So often we look to art to tell a story, a story of nature, relationships, suffering, celebration, history, love, and even, of war. In all forms, art is a method of communication, a conversation between artist and observer.
The use of skin as a canvas, at least in our lifetime, has, debatably, been disposed to greater social judgement than more traditional mediums. Yet, our bodies have been telling stories for a really, really, long time. Ones we are still discovering.
Excavated mummies from Ancient Egypt (circa 2000 B.C.), give strong evidence that those with tattoos were almost entirely female. Pattens of dots around the abdomen and breasts, along with figures of Bes – the deity of households, children and mothers – suggest tattoos were used to protect women during pregnancy and childbirth. The markings, made by pricking the skin with several small needles at once, were then rubbed with black soot, sometimes mixed with breast milk. The result, a tattoo.
Backing up even further, thanks to a 1991 discovery of “Otzi the Iceman” on the border of Italy and Austria, the earliest evidence of tattoos now dates back 5300 years. “Iceman” was found with dotted patterns and crosses around his lower spine and knee and ankle joints. This corroborates the Egyptians use of tattoos as form of therapy, since “Iceman’s” tattoos were found on areas prone to degenerative joint pain and would be candidates for today’s adjacent technique of acupuncture.
Across centuries and throughout most cultures and corners of the world, tattoos have evolved from a form of therapy to more social, political and religious uses. Tattoos were used to identify criminals, devote oneself to a religious sect, denote nobility, indicate slave ownership, illustrate marital status or ancestry, flaunt war scars, or simply, as cosmetic adornment, with breathtaking displays of ornate, mythical animals. When James Cook’s British expedition took him to Tahiti in 1769, the natives referenced the art as “tatatau” or “tattau” which means “to mark.”
In the late 1980s, an unofficial “tattoo renaissance” occurred, a term coined by scholar Arnold Rubin who created a collection of works entitled, “Marks of Civilization.” This revival transformed the taboo of tattoos into accepted forms of personal expression, eventually becoming common among all economic classes, genders and age groups. During this time “tattooers” became “tattoo artists,” many with backgrounds in fine art studies. Today, it’s a $3 billion dollar industry with 30% of Americans boasting ownership.
Much like fashion, tattoos follow and help determine trends. The counterculture movement of the 1970s resulted in peace signs, hippie symbolization and full sleeves and bodysuits (tattoos that cover large areas of skin). Janis Joplin, photographed with a dainty wristlet tattoo on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s, popularized delicate, ornate, feminine works of art. Over the years, tribal patterns, Celtic knots, Chinese lettering, butterflies, celestial formations and, even, a semi-colon (symbolizing an infinite continuation of one’s story), have enjoyed ample studio time.
Yes, we call it “body art,” but are tattoos really … art?
Unlike traditional works of art, tattoos are at the mercy of the health of their canvas, the human body. When the body dies and decomposes, so does the art. It does not benefit from eternal life on inanimate gallery walls. However, there are international galleries and museums dedicated to tattoos and their history, social culture and beauty.
Mister Cartoon, a renowned celebrity tattoo artist, told BBC Culture in 2022: “We’re recreating art on moving flesh, which requires so much skill … If you watch someone do a tattoo, and walk away thinking it’s not art, then you’re just a crazy art snob.”
A certain amount of art snobbery will always be inescapable. A recent article on artdaily.cc insists that intention determines definition, a longstanding, unofficial “rule” in the art world. If a tattoo artist intends for the design to be considered art, then so it is. It might be utilizing a medium we’re not quite used to that, somewhat unfortunately, comes with preordained stigmas. But if those tattoo museums and galleries intend to provoke feeling, inspire interpretation and spark conversation, then therein lies intention.
Jake Woodfin of Radford offers: “My tattoos represent my entire life’s story and things that are most important to me.” He has a 3/4 sleeve on his left arm that is an artistic blend of the mountains and the New River with the James River and the Richmond skyline. On his right arm are footprints of his children (from their birth certificates) alongside sunflowers and the words “sunshine, you are my sunshine,” lyrics from the song he sang to his kids at bedtime. “All my tattoos have significant meaning and represent the most important parts of who am I as a person.”
Tattoos are tellers of stories. Not all stories are what we expect, what we hope for or even what we enjoy. Yet storytelling, through art, is a tale as old as time. And any tale that speaks to someone, even if it’s just one person, is one worth telling.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is an NRV freelance writer who is in the middle of her own tattoo renovation (oh those dubious college-age decisions). When she asked her tattoo artist in what year was he born (1994), she replied: “Well, that’s about how old this tattoo is.” His face said it all: “Yep, ancient art, indeed.”