We humans have been tinkering on ourselves from the get go. We have made tools to manipulate our environment as well tools to modify our bodies. Since we first donned clothes, we have looked for ways to use our coverings as expressions of individuality on the one hand, and kinship with our families, tribes, extended clans and culture on the other. These adornments extend to jewelry and piercings, and tattoos. Just as rings, bracelets and necklaces may be given to mark a stage of life or commemorate an event, so too may a permanent tattoo be used to mark a stage of life or transition in time. Examples of tattoos, piercings and body modification go back deep into ancient times of our human record.
Many types of body modification are done by people without giving it a second thought, that they are doing something to their body, it is so natural and ingrained in the culture. Hair styling and dying in a salon by older suburban women is one example, as is the daily ritual of putting on makeup. To shave or not to shave, that is another question of expression. Painting nails, or even bothering to clip them are others. Expensive surgeries for breast implants and tummy tucks, and a quick nose job for leading ladies and men, not to mention teeth whitening, are all examples of what may be considered acceptable forms of body modification in a materialist minded America intent on keeping up appearances. Many contemporary life saving surgical procedures wouldn’t be possible without some extent of body modification.
Though there are many ways to modify the body, in the context of this article I’ll be writing mostly of those that were taken up in the punk community under the broader rubric and pan-subculturalism of “body modification” as relating to scarification, tatoos, piercings, implants, body suspension and some other techniques borrowed from traditional cultures and carnie culture. This first section deals strictly with tattoos.
MY BODY, MY TEMPLE
Those raised in a Judaeo-Christian worldview, and who have stuck with the tradition, tend to view the body as a temple. This view seems to originate from a Bible verse attributed to Paul (who to be fair, could be as brilliant spiritually as he was off base, in my opinion.) He wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:20 “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (NIV). Yet treating the body with the respect due to a deity isn’t only found in Christianity. We can see echoes of this principle at work in Hinduism, with their highly evolved systems of yoga and Ayurveda, and other religions.
It was the latter-day punk of the kitchen, Anthony Bourdain who said “your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
I think both viewpoints are valid, and it is useful with any binary such as this to try and triangulate away from the extremes. What about a temple inside an amusement park, or an amusement park inside of a temple? The carnival happens before the holy season of Lent. Festivals are held on high and holy feast days, and I can see the return of the festival where the passions of the body are indulged in periodically as a necessary steam valve in our future world with more limited resources. As in the period of festival, the sacred and profane can both exist within the collective body. So too in the way we adorn and modify our individual bodies can partake of the sacred, the profane, and points in between, as it has throughout history.
AN ELDER FORM OF ART
Tattoos can rightly be considered one of the eldest forms of art. Our evidence for this goes way back. An Egyptian mummified priestess of Hathor known as Amunet was one of humanities oldest examples of a tattooed person for some time. She was doing her thing during the Middle Kingdom Period (2160–1994 BCE) and hung out with some other priestesses who got tattooed as part of a ritualistic process. In this time, tattoos were reserved for women, and may have been part of magical rites regarding fertility and rejuvenation surrounding the worship of Hathor. Egyptain menfolk started getting ink during the 3rd and 4th dynasties when the pyramids were being built. The Egyptians were influencers, being the center of civilization for some thirty odd centuries, and from there the practice of tattooing spread outwards to other cultures who came to trade and learn, going deeper into Africa, and over into Asia and Europe.
Egyptians weren’t the first to make permanent marks on their body and the priestesses of Hathor had to give up their OG status when Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. Ötzi was dated to between 3350 and 3105 BCE. The tattoos found along the preserved skin of Ötzi were line and dot patterns. Researchers noted how the placement of these lines and dots were along acupuncture points. This points to the idea that he was not just tattooed for adornment, but also for spiritual purposes. Ötzi had a total of 61 tattoos. In 2018 tattoos were again found on Egyptian mummies using infrared that were of the same vintage as Ötzi. Numerous other ancient mummified bodies from other parts of the world have also been found with body modifications. This shows how widespread the practice was in early times.
The nomadic Ainu people brought tattooing into Japan around 2000 BCE. On those islands the magical aspect of the practice seems to have been downplayed in favor of simply having and enjoying them for their aesthetic beauty. Over the centuries the Japanese developed a tradition of tattooing that involved large pictures over big swathes of the body, creating what is now called a “sleeve.” This tradition was adopted by the Yakuza between 1600 and 1800 and still continues to this day. Known as irezumi in Japan, traditional tattooist will still "hand-poke" there work using ink is inserted beneath the skin with the traditional tools of sharpened needles made of bamboo or steel. Getting tatted up this way can take years to complete.
