Tattooing - Encyclopedia

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TATTOOING (Tahitian, tatu, from ta, mark), the practice of decorating the skin, by cutting or puncturing, with various patterns into which a colouring matter is introduced. Though the word is Polynesian, the custom appears to have been almost universal, but tends to disappear before the spread of civilization. The prohibition to the Jews (Lev. xix. 28) under the Mosaic Law to "print any marks" upon themselves is believed to have reference to tattooing, which is still common in Arabia. The North and South American Indians, the Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, all tattoo. The origin of the custom is disputed. It was probably at first for purely ornamental purposes and with the idea of attracting the opposite sex. The discovery in the caves of Western Europe of hollowed Stones which had been apparently used for grinding up ochre and other coloured clays is thought evidence that prehistoric man painted himself, and tattooing for decorative reasons may easily date back to the cave-dwellers. The modern savage paints himself as a protection against cold, against the bites of insects or the sun's rays, and most of all to give himself a ferocious appearance in battle, as Caesar relates of the ancient Britons. Any of these motives may have shared in originating tattooing. Subsequently the practice assumed religious and social significance, varying with the country and according to the age at .which it was performed. Thus in Polynesia it is begun in or about the twelfth year, and becomes thus a mark of puberty; while among the Arabs and the Kabyles of Algeria infants are tattooed by their mothers for simple ornament or as a means of recognizing them. The American Indians bore from their initiation at puberty the mark of the personal or tribal totem, which at once represented the religious side of their life, and served the practical purpose of enabling them to be known by friendly tribes. Among the Australians tattooing served as a mark of adoption into the family or tribe, the distinctive emblem or kobong being scarred on the. thighs.

Tattooing is regarded, too, as a mark of courage. A Kaffir who has been a successful warrior has the privilege of making a long incision in his thigh, which is rubbed with cinders until sufficiently discoloured. Elsewhere tattooing is a sign of mourning, deep and numerous cuts being made on face, breast and limbs. Among the Fijians and Eskimos the untattooed were regarded as risking their happiness in the future world. Some of the most remarkable examples of tattooing are those to be found among the Laos, whose stomachs, thighs, legs and breasts are often completely covered with fantastic animal figures like those on Buddhistic monuments.

The rudest form of tattooing is that practised specially by the Australians and some tribes of negroes. It consists in cutting gashes, arranged in patterns, on the skin and filling the wounds with clay so as to form raised scars. This tattooing by scarring as compared with the more common mode of pricking is, as a general rule, confined to the black races. Lightskinned races tattoo, while dark practise scarring. In Polynesia the art of tattooing reached its highest perfection. .In the Marquesas group of islands, for example, the men were tattooed all over, even to the fingers and toes and crown of the head, and as each operation took from; three to six months, beginning at virility, a man must have been nearly thirty before his body was completely covered. In New Zealand the face was the part most tattooed, and Maori heads so decorated were at one time in much request for European museums, but they are no longer obtainable in the colony. In Japan, where it became a high art, tattooing was neither ceremonial nor symbolical. It was in lieu of clothing, and only on those parts of the body usually covered in civilized countries, and in the case of those only who, like the jinrikisha-men, work half naked. The colours used are black, which appears blue, made from Indian ink, and different tints of red obtained from cinnabar. Fine sewing-needles, eight, twelve, twenty or more, fixed together in a piece of wood, are used. A clever tattooer can cover the stomach or back in a day. As soon as the picture is complete, the patient is bathed in hot water. The Ainus, on the other hand, tattoo only the exposed parts of the body, the women, unlike the Japanese, being frequently patients. The tattooing instruments used in Polynesia consisted of pieces of sharpened bone fastened into a handle, with their edges cut into teeth. These were dipped into a solution of charcoal and then driven into the skin by smart blows with a mallet. During the operation, assistants, usually female relatives, drowned the cries of the sufferer with songs and the beating of drums.

Under the influence of civilization tattooing is losing its ethnological character, and has become, in Europe at least, an eccentricity of soldiers and sailors and of many among the lower and often criminal classes of the great cities. Among eight hundred convicted French soldiers Lacassagne found 40 per cent. tattooed. In the British army till 1879 the letters D. and B. C. for Deserter and Bad Character were tattooed with needles and Indian ink; and tattooing has often been used to identify criminals and slaves.

See Lacassagne, Les Tatouages (Paris, 1881); General Robley, Moko or Maori Tattooing (1896).

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