By Tiya Parmar
A few years back, when my mom had gotten a tattoo (a pair of angel wings on her right wrist), I was excited. I thought that she was the first one in our family to get a tattoo, that she was ‘making history'. I was way off the mark about that.
Recently, I found out that my mom’s dadi (paternal grandmother) had a permanent tattoo of her name on her forearm. And, as it turns out, that was a pretty common thing back in the day. Many women used to have tattoos of their names or initials or symbols. Astonishing, right?
We often assume that, before, people with tattoos were discriminated against- automatically
linked with gangs or cults or considered rebellious. This is, in part, due to what we have heard (or read or seen) in stories, and partly because, you know, there is a lot of talk about tradition and how a lot of things we consider normal, were forbidden before. So, it was a little bewildering (and funny) to hear that getting tattoos was a mainstream thing back then as well. It was tradition! It is said many aristocrats/royals who turned their nose up at the mention of tattoos, had them behind closed doors. Upon some research, I found out that the oldest tattooed man, as of now, is Ötzi, an iceman. He was marked with 61 tattoos all over his body and is said to have died around 3250 BCE. Not only that, but artworks and written records show proof of tattooing as far back as 5th century BCE.
So, why did people get tattooed back then, at a time when free expression was,often,treated with disdain? And when it must have been excruciatingly painful, with lesser technological
advances? Sailors who went on long voyages to distant lands, used their bodies to pen their journeys and findings to share with the world. One such sailor, Captain Cook, ventured into the South Pacific and returned to Europe with stories about tattooed men (like Maui from Moana). The crew workers on his ship learned the art of tattooing from them and, upon retiring, opened up them own tattoo parlors.
Many tribes and their culture inculcate the use of tattoos. Tribes, like the Apatani tribe of
Assam, used tattoos to prevent the abduction of their women by rival tribes, which was a
common occurrence. Some tribes have specific tattoos for each gender to indicate their marital status or age or role. The warlike tribes marked their faces and bodies to indicate their prowess, courage and headcount. A particular tribe in India called the Kutia Kondh (the people of the spirit world), ink themselves with beautiful designs to ensure they recognize each other in the spirit world.
Tattoos were also used to indicate one’s status in society. Many people of the lower or ‘achhoot’ class had to get tattoos in noticeable areas, in order that people could avoid them. In ancient Egypt, women who were tattooed were considered spiritual and associated with religious worship. Many people used to, and still do, get religious tattoos as a way of saying that ‘my faith will always be with me’ or that ‘I will never lose my faith’.
Like in the case of Ortiz, tattoos were also used for therapeutic purposes. Studies have proved that tattoos can help reduce the stress level in one's body. They also help boost immunity, because the WBC’S attack the inked region when it is punctured. That is also the cause for inflation around that area. Many people were also unwillingly tattooed like the slaves and criminals who were seared with hot iron. A very famous example is the number that the captured Jews in Nazi Germany were assigned or the branding of slaves from Africa, south Asia, etc. To commemorate their relatives’ or friends’ struggles, many people get tattoos of their numbers or symbols. Tattoos have been a great way to immortalize people’s struggles, to ensure that it can never be forgotten.
At present, tattooing is as much an art form as it is a fashion statement. People get tattoos of
encouraging and inspirational quotes or words, important or favorite numbers, aesthetic or
symbolic designs and even portraits of animals or loved ones. Tattoos are a way of asserting
our love and passion for something, of showing our support, of declaring our persona.
Over the course of the years, the meaning and essence of tattooing has shifted and it will
change further ahead. But it has always been an intricate part of our culture and society. It is a way of identifying ourselves.
Nowadays, museum displays are being curated to study and learn the history of tattooing. This not only helps us analyze the technology and society, but also creates a greater appreciation for this art form within us.
I believe the best thing about tattoos is their versatility. It, like any other art form, can evolve and transform in its meaning, without ever having to physically change. The same symbol, the same letters can be interpreted as a thousand different things. It is permanent (if you can't afford laser removal), and unlike any permanent thing, it is also fluid. That is why it is a tradition worth continuing.