Starting between 1200 and 400 B.C. tattooing migrated from China and Russia to the Picts and also into the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Celts liked the color blue and used a substance known as woad to imprint symbols from their culture onto their body. These included spirals, labyrinths, and knotwork.
Native American tribes were also invested in the practice of tattooing and associating it with spiritual power. They would prick themselves with sticks and needles and then rub soot and dyes into the open sores to form their pictures. Often these pictures were made in commemoration of battles they had fought or they were of animal powers whose strengths and abilities they wished to emulate, or of traditional symbols whose magic they wished to imbue into their life.
At the same time tattoos were flourishing in North America they were also flourishing across the Polynesian islands. The word tattoo itself comes from “tatu” as used by Polynesians and picked up by Captain James Cook -who also helped spread the tattooing habit to sailors, and bring it back into practice among that group after his visit to the islands in 1769. The Polynesians were all about the spiritual power of a tattoo, and they believed that it made the invisible powers a person had in the spiritual world visible on their body. A rich tradition of tattooing was carried out by these peoples, and it often involved rites of passage between father and son.
It was in Tahiti aboard the Endeavour, in July 1769, that Cook first noted his observations about the indigenous body modification and is the first recorded use of the word tattoo to refer to the permanent marking of the skin.
The Captain’s log notes how, "Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible... this method of Tattowing I shall now describe...As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes."
Sir Joseph Banks, the Science Officer and Expedition Botanist aboard the Endeavour was taken with the idea of getting a tattoo himself. Banks had first made his bones on the 1766 natural-history expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador. Then he signed up for Captain James Cook's first great voyage that lasted between 1768–1771 where he visited Brazil, Tahiti, and then spent six months in New Zealand and Australia. He came back with a tattoo upon him and heaps of fame for his voyage and work. A number of rank-and-file seamen and sailors came back with tattoos from their voyages, and this class of people began to adopt the practice further, helping to reintroduce tats to Europe, where they spread into other branches of military men, and into the criminal underworld.
Yet tattoos had already made some headway back in Europe among the aristocracy by another route. In 1862 Albert, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm on a visit to the Holy Land. Christian tattoo traditions can be traced back to the Holy Land, to Egypt and the Coptic tradition all the way back to the 6th and 7th century. The practice was passed on to a variety of Eastern communities including the Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac and Maronite Churches. It is a standard practice within todays Coptic Church to get a Christian tattoo and show it as proof of faith in order to enter one of their churches. At the time of the Crusades this tradition was passed on Europeans who had come to the Holy Land where they received tattoos as part of their pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
These pilgrimage tattoos were one of the routes the practice went into the European aristocracy. Edward the VII got one after his pilgrimage, and George the V followed suit. King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, were all tatted up, often with elaborate Royal Coat of Arms and Family Crests.
Meanwhile in America Martin Hildebrandt learned the art of tattooing while in the U.S. Navy, which he had joined in the 1840s. During the Civil War he fought with Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, and often traveled from camp to camp tattooing his fellow enlisted men. The Civil War veteran, Wilbur F. Hinman, wrote that it was common for regiments to have tattooists among them who inked their fellows with "flags, muskets, cannons, sabers and an infinite variety of patriotic emblems and warlike and grotesque devices." It was also common for the soldiers to have their names and initials marked permanently on their body to serve as a way of identification should they be killed in action.
After his service Hildebrandt opened up a shop in New York City where he made tattooing his full-time job. His parlor was in a tavern on Oak Street in Manhattan, and opened between 1870 and 1872 and is most likely the first shop of its kind in America. Using vermilion and India ink, he tattooed people in black and red from across the spectrum of society. Nora Hildebrandt, who became his common law wife, also became a tattooed lady inked up by Old Martin. In 1885 she left to go on tour with a sideshow and he got arrested for disorderly conduct and was taken to the Insane Asylum where he died in 1890. But don’t blame that on his profession.
The carnie culture surrounding circuses, sideshows, and dime stores, with their freaks and tattooed ladies were another medium through which the practice of getting marked up permanently for life started to spread throughout the United States.
