HISTORY AND MYSTERY Trending tattoo art

In the context of Bangladesh, Nahid Riyasad explores the histories and realities of trending tattoo art.

Before diving into the mysterious world of tattooing, let us hear some young voices. Zerin, a graduate student tattoos herself in order to remind her worth, her storey of overcoming obstacles and strength. Tanzim, on the other hand, dismisses the very idea of tattooing on the body based on his religious ideology and sees the practice as forbidden. On a rather diplomatic tone, Noor says, one should consider the society and the family before getting a tattoo, to avoid unwanted judgments. It seems like conventional opinion of our youth on tattoo are forked, divided. They consider this practice either interesting, something exceptionally beautiful or rejects the idea based on religious and social belief.

Has tattooing always been a stigma? Has it always been used to mark criminals? What are the major philosophies behind this excruciatingly painful body art? How this form of art has developed across history? This article is about to take on those questions and draws a map of the culture of tattoos.

Tattooing or body tempering is a well known form of body art. As this art is permanent on the skin and will last a lifetime, there is always an immense shroud of mystery, curiosity and ritual around it. Some people view tattooing as an act of control over the body, some might do it for spiritual or philosophical reason and other might reject the entire idea with utter disgust. Any individual bearing a tattoo has to undergo substantial amount of physical pain to get that piece of body art, as any form of anesthesia will slow down the blood circulation thus obstacle the process of tattooing. So, of course, the piece of tattoo bears importance to that person, this indicates that the form of body art is far deeper than just the image on the surface. There are so many types of tattoos, so many patterns; the reason behind tattooing also varies in a wide range. Different cultures have seen this practice differently. The implications of tattoos have varied from time to time, culture to culture and context to context.

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Tattooing can be traced back as early as 3250 BCE, that means, the practice is well over 5000 years old. Archeological evidences have suggested that the art of tattooing has been around in Europe from as early as the Upper Paleolithic period, roughly 50000-10000 BCE, which indicates days even before the agricultural revolution. However, the earliest specimen of tattoo found so far is Ötzi, a male who lived around 5000 years ago. His naturally mummified body is found in Alps between Italy and Austria. There are at least 61 tattoos in his whole body within 19 cluster groups. After forensic tests, scientists claim that the tattoos are done by soot or coal ink, they also believe that those tattoos perform pain relief treatment during his lifetime. Tattooed mummies have been recovered from different parts of the globe including Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, Western China, Sudan, Ancient Egypt, Philippines and South America.

The process of tattooing revolves around one basic process. Create a wound on the skin and insert ink through that till the third layer of the skin. In other words, inserting pigments in the skin’s dermis layer, right underneath the epidermis layer is what causes a tattoo. When the damaged epidermis flake away, a new layer of thin skin forms in order to seal the wound underneath and the ink within. Roughly, there are two methods of doing a tattoo, commonly known as the traditional and the modern. In traditional way, which is done in many places till date, the skin is cut open and the pigmentation or the ink is rubbed on the open wounds. Some cultures do the tattoo by hand tapping the ink into the third layer of the skin, with the use of specifically developed sharp objects from bones or bamboo. The modern method of tattooing in these days would be the use of an electric tattoo machine. This machine inserts the ink via a needle or a set of needles, attached to a unit. The machine fires the needle at a speed of around 100-150 times per second.

Historically, tattooing emerged as a practice of group or identity formation. This history is marked with the notorious practice of Nazi Germany. In the concentration camps of Nazi, it used tattoo as part of their identification system of the victims, inmates. However, only Auschwitz concentration camp is known to use this method widely. In Chinese Zhou dynasty, during 1300 BCE, Chinese authorities often inflicted tattoos on criminals or perpetrator of certain crimes, in order to identify them. Prisoners and slaves were known to get these kinds of identification tattoos during that period. During Roman Empire soldiers were required to get specific tattoos to make the desertion or run away more difficult. Gladiators and slaves were also tattooed likewise, mostly on the face to let other know their social status, of being owned by someone else. Referring to the Biblical scriptures, emperor Constantine first banned all kinds of facial tattoo around 330 CE.

Examples of facial tattoos can be traced back to many indigenous minority groups around the globe. Ainu, a group of ethnic people in Japan are known for their elaborate facial tattoos. One can also find the culture of doing tattoos on the face in Taiwan, North Africa, Nigeria and Maori people in New Zealand. The belief on tattooing faces varies from culture to culture. Mainly, face is associated as the most important part of the body as it offers identity of that specific person. Putting permanent art on the face means that the art holds enormous importance to the bearer, often reads as social status or achievements. Facial tattoos can also translate to the higher social post the bearer holds, or any specific achievement in an adventure or a hunting expedition and an external expression of valor and integrity of the person. In general, for different first nations, tattoos are never merely fashion or body art. Those scribbles on their skin mean something, reflect the person’s and the community’s philosophy in an abstract form.

