We’ve been painting ourselves for about as long as we’ve been painting on cave walls. That’s about 5,300 years!
Otzi (the iceman found preserved in an Austrian glacier) had 57 tattoos on his body, mostly lines and crosses, many of which are thought to have been done for medicinal purposes. Tattoos of animals and gremlins, said to have had a magical significance as well as decorative, have been found on 2,400 year old Siberian mummies. Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian mummies, on females around the lower abdomen, leading anthropologists to conclude that Egyptians tattoos were linked to fertility.
Maoris and Aboriginal people have also been painting their bodies for thousands of years. For these cultures, tattoos are linked to the totem, the representation of societal order and kinmanship, so tattoos are as much about visual creativity as they are a way of creating and confirming identity, convention, law and ritual.
Tattoos have also been used in persecution. The Greeks marked slaves and criminals with tattoos, a practice which continued until the Romans banned it, leading to the complete banning of tattoos by Pope Hadrian in 787. Hitler, who infamously revived many insignia and chilling practices from fallen empires, brandished every person sent to his concentration camps. Many survivors still bear the marks, imprints of one of the most horrific periods in our recent history.
The popularity of tattoos as an aesthetic statement was revived in Western Europe in the nineteenth century after French sailors, who went to far-flung parts of the Pacific Ocean and returned from their voyages with insignia, such as crosses and anchors, on their bodies. Even the aristocracies went in for it. In 1862, the Prince of Wales had a tattoo of the Jeruselum Cross done and later, his sons (the Duke of Clarence and King George V) were tattooed by Japanese body artist Hori Chiyo.
Today, tattoos are still about belonging, ritual and aesthetics. They communicate our collective and individual identities, only now our tribes are bands and football teams and our identities are influenced by our global experiences of culture. Now, in the Age of Aquarius, gap years and round-the-world airline tickets, the most popular tattoos are tribal or Celtic symbols, stars and Oriental symbols.
According to Nottingham tattoo removal experts Tattoo Erase, about 12% of the UK population has a tattoo. That’s about 7.7 million people! However, according to the British Journal of Dermatology, three-quarters of those eventually come to regret their decision. Nikki Roper, who runs the only licensed Tattoo erasing franchise in Nottinghamshire, says that this kind of story is not unusual.
“People come to us with all sorts of reasons for wanting to get rid of the tattoo. Many had tattoos done on the spur of the moment, when they were drunk or when they were very young so they might not have got exactly what they wanted or they might not have thought their choice through properly.
“Others come to us because they are tired of the design and want to have something else done in its place. Because Tattoo Erase returns the skin to its natural state without damaging the skin pigment or weakening that part of the body, it’s entirely possible.”
The Tattoo Erase process involves injecting a fluid into the epidermis which makes the body recognise the tattoo ink and expel the “alien” substance from the body into a scab. With the body’s remarkable ability to regenerate, new skin forms underneath the scab and the tattoo is no more.
A major reason for people wanting to get rid of their tattoo is because they have changed relationships and the tattoo reminds them of previous partners.
Nikki Roper said: “Having your partner’s name tattooed is often the last ditch attempt to salvage a relationship. Eight out of ten people who get names cover them up or remove them at some stage.”
But perhaps tattoos of names, places and symbols give people today the same sense of belonging, sense of identity and record of experiences as Ta Moko does for Maoris. Whether that’s getting drunk in Skeggy and waking up with King Louie on your bum cheek or having Maori art done while you are finding yourself in your year out.
But if you just feel like you just want to experiment, maybe Mendhi body paint is the answer. You can still create a different identity for a night or two without waking up every morning for the ensuing 50 years wishing you’d never had three stripes painted across your forehead.