In 1769, the word “tattoo” came from the term tatu when Captain James Cook landed in Tahiti. The term meant to “tap the mark into the body”, similarly what it is done now. After Samuel O’Reilly created the first ever electric tattoo machine in 1821, many Americans were tattooed by the 1920s. Today in 2016 everywhere you look it may be inevitable you’ll find a tattoo on someone’s skin. It’s hard not to spot ink on a variety of body parts.
National Geographic.com claims that “the earliest record of tattoos, to date, was found in 1991 on the frozen remains of the Copper Age “Iceman” scientists have named Ötzi, dating back to between 3370 and 3100 BC. Leading researchers believe that his people, ancestors of contemporary central and northern Europeans, may have used tattoos as medical treatment to reduce pain. 1
Regardless of when tattoos originated, various sources imply that tattoos have long been an indication of representing different cultures and different eras. The Iceman’s tattoos were not used to accentuate the body, like it is used now, but as a healing method.
The meaning of tattoos has transitioned across cultures as representation of the Gods they would pursue. Bes, the God of Fertility and Revelry, allowed women to show off tattoos in Egypt. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusades also used religion to mark themselves with respect towards Christian burials. Other cultures’ tattooing signified the birth of new life form.
Unlike these cultures, there were various eras where tattoos were not accepted. Japan used tattoos to accentuate beauty and magic but also to signify criminals. Ancient Romans banded tattoos due to the belief of the human form’s purity. Like Japan, Roman tattoos were only used to brand criminals.
Nowadays, tattoos have become a form of socially acceptable expressions of art. I asked three women about their experience with tattoos and the personal meaning behind having one. Erika Paige is a student and has not had any confrontations with regard to her tattoos. Kelly West is a freelance photographer and views her body art as an extension of her passion and profession. Yura Kim is in her mid-twenties living with her sister and two other roommates, away from parental scrutiny.
Q: What inspired you to get a tattoo?
Erika Paige: I got my tattoo(s) done the second I turned 18, and now I can’t stop. Most of them are meaningful, but a few are simply for their beautiful nontraditional style. I got them because it helped me accept and love myself, despite what everyone else said. I didn’t care about being judged; I wanted art on my body that made me happy.
Kelly Ann West: I got my first tattoo to represent what I love, which is photography. Even though it’s a film camera and I don’t shoot with film, it’s what started it all. Film came before digital, so it was the origin of it all. I also got the on my back to represent my love for my favorite show “Supernatural”.
Erika Paige: To me, it means expressing yourself in an artistic facet, whether it be something you love or something you could care less about.
Kelly Ann West: For me, it means something to express yourself with.
Yura Kim: Self expression and a reminder. It was inspired by Jesus.
Q: Do you care what people think of your tattoo(s)?
Kelly Ann West: No I don’t. I did it for me, myself and I!
Yura Kim: My parents absolutely do [care]!
Q: Did getting a tattoo change your perspective of yourself?
Erika Paige: I’m not my tattoos, you know? I’m no less of a person for having ink on my skin, and a lot of people lose sight of that. They just stare at you like you’re the devil and its funny because they’re just judgmental.
Q: What is your favorite tattoo you have gotten done?
Erika Paige: My favorite tattoo is my mandala on my shoulder. I got it done following an extremely spiritual experience, and my life was changed forever.
Kelly Ann West: My camera on my forearm.
Yura Kim: I only have one. (The photo is not published at interviewee’s request.)
Q: Are you more confident after getting it done?
Kelly Ann West: I do feel a little bad ass after I got it. I won’t lie. (laughing) I do feel confident because it was in fact a bit painful so I endured some pain and got through it. Most people aren’t able to.
Yura Kim: It feels like I was missing a part of me. And I totally feel like a bad ass!
For our interviewees tattoos are a symbol of self-acceptance, embracing a part of themselves. There are times when having tattoos can be seen as a “bad ass” move, but it’s a form of art many of us have taken into serious consideration. Similar to history, tattooing today has become a sign of resurrection of oneself from their past to reform into a motivating future. It allows many of us to express our passions and desires to our pasts and futures.
What does your tattoo mean to you?
BY: FLORENCE SEA HEE KIM
CONTRIBUTING FROM NEW YORK