Tatau – the result of tapping or sticking.
“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”
- Oscar Wilde
Tattooing has appeared everywhere on earth and in nearly every culture. There is much speculation as to what culture started the art of tattooing but it has been present since ancient times (12,000BCE) in cultures such as the Incas, Burmese, Tahitians, and most notably the Egyptians. These markings that have today become known as tattoos have been around for thousands of years and have been practiced and collected for many different reasons. Their specific meanings and purposes can only be speculated, but the three categories most researchers associated with tattoos are 1. Ritualistic – amongst tribal peoples to mark a young man’s transition from boyhood to adulthood. The process of tattooing incorporates many elements associated with ritual such as blood, symbolism, and pain (physical awakening). 2. Social status can also be inferred through tattooing in cultures such as the Egyptians, who would adorn their bodies with ornate markings. 3. Medicinal purposes were the last reason ancient cultures would tattoo one another, most often as a cure for what we now know today as arthritis.
The ideas and reasoning behind tattoos however has long since changed. Over the thousands of years that tattooing was thought of by most notably the Catholic Church as a pagan practice tattooing has evolved. When the Europeans began their period of exploration tattooing was rediscovered. This would be the start of tattooing, as we know it today.
The culmination of this resurgence of interest in tattooing came in 1862 when the Prince of Whales, who later became King Edward VII, had a small Maltese cross tattooed on his arm to commemorate his visit to Jerusalem. (Pg.22, Pushing Ink). This is when the idea of tattooing became the trendy thing to do, and would eventually carry over to the United States. Sailors became the main collectors of tattoos during the mid 1900s, and led to the creation of the electric tattoo machine replacing the original methods: 1. Cutting the skin and rubbing the wound with pigment. 2. Burning the skin and filling the wound with pigment. 3. Soot covered needles (bone) drawn through skin or skin being pricked with needles covered in dye.
With the inception of the electric tattoo machine and modernization of technique the fad of tattoos exploded in America. Tattooing became a subculture, but soon after died out for several decades. But during the mid twentieth century tattooing took a new life and the subculture became mainstream challenging ideas and creative expression. Tattoos became a new form of art and tattooists were always experimenting with new techniques and constantly pushing boundaries. Tattoo artists most notably Spider Webb even went a step further from the original idea of tattooing and began to think of it in a conceptual manner and creating tattoos reflecting these ideas.
“An X to me is a very anthropological experience. A dog, bird, fish, or cockroach can make a line. It takes a certain intelligence to cross it with another line.”
- Spider Webb (in reference to his “Scarification Series”)
Spider Webb also used light and shadow lying across peoples skin as conceptual tattoos in a study during the late 1970s as a means to show tattoos in a different light. His ideas challenged what we today think of when we hear about tattoos and societies perception of them today in the twenty-first century, while also nearly single handedly leading a revolution to have tattooing legalized in all 50 states in the United States.
Tattooing in society today has since Spider Webb and his idea of tattooing being “Warm Art” in the late 1970s grown by leaps and bounds, in my opinion to its detriment. With the constant creation of new tools (pneumatic machines, needles, etc.) and new techniques the art of the tattoo has been lost. The concept of permanence has dissipated, and in turn has taken away from the original idea of what tattooing is, and what it represents.
Through my thesis piece I hope to bring to light the original ideas of what tattooing is and its significance to its owner, how it is ephemeral. A tattoo can be defined as an indelible mark, which results from the injection of particles of ink or other coloring substance into the dermis – the area that lies directly under the epidermis. The permanence of the tattoo and its lifeline are my main focus throughout my thesis piece, conception to demise. My goal is to successfully illustrate this in an accelerated manner and document the lifeline through photographs. Building on the conceptual ideas of Spider Webb I plan to use fruits and vegetables as merely a conveyance of the superseding idea.
“You may lose your most valuable property through misfortune in various ways. You may lose your house, your wife and other treasures. But your tattoo cannot be deprived except by death. It will be your ornament and companion until your last day.” - Netana Whakaari