Tattoo Culture: Past and Present

In 1991, a tattooed “Iceman” was discovered on the Italian-Austrian border. This buried cadaver was carbon-dated back 5200 years, making him the first tattooed individual known to us today. He is by no means an exception, however, but an example of the rule. Tattoos have been found on bodies belonging to all ancient cultures. Ancient Egyptian women buried near royals and elites. Britons marked in accordance with their societal status- so noticeably so that the Romans dubbed them the ‘painted people.’ Tattooed cadavers have been found in the Chinese Taklimakan Desert, Greenland, and Peru. We can only guess at the meaning behind the ink, but according to Joann Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of York, tattoo symbolism spans a wide spectrum: from marking criminals to identifying religions to distinguishing royalty. Even such, there exists a common thread that pulls all of these ancient tattoos together: identification. Tattoos said something about who you were.

Flash forward to the 1800s, when American sailors used tattoos as a form of identification as well as a means of storytelling. The tattoos of a sailor were a sort of resume: a combination of identification information and a list of experiences.

After the American Revolution, American sailors were desperately seeking to avoid the English Royal Navy draft. Sailors were issued government ‘Protection Papers’ in order to reaffirm their American citizenship and dodge this dreary fate. Extremely unreliable, however, these papers contained only vague, generalizable descriptions. In order to solve this problem, sailors would use their tattoos as descriptors for the ‘Protection Papers.’ Commonly used tattoos were significant dates, crucifixes, or names of loved-ones.

But that was only the heading of the resume. A list of achievements and experiences followed suit. Within the variety of stock sailor tattoos that exist, there lies a code that marks where a sailor has been, and how far he has travelled. The iconic swallow tattoo is one such mark. According to sea-faring legend, each swallow signalled that a sailor had travelled 5,000 nautical miles. Similarly, a full-rigged ship distinguished that its bearer had sailed around Cape Horn, and an anchor indicated that he had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Tattoos said something about what you had done.

Where does that bring us to today? Do we have more in common with ancient Egyptian priestesses tattooed in order to assert their status, or the sailors, for whom tattoos tell their life story? Are they a mark of who we are or what we have done?

According to Hannah Ravening, a Fine Arts student at Emily Carr and an aspiring tattoo artist, tattoos are about collaboration and sharing art. It is a “highly collaborative process,” she tells me, and the industry in Vancouver is “very supportive and non-competitive.” When asked what compels most to get permanently inked, she says that some want to distinguish themselves as belonging to the “edgier” side of life. The majority, however, “are expressing their individuality, similarly to how people wear particular clothing and makeup.” What attracts Hannah to the tattoo scene the most is the communism of it all- the openness and collaboration. There is a sense of camaraderie and creative flow that connects artists in the tattoo industry, a common vein that links those who tap in and participate.

The tattoo community can be traced around the world today, thanks to social media platforms such as Instagram. Artists can travel to foreign fan-bases and hold flash tattoo sales. An artist in Vancouver can collaborate with an artist in Berlin. In sync with this heightened awareness of tattoo culture in foreign countries has come a decrease in culturally appropriated tattoos. Hannah remarks that a decade ago, Canadians commonly got mandala or Chinese character tattoos, but artists today refuse to give a client a culturally symbolic tattoo unless it is common to both of their cultures.

Today our tattoos tell not only a story, but also who we have become as a result of that story. Tattoos show at once belonging to a group- be it a sailor’s union, ancient Egyptian royalty, or North Van (ever seen a mountain biker with the North Shore mountains around their ankle?) and uniqueness. We mark ourselves to share who we are, reflect on where we come from, and remember where we want to go.

Hannah has a cherry bomb tattoo on her lower back to commemorate a fruity summer backpacking around Europe. The cherry bomb is also a nod to Cherie Curry, lead singer of the punk band The Runaways, and Hannah’s personal inspiration. Her tattoo illustrates an experience that influences who she is today. It is also a reminder of who she wants to be in the future.

Profile Image- “Much tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey.” December 1944/ Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975) for the U.S. Navy/ General Photographic File of the Department of Navy. National Archives and Records Administration, Local Identifier 80-G-470222