Permanent Marker: A History of Tattoos and Our Obsession with Symbols

Permanent Marker: A History of Tattoos and Our Obsession with Symbols

For more than 5,000 years, tattoos have helped broadcast our belief in everything from sacred symbols to SpongeBob SquarePants.

For more than 5,000 years, tattoos have helped broadcast our belief in everything from sacred symbols to SpongeBob SquarePants.

Text: Nick Remsen

“Tattooing’s place in popular culture has certainly shifted,” said tattoo artist Scott Campbell in Miami, Florida this past December. “I think with all the exposure and understanding that people now have regarding tattoos, the biggest trend is, really, the avoidance of trends. People strive to have something that no one else has.”

Campbell’s sentiment about our era’s destigmatization of body modification practices is the result of a centuries-spanning legacy of personal expression, one that can be found across such disparate cultures as Ancient Egypt and modern Japan. The oldest tattoos discovered so far come from 3250 BC and belong to Ötzi, a Tyrolean man found beneath an Italian glacier. His remains show a total of 61 tattoos, mainly dots and lines that researchers are still trying to decode. Less puzzling are the tattoos found on a number of mummified women from Ancient Egypt, circa 2000 BC. Many boast a “net” of dots around the stomach, as well as little characters of the deity Bes, defender of children and women in labor, on their upper thighs. According to the Smithsonian, the motifs suggest that these markings were applied for safeguarding during pregnancy.

The list goes on: in 450 BC, the Greek writer Herodotus penned that, within the Scythian and Thracian societies, “tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was a testimony of low birth.” Other research suggests, however, that during that same era tattoos were also used as a way to keep track of human property or as a punitive measure—an all too familiar and chilling function employed much later by the Nazis during World War II. Tattoo culture has further dark corners: consider the gang Mara Salvatrucha’s background of inking its members, in which a majority of the designs have some cumulative element that pays respect to the number 13 (for the group’s nickname, MS-13, ‘M’ being the thirteenth letter in the alphabet). Or examine the putative encyclopedia of Russian criminal tattoos, where each transgression has its own symbology—such as a werewolf for repeat offenders.

Positive associations, though, outweigh the negative. See the extraordinary workmanship in New Zealand’s Maori culture: an elaborate facial “moko” was considered not just a mark of high status, but delivered information about the individual, including his or her ancestry, knowledge, and abilities. Powerful geometric shapes are found on other Pacific Islands as well, like Samoa and Tonga. In fact, the word tattoo comes from British explorer James Cook’s expedition to Tahiti in 1769. There, he found that the locals called their markings “tatatau” or “tattau,” meaning to hit or to strike. In the 1930s, one of the tattoo world’s most legendary players, Sailor Jerry, would set up shop a few thousand miles away in Honolulu, Hawaii.

These are but a few examples of how tattoos are a worldwide phenomenon—an international art form meant to convey everything from religious beliefs to antiestablishment leanings. No matter what, though, a tattoo is intimately singular to the wearer. In fashion—a world built almost solely on expression of identity—tattoos are, of course, an area of deep fascination. At Margiela’s Spring 1989 collection, there were sheer tops with mock, all-over-printed inkings. For Spring 1994, Jean Paul Gaultier sent out a collection called “Les Tatouages,” in which Stella Tennant appeared with a skeleton temporarily applied to her stomach, its wild-eyed skull seeming to grin beneath its garland of thorns. Vogue wrote, “[It was] a startling vision of cross-cultural harmony.”

For Spring 2010, Rodarte’s mannequins had daring, Samoan-esque markings sleeving their arms, and one year later Chanel introduced temporary tattoos of jewelry. (They flew off the shelves.) Spring 2011 found Campbell—the tattoo artist quoted above—collaborating on a series of pieces for Louis Vuitton, which incorporated his own artwork. Menswear label Duckie Brown revealed models with temporary tattoos of flowers on their necks and hands at its Spring 2013 show, and for Spring 2014 couture, Maison Margiela paid homage to Sailor Jerry—hints of his works can also be seen in Gigi Hadid and Tommy Hilfiger’s recent collaboration, with anchor motifs aplenty. At their New York Fashion Week unveiling event last September, Hadid and Hilfiger even installed a temporary tattoo booth.

The biggest names in fashion, too, are largely inked. Designer Marc Jacobs is famous for his SpongeBob SquarePants character (rendered by Campbell). Brock Collection’s Kris Brock has full sleeves. Diesel’s Nicola Formichetti has lots, too, including ink for his dogs, Tank and Bambi. Freja Beha Erichsen, the Danish model, has the word “float” scripted on her neck. British stunner Cara Delevingne has, among others, a lion on her finger and eyes on the back of her neck. Jamie Bochert, a model from New Jersey, has a snaking, fanned-out skeleton down her spine, its head the skull of a bull. And Rihanna has loads—this writer still remembers seeing the outline of Rih’s Egyptian goddess, inked below her sternum, through a twinkling, sheer Adam Selman dress at the CFDA Awards in 2014.

Ultra-specificity is the name of the game now. Artists fiercely protect their work; nobody wants a proverbial sloppy second. And tattoos have arguably never been so visually accessible. Big fixtures like Dr. Woo and Bang Bang have follower counts in the millions on Instagram (yet obtaining a booking with either, or Campbell for that matter, is next to impossible unless you’re Chris Brown or Justin Bieber). And as each quest for particularity becomes evermore urgent, those in the tattoo community are branching out. During Art Basel in Miami, Campbell opened his traveling “Whole Glory” exhibition (the name serving as a clever reshuffling of the term “glory hole”) at Mana Wynwood, where ten subjects could get inked by the artist—but without knowing what they were getting. “One of the biggest differences between tattooing and other art forms is that, with tattooing, in order to do anything exotic or unusual, you have to have your canvas’s permission,” said Campbell. “I’ve always fantasized of a scenario where I could tattoo with the same freedom with which someone could paint.”

This kind of elevated approach to tattooing—ostensibly as performance piece—is one indicator of the discipline’s future. Conversely, but perhaps equally prophetic, is the resurgence of stick-and-poke tattoos, which are slower to apply, require an even more methodical approach, and create a powerfully intimate experience between artist and recipient. In essence, there appears to be a rising tide of synergistic artful consideration regarding tattoos. And, as long as they remain about individuality and personal statement, fashion will in tandem remain obsessed.

A sailor goes under the needle at a tattoo parlor in Copenhagen, early 1940s.

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