Modern day of tattooing arguably starts with the imperial expansions of the European colonies across the globe, opening a channel to exchange cultures, practices and art. More specifically, captain James Cook’s three voyages during the late 18th century in South Pacific countries helped immensely to make the tattoo culture popular across the world. Primarily, sailors and soldiers were the main clients to get their bodies tattooed.   Many of Cook’s associates, including influential persons of London elite society came back from expeditions with tattoos on their bodies.

The first recorded professional tattoo artist in the United States was a German immigrant, Martin Hildebrandt. He opened his first tattoo shop in 1846, presumably the first in the world, in New York. He became popular among the American Civil War soldiers, of both sides and often toured the barracks to tattoo soldiers, which further pushed his popularity. Soon after the Civil War, tattooing became popular among young aristocrats. They used to flaunt tattoos as a status symbol, as they were pretty expensive and the pain to get one was considerably high. The trend was declined after the First World War, as the equipments getting cheaper thus the status quo vanished. First tattoo shops in Britain started to pop up around 1870s’. It became popular to some of the upper class people including royalty. The same reason worked there too, the expense and the pain associated with the process made them rare and prestigious. Though, tattooing during that period was mainly associated with the sailors and convict criminals.

Perceptions towards tattoos more or less have been associated with deviance, criminality and extreme emancipation from the norms and rules of the society in the 19th and 20th century. However, in recent decades, the thoughts on tattoos have been changing in the minds of people, at least in North America and Europe. Up until the 60s and 70s, people associated tattoos with prisoners, military or biker gangs. It is true that, biker and criminal gangs use tattooing extensively in order to identify themselves with their respective groups. With the emerging popularity of the practice as well as overall increasing acceptability of tattooing, women are also embracing the practice. Women are often seen with heavily tattooed body exposing the arts, emergence of few genius female tattoo artists also play an important role here.

Even though tattoos are done permanently, there are slight scopes of removing them. In modern day, laser treatment has the capability to remove a tattoo, if not entirely. Laser rays break the particles and pigmentation of the skin which holds the whole design, eventually forcing the design to lose its pattern. This process includes more cost and physical pain than that of doing the tattoo in the first place. Though removed, a burning mark will remain on the skin vaguely reminding the deceased art.

Religions have viewed the process of tattooing in different perspectives. Judaism strictly prohibits the believers from tattooing their body on the basis of Leviticus: 19. New Testament does not offer any direct ruling regarding body art. Many sects of Christianity believe that Leviticus applies only on Israelites, so they are exempt from the ruling. In Islam, the process of body modification and tattooing is considered prohibited on basis of religious ruling and scriptures. Basically, tattoos are around us from well before the time of the organised religions. So, tattoos are Pegan practices in broad sense.

In Bangladesh, the culture remained completely unknown and unidentifiable for the most part. However, in the last decade or so, body arts are gaining popularity among the young generation. From temporary stickers, they have shifted the interest to tattoos — the permanent form. In the meantime, some really talented young artists have emerged in the scene, mainly based in the capital. These days, it is not very rare to see someone with couple of tattoos; out of a blue moon, one might see someone carrying heavily tattooed body. However, the social acceptance of tattooing is very low. Earlier generation, is in denial of this practice, there is also the factor of religion. In our country, the main purpose of tattooing is about making a fashion statement — posing uniqueness and expression of freedom. People with tattoos are finding it hard to justify their decisions to others as the society has not completely embraced the practice. On the surface level, tattoos are just art done on body. Body is treated as a canvas here. Their main purpose is to express the inner thoughts of the bearer on something important to them.

In reality, tattoos serve far deeper purpose on the person bearing the art. They have deep philosophical and spiritual bonding with the bearer. The amount of pain one has to endure to get a tattoo makes it both extremely cerebral and physical at the same time. The physical pain forms an intimate and strong bond between the tattoo and the bearer. Though often associated with criminals and ‘low-life’ people, it also exposes the society’s narrow perspective on accepting something different. In true essence, tattoos are window to the minds of the bearer; it expresses solidarity, self-consciousness, self-understanding and association, as well as emancipation.

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