The Origin of Ink: Tattoos Through Time
People have been etching tattoos into their skin since the beginning of time.
But what are the origins of inking? We turned to Dr. Lars Krutak, an author, world-renowned tattoo expert and anthropologist with the Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History to give us some insight.
"It‘s part of our innate humanity, artistic pride, identity; [it's] a rite of passage," said Krutak, who has traveled around the world studying tattoos in different cultures.
"I quickly realized that no one was paying attention to true tribal tattoos. And I wondered about all the locations around the world, about the final gatekeepers who have all this knowledge. And these tattoo bearers were passing away, and no one was recording their stories,” he laments.
So just how far does the tattoo tradition date back? The first known tattoo — of a moustache — was discovered on a South American mummy from 6,000 B.C.
"It was a cosmetic tattoo, to make his wife more attracted to him, to make him more appealing,” Krutak explains.
But the 1991 discovery of the "Iceman" in the Alps, whose corpse dates back about 5,300 years, revealed tattoos that were used for a different purpose.
“Eighty-five percent of his tattoos line up with acupuncture points — so the tattoos were used for medicinal purposes," Krutak says. "He appeared to have terrible arthritis. [The tattoos were] so dark, they seemed to be repeated applications and some of them he could not reach on his own,” notes Krutak.
Aside from medicine and cosmetics, tattoos were used to mark important points in a lifetime or as symbolic markers. Popular styles from the distant past include centipedes (which Krutak says were used as a genealogical symbol to depict lineage), abstract forms and mythological figures. Some women also marked their cheeks if they were barren, or their breasts to increase milk flow.
And in certain societies, tattoos showed social class and standing, says Krutak. Tattooing for tribal aristocrats in the Kayan tribe of Borneo was reserved for powerful women. "Only the Kayan women could afford the exquisite leg and arm tattoos, and many Kayan tattoo symbols could only be worn by these leading ladies," he explains.
Tattoos were also used as "sort of a calling card," says Krutak. "In the Iroquois tribes and other neighboring groups, when a man had built up his name as a warrior, they would carve their tattoos into a war club and they would leave it near the body of their victim. "[It was] a way of taunting their enemies," he says.
And despite being ancient, there's still plenty of interest in tattooing in tribal cultures. "Today, in tribes, there may be no or less warfare, but the people are still interested in tattooing and interested in the Western rock star tattoos!" Krutak claims. "I always bring a couple of tattoo magazines with me and say, 'Look what people are doing in America.' They are astonished by the realism and coverage," says Krutak.
But there are some mixed feelings in regards to how tribal tattoos are used today. "Many contemporary designs are genealogical symbols and forms of intellectual property related to specific families or clans, and there is a strong sense that they have become devalued as they have been copied by outsiders who have no knowledge of what these patterns are meant to convey," he explains.
No matter what far corner of the globe you're from, tattoos are a way to wear your life story on your skin. And as Krutak explains, it’s important to understand the history before you ink.
"I feel like I am connecting to these people to something that is as ancient as humankind. It's awe-inspiring to be with people who created the art. They had no magazines, no TV … my goal is to honor them, to give them respect and promote awareness.
"A lot of young [tattoo artists] today are just in it for the money; I wish they could give more back," says Krutak. "In another generation, this may all be gone. I’m glad that I wasn’t too late. In many places, we are at the final stages before it’s all over. I hope learning about and spreading awareness can draw inspiration [and] rekindle and revitalize the cultural traditions."