Becoming a tattooed lady was good work at the time, especially for those who wanted to have a bit more clink in their pocket and live life on their own terms. Dime stores, freakshows, and dime museums would often put ads in the paper looking for tattooed ladies, because they had become popular attractions. In the years that closed out the 19th century and opened up the 20th, it didn’t cost a fortune to get a tattoo, and if it was used as a way to make money, could be an investment. A full body job could be completed in less than two months and only set a gal back thirty buckaroos. Yet, if a tattooed lady was popular, she could rake in a Benjamin or two a week, give or take a little. Teachers in 1900 only made about seven dollars a week with room and board. Secretarial jobs might only earn about twenty-two dollars a week. Getting tatted up and showing it off to an eager public made sense, especially for those who wanted to leave behind traditional sex roles.
By the 1940s however, the craze surrounding tattoos had again abated for a time. People who had them were often considered outcasts, less-than’s, and, of course, freaks. Yet bikers, motor cycle clubs and other greaser types kept the tradition alive in the 1950s alongside the usual suspects of sailors, military men, and underworld inhabitants.
The cool factor started to creep back into the practice in the 1960s when Janis Joplin and other musicians, such as those in the Grateful Dead, started getting tatted up. Starting in the 1970s, tattoos started to move further into the mainstream and to people from all walks of life. Part of this had to do with the proliferation of subcultures where tattooing was seen as an acceptable form of self-expression. Freedom loving hippies, nihilistic punks, rappers and hip-hoppers and transgressive industrial music heads were all making modifications to their bodies.
In the 1980s tattooing got a magical boost from Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth (TOPY). TOPY was an artistically-oriented occult and magic group that emerged from the industrial music subculture surrounding Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. One dimension of it was that it was like a "fan club" for Psychic TV except instead of creating followers their intention was to create leaders and get people doing their own individual creative work. Active between between 1981 and the early 1990s, the people involved were also heavily interested in piercing, body modification, tattoos and what I have taken to calling "gender blending". They did a lot of magical and occult work around these practices -and with their added influence, body piercing and tattoos went from something being done by counterculture freaks to being de rigeur. Their magic worked. The same could be true of some of their ideas about gender. TOPY is another example of a fringe group doing magic that went on to have a wider influence on the culture at large. They often included ritual elements as part of their piercing and tattooing works aligning themselves with the retro cutting edge of modern primitivism.
Scholar Arnold Rubin’s had organized a symposium called "Art of the Body" at the University of California in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. He invited colleagues from the fields of anthropology, sociology, art history, archaeology, and folklore to come and share their work. There was a geographical and historical focus on body modifications from Europe and Euro- America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Basin (Asia, Oceania, and Native America). In 1988 he edited a book, “Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body” that showcased body art as a potent aesthetic and spiritual component of human behavior. The book started to circulate among the cognoscenti of the counterculture.
In Rubin’s book the term “Tattoo Renaissance” had been put forth to denote the 20th century moment where technology had changed tattooing practice. The tattooist went from just doing a job, often repeating the premade designs known as flash, to becoming a “Tattoo Artist” who made their own designs and fulfilled the dreams of their patrons, with a strong influence coming from Japan and Polynesian traditions of full body tattoos and sleeves.
Another book, "Modern Primitives: an Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual" put out by V. Vale and Re/Search publication came out a year later in 1989. V. Vale and Re/Search were stalwarts in the punk and industrial music scenes, where his zines and books of interviews always made a big splash. It ended up being another big influencer on many people in the underground music world and continued the push in this direction that was started by TOPY. A lot of the focus of the book was on genital piercings, which had started to be practiced again in the west by the aristocracy with the story that Prince Albert had pierced his dick. The topic of piercing will be covered in detail later, so hold those thoughts.
By the late 90s tattooing had become pervasive among members of Generation X who had grown up in these subcultures, and the practice was passed on to their children, the millennials and zoomers for whom the question of the legitimacy around getting a tattoo is foreign.
In the 21st century tattoos, while in many ways, always personal, have become even more about a person’s identity. People get these most personalized forms of art to embody something about their inner life. At the same time, getting a tattoo has become much more common, so where before it had been a signifier of uniqueness and transgression, now it is seen as just another avenue for possible self expression. Where in the past just having a tattoo was enough to be a personal marker, now having a tattoo isn’t seen as such a big deal, especially among zoomers and millenials, who are more likely to have been tattooed at least once. These markings take on extreme personal significance, and may relate to family motifs, and names of loved ones, to mother-daughter tatoos (as abound in my immediate family) to those resonate with some particular core of their being.
As we move deeper into the Aquarian Age it will be interesting to see how Americans mark up their bodies as continued evidence of their individualism.
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Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.