The Rise of the Tattoo

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as, “In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian tatau. In Tahitian, tatu.” The word tatau was introduced as a loan word into English; its spelling was changed over time from the “tattow” seen in late 18th century writing to the modern “tattoo” and its pronunciation was changed to conform to English phonology.

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The first written references to the word, “tattow” appear in writings from the first voyage of James Cook by many of the crew members. Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as pricking, painting, or staining.

Tattoo enthusiasts may refer to tattoos as “ink”, “pieces”, “skin art”, “tattoo art”, “tats”, or “work”; to the creators as “tattoo artists”, “tattooers”, or “tattooists”; and to places where they work as “tattoo shops”, “tattoo studios”, or “tattoo parlors”.

Usage of the terms “skin art”, “tattoo art”, “pieces”, and “work” is gaining greater support,[citation needed] with mainstream art galleries holding exhibitions of both conventional and custom tattoo designs, challenging the stereotypical view of tattoos and who has them. Copyrighted tattoo designs that are mass-produced and sent to tattoo artists are known as “flash”, a notable instance of industrial design. Flash sheets are prominently displayed in many tattoo parlors for the purpose of providing both inspiration and ready-made tattoo images to customers.

The Japanese word irezumi means “insertion of ink” and can mean tattoos using tebori, the traditional Japanese hand method, a Western-style machine, or for that matter, any method of tattooing using insertion of ink. The most common word used for traditional Japanese tattoo designs is Horimono. Japanese may use the word “tattoo” to mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing. The first to refer to tattoos in ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’ were the Chinese. In the third century, ‘The History of the of Wei’ mentioned the tattooed faces and bodies of some Japanese.

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Anthropologist Ling Roth in 1900 described four methods of skin marking and suggested they be differentiated under the names “tatu”, “moko”, “cicatrix”, and “keloid”.Tattooing among females of the Koita people of Papua New Guinea traditionally began at age five and was added to each year, with the V-shaped tattoo on the chest indicating that she had reached marriageable age, 1912.Many tattoos serve as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. Tattoos may show how a person feels about a relative (commonly mother/father or daughter/son) or about an unrelated person. Today, people choose to be tattooed for artistic, cosmetic, sentimental/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) or a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is used for protection against evil and to increase luck.

In the Philippines certain tribal groups believe tattoos have magical qualities, and help to protect their bearers. Most traditional tattooing in the Philippines is related to the bearer’s accomplishments in life or rank in the tribe.Extensive decorative tattooing is common among members of traditional freak shows and by performance artists who follow in their tradition.

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