history of tattoos

A great video on the history of tattoos

Now be warned people, even though this is a TED Talk educational video, not everything in this is 100% accurate. It’s still fun though.  Have a watch of it, and afterwards, if you’re nit-picky like us, take a look at all the things wrong with it. :)

Ok, it was a nice wee five minutes, but not entirely accurate. Apart from mis-pronouncing Maori (she’s American, we’ll give her a break), here’s a few of the things that were wrong with the video…

“Stories of Cook’s findings” couldn’t have sparked “a craze in Victorian English high society”. Captain James Cook said around the world a hundred years before the Victorian age! And of course, he didn’t have ‘soldiers’, he had sailors. And while we’re on the Victorians…

The Victorian tattoo fad among elites was hardly “behind closed doors”. The Victorian peoples were quite open about their tattoos, which were written about in a variety of newspapers and journals at the time. Although they weren’t so popular that the Queen herself had one. There isn’t a single shred of evidence for Queen Victoria having a tattoo, let alone a tiger fighting a snake. Ironically, there is definitive evidence of King George V having a kick-ass dragon tattoo covering his back which he picked up on his travels to the Far East!

So there you go. Some interesting facts with a wee sprinkle of bullshit thrown in for good measure. Just like Stuff.co.nz!

A brief History of Tattoos in New Zealand

The styles and methods of tattooing in 21st century New Zealand are extremely diverse. From traditional Maori and Pacifica styles, through to modern Anime, the style is varied, but tattooing first began in New Zealand with Ta Moko.

It’s impossible to establish when Ta Moko started as there are no written records pre-colonisation, as there was no formal Maori written language. Instead, historians have had to rely on archaeologists and the accounts of the first European settlers. Excavated sites have found tattooing tools dating back to the very earliest settlers, with some of the tools the same as the ones used in Samoa. Although the patterns and designs vary throughout the Pacific when it comes to tattoos, the technique of rhythmically tapping a bone chisel, lashed to a small wooden shaft remains the same.

Some of the earliest accounts of tattooing in New Zealand were by Sydney Parkinson. Parkinson was Captain James Cook’s artist on board the Endeavour, when it landed in Poverty Bay in 1769. He sketched and painted local Maori displaying their Moko, and described in detail the different styles and patterns he witnessed.

The Explorers noticed that Maori women were not as extensively tattooed as the men. Their upper lips were outlined, usually in dark blue, and their nostrils were also very finely incised. The chin moko was always the most popular, and continued to be practiced even into the 1970s.

Ta Moko facial tattoos aren’t just for decoration, they also tell a story. A person’s ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally (but not always, depending on the tribe) the father's side, while the right hand side indicates the mother's ancestry. If one side of a person's ancestry was not of rank, that side of the face would have no Moko design. Likewise if, in the centre forehead area there is no Moko design, this means the wearer either has no rank, or has not inherited rank.

News just in! Or is it?

Tattooing is no longer the preserve of bikers, sailors and convicts. More than that, celebrities are getting tattoos. And women too. But hang on, haven't we heard all this before?

"Tattooing is on increase: habit not confined to seamen only," proclaims one headline, while a second article declares: "Tattoos are no longer the trophies of rockers, sailors, bikers..."

The first appeared in the New York Times in 1908, the second appeared on the BBC website 2012, over one hundred years later.

The story - that tattooing has "entered the mainstream" - is just one of a number of tattoo tropes recycled relentlessly over the decades. Others include:

  • Everybody seems to be getting tattooed, should we not be concerned?
  • Surprise at women, the young or the old getting a tattoo
  • The pain during a tattoo
  • The issue of regret at having a tattoo

In the late 19th Century, Princess Waldemar of Denmark's tattoo was big news. As was the inked skin of Queen Olga of Greece, King Oscar of Sweden and the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. These were the celebrity figures of their day. Modern day equivalents might include David Beckham, Cheryl Cole or Kim Kardashian. Although the names, faces and places might change, the stories remain the same.

Almost 20 years after the New York Times reported in 1876 how tattooing had taken hold and how women were amongst those getting tattooed, the same title reported how tattooing was no longer uncommon and how a number of aristocrats were getting "marked".

Jump forward almost one hundred years to a magazine called Men in Danger, which again expressed surprise that women were getting tattoos and showed a photo of a young woman with a tattoo which read "I love Elvis".

The fact is, tattoos have been around as long as civilisation itself, with Egyptian mummies and frozen cavemen found “Inked up”. The media like to associate tattoos with biker gangs and outlaws, and yes they are associated with that, but only because the media made that connection in the first place. People from all walks of life, from every country, and from every time period have adorned tattoos, and shows no signs of ever changing.

If you want to join the millions of people of the thousands of years who have expressed themselves with a tattoo, then come see us at Sunset Tattoo.