Not every tattoo has to have a deeper meaning behind it. However, the origins of tattooing can be traced back to ancient cultures, where the process had a tad more significance than today.
Going back to its roots, tattoos were given across the globe. These civilizations marked their bodies for reasons other than the aesthetic.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, made it his mission to burn all the books in China to prevent the passing of knowledge. Anyone found with a book, generally intellectuals and scholars trying to preserve thought and history, was given a tattoo on their foreheads.
“A tattoo was almost like a sex offender list you can check out online,” Cal Poly history lecturer Jason Linn said. “It’s a public remembrance of crime.”
Similarly, the Romans branded their slaves, especially those who tried to run away from their master.
However, in the Pacific Ocean, tattoos were being used for a much different purpose.
The word “tattoo” originally comes from the Polynesians, from their native word “tatau” meaning “to write.” Many different islander groups in the Pacific, such as the Samoans and the Maori people of New Zealand, used tattooing as a form of art. They told stories on their bodies or depicted their family lineage. Having tattoos was something to be proud of and both men and women were tattooed during their lifetime. When Europeans visited the islands, they were amazed by these people covered in unnatural markings.
“They take back some of these islanders to France and England, and they are like the talk of the town,” Linn said.
Tattoos then became popular with British sailors. The fad soon spread to sailors all over the world as ships traveled and traditions were shared. Due to the rough nature of some of these seafaring men, tattoos were still stigmatized by the general public.
This mindset has continued throughout the past 50 years, but recently people have become more open to covering their naked canvases with colorful depictions of
“People see marks on other people’s bodies as unnatural, and in doing so they look down on them,” tattoo artist of eight years Louis Campopiano said. “And that’s Western culture, for sure; but we’ve moved away from that.”
According to Pew Research Center, in 2014, approximately 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 had at least one tattoo on their body. This number has surely gone up since then, and is projected to rise as the next generation fills this age slot.
Though some will always see tattoos as unnatural, others will continue to see it as something more positive— art.
“It is very easy to say it is artwork,” Campopiano said. “There are pieces that have a technicality but it also requires an artist’s eye.”