Contemporary tattoos and the ancient world

22 April 2010
 A selection of modern tribal tattoo designs

A selection of modern tribal tattoo designs

My previous post – prompted by our upcoming exhibition Skin – looked at the origins of tattooing. During my research into the subject, I was struck by how much tattooing in the ancient world seems to have in common with modern tattooing.

Although indigenous tribal tattooing may have all but disappeared globally, in recent years tattoos have experienced something of a renaissance in Europe and North America. These days you can’t walk down a high street in any bustling Western city without seeing people with visible tattoos. Interesting when you consider that as recently as 100 years ago tattooing was still generally associated with the underbelly of society: sailors, soldiers, criminals and prostitutes.

Opinions vary regarding the cause of this shift in opinion. Undoubtedly the advancement of equipment played a vital role – thanks to the first patented electric tattoo machine (developed by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891 as a modified version of Edison’s electrically powered ‘stencil pen’), tattooing became much faster, safer and less painful. But it wasn’t until the 1960s with flower power, rock and roll and the prospering of the West that the climate seemed right for forms of body decoration to flourish. And attitudes seem to have been relaxing ever since.

However, despite all this progression, ancient tattoo imagery still resonates through many modern tattoos.

Most ancient tattoos tend to fall into two camps – abstract patterns of black lines and dots or animal imagery (and sometimes a combination of the two). These types of imagery are particularly popular with the modern tattoo crowd, with the style known as modern-day ‘tribal’ being one of the most common. Modern tribal tattoos are almost always solely black and are composed of lines and swirls. They are often abstract shapes but sometimes depict animals and other simple figures. More examples

Although the tattooed Scythians of 2500 years ago may seem impossibly distant from most tattooed Westerners in terms of geography, culture and time, their bold tattoo symbols still hold some sway among modern devotees. Seemingly inscrutable and yet tantalisingly familiar, their images draw our curiosity back to a time and place that may help us to interpret them.

 Preserved tattooed skin

Preserved skin from the Chieftain's arm

In my previous post, I mentioned the elaborately tattooed mummies found in Pazyryk tombs (6th-2nd century BC). All of these tattoos are images of animals – one of the most popular subjects for tattoos nowadays.

One of the most famous Pazyryk examples – and one of the most stunning examples of ancient pictorial tattooing – is the Scythian chieftain. Excavated in the early 1950s, the chieftain was only partially preserved but his remains still reveal several tattoos. On his right arm there are six horned animals, while the left arm features two stags and a wild sheep. His right leg is covered with a fish and he has a tiger on his chest.  The tattoos are strongly reminiscent of the modern-day tribal style.

The bold geometric and abstract patterns of contemporary tribal tattoo designs also resemble ancient Mayan, Inca and Aztec tattoos. Symbols popular among the Aztecs (13th to 16th century) are just as popular in modern tattooing, with the sun being one of the most obvious examples. The sun was very important to the Aztec people and sun tattoos honoured the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtili. While tattoos incorporating images of the sun may have little or no meaning to the wearer today, they have a long and rich history.

Kanji tattoos (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) are another very popular contemporary tattoo that can be traced back at least 400 years.

 Kanji meaning 'love'

The kanji for 'love'; courtesy of CGehlen on Flickr

Love and religion seem to have been significant inspiration for early Japanese tattoos. Lovers, courtesans and lowly prostitutes would often have the name of a lover written on the inner arm, with the kanji for inochi (life) added, symbolising a pledge of eternal love.

Edo period literature (1603-1867) abounds with references to pledge tattoos, or irebokuro as they were known.

In the modern example shown here, the tattoo wearer just so happens to have chosen the kanji for ‘love’.

Some of the very first tattoos are still having an influence of modern tattoo trends, with some of the most popular contemporary tattoos (in both imagery and style) being inextricably linked to tattooing in the ancient world. So if you’re planning on having a tattoo and were hoping to have something original, you might be out of luck!

Amy Olson is a Web Producer at the Wellcome Trust.