Body art goes much deeper than Scary Spice's pierced tongue. The List discovers how deep, as we trace the history of the tattoo, bare our belly to the needle and talk to one of Scotland's best known body artists. Plus, where to go for anything from a discreet nose ring to a full body tattoo. Photograph: Chris Blott Model: Rachael Walker Styling: Debra Steele Hair And Make-up
IT‘S DlFFlCULT TO imagine how tattooing was invented. It‘s not the kind of thing which happens by accident. The earliest tattoos were made by hammering a piece of wood set with thorns into the skin. Then a mixture of soot and vegetable juices was rubbed into the puncture holes to create colouring.
It seems unlikely that ancestor Ug woke up in his cave one morning and thought, ‘Christ I’m bored. Wonder if it hurts when I hang these thorns into my skin. Ayah! Bet a mixture of soot and turnip juice would soothe the pain. Ooh, that looks nice.’
However the practice came about, tattooing the skin is about as old as civilisation itself. Archaeological digs in Egypt dating back before 1300 BC show evidence of body art, and when Julius Caesar set about his little tour of Britain in 54 BC, one of the first things he noticed were the local Picts‘ natty tats. Since then tattoos have gone in and out of fashion and respectability with stunning regularity.
Like all forms of body modification. from feet binding to amputation via piercing,
tattoos have traditionally marked a change of
status: either in a positive sense. such as a
symbol of maturity or martial skill. or in a negative sense, denoting a fall from grace. Around 300 BC, the Chinese tattooed their warriors as a sign of valour and as a type of
psychic body armour. By the 1900s. practically the only Chinese to be tattooed were prisoners.
Similarly, until 187‘) deserters from the British army were branded with a ‘D‘ tattoo. while ‘BC’ etched onto the skin informed the
Until 1879 deserters from the British army were branded with a 'D' tattoo, while 'BC’ etched onto the skin informed the world that the bearer was of bad character
world that the bearer was of bad character. At the other end of society‘s spectrum, several members of Britain’s aristocracy have been partial to a spot of the old ink and needle work. However, by the beginning of this century the pendulum had swung round again and the 19” edition of En(it‘t'lopar’dia Britannica sniffin declared that tattooing ‘has become, in Europe at least, an eccentricity of soldiers and sailors and of many among the
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lower and often criminal classes.
In the 18th century, sailors were responsi- ble for a renewal of interest in tattoos in Europe. Voyages to the South Seas (the word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word ‘tat- tau‘. meaning to mark) exposed the salty tars to the Maoris‘ intricate markings. The sailors liked what they saw and carved themselves a slice of the action on their backs. What started as decoration swiftly assumed greater significance: a swallow on the chest meant .the wearer had sailed 5000 nautical miles, while a red dragon on the back broadcast the fact that the sailor had made it to Japan. The more crafty sea dogs had crucifixes tattooed on their backs: in an age when discipline was enforced with the cat o’ nine tails and religious belief was fervent if not fanatical. bosuns were reluctant to be seen flogging an effigy of Christ.
Victorian times saw tattoos largely con- fined to touring circus side-shows where men and women, tattooed from head to foot, were paraded as freaks, along with bearded ladies, dwarves and Siamese twins. As always.
sailors and soldiers also kept the tattooists -)
13—26 Jun 1997 THE U3T15