.E. Nowadays in Samoa, for instance, where tattoo practices have maintained to continue unbroken by the imposition of European culture, the striking waist-to-knee tattoo of the men is still done traditionally, sometimes with traditional tools. The process remains a harrowing one as it is full of ritual importance and conferring both beauty and the outward sign of maturity. In the South Pacific as well, Borneo is known for the Dayak rosette tattoo which is typically done at the front of the shoulder. Among the Dayak, there are some tattoos which may have been linked with headhunting, as well as some other matters of spiritual importance. But, probably the most well-known examples of tattooing in Polynesia happened in New Zealand. The Maori tattooing has become famous for the moko, which is an actual carving of the skin that is achieved with the fine chisels before applying pigment. It is undoubtedly an exceeding painful, as well as a lengthy process, and it is all the more remarkable as it is placed primarily on the face. The elaborate, symmetric, and sometimes very full treatments of the face, especially for a male person, are some of the most recognized and famous tattoo types around the globe. They are composed of curved lines, spirals, as well as some other designs, and there was much meaning embedded in moko, only some of which is understood in today’s world. As in some other parts in the world, much of what was symbolized with Polynesian tattoos are both lost to time, as well as to the clash of different cultures and the oversight of intolerant political and religious systems. Traditional tattooing around the globe has repeatedly been the victim of such forces, seemingly without any exception.
When early explorers and sailors absorbed this part of the culture of Polynesia and brought tattooed natives and their tattoos back together with them, the South Pacific forever changed the modern West. Europe, of course, was not a stranger either to the early use of the tattoos, even though they have faded from memory by the time of these sea adventures. Constantine I, who was the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity, banned tattooing on the face in the early fourth century, as he considered that it could be interpreted as a defilement of the image of God. There was also banned in North Europe which happened at the Council of Calcuth in C.E. 787, and without any doubt, tattoos were discouraged in many different small ways throughout the growing Christian world. The Danes, Norse, Saxons, as well as Gauls and Teutons all, had some traditions of tattooing which focused on family and tribal symbols.
In the Mediterranean region, tattooing was practiced in Greece. However, in these societies, the tattooing practice has been associated with barbarians and tattoos were used for identifying slaves, criminals, as well as mercenaries and also occasionally used as punishment. The Latin word which was used for a tattoo is “stigma.”
However, all around the world, particularly in the Orient, in some places like the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, as well as Japan, a tattoo as an artistic, as well as spiritual endeavor was pursued. In different parts of Southeast Asia, tattoos are very much related to religion. Thailand, for instance, is noted for the practice of Buddhist monks giving and receiving tattoos, together with some prayers and offerings.
In many of these areas, as a general rule, tattoos serve a similar aim, which is that of protection. The symbols include some ancient designs which are drawn warding from calligraphy, numerology, the world of natural animals, as well as that of the mystical ones like dragons. The Ainu of western Asia and northern Japan, for example, are known for tattoos which were done around the lips, in order to exaggerate their size, but they also practiced tattoos on the cheeks, forehead, and eyebrows. They had many purposes, but they primarily symbolized virtue, as well as purity, while they also served some cosmetic purposes and signaling sexual maturity. Tattooing in China was received as a punishment, and during that period, the same was applied for Japan, despite the previous prehistoric use. Lately, even though tattooing in Japan is raised to a lofty level of artistry, it was spurred on once again by the influence from China.
End Of Part 2