Tattooing is one of peoples’ oldest art forms, coming somewhere between scratching in the dirt and cave painting. All it took was a few klutzes to fall in the fire and land on a charred, pointed stick, and someone else to notice that a mark was left when healing took place. It was more complex than scratching in the dirt, but simpler than mixing paints and making brushes for painting on cave walls. Sharpen a stick, char it in a fire, stick holes in your skin and you have art. Early man didn’t perceive tattooing as only art. Due to three major factors; Pain, Permanence, and the release of the sacred life force, Blood; early people gave tattooing a mystical or magical significance. Tattooing to bring a person into a relationship, with a God, a magic power or future state was an idea with wide geographical distribution. Early tattooing was used to symbolize the fertility of the earth and of womankind, preservation of life after death, the sacredness of chieftainship and other cultural factors.
Primitive people usually believe that the spirit is an exact replica of the human body. This matches many modern occultist beliefs of the astral body. In both cases, spirit and astral, this allows you to use the proper tattoos as a rite de passage in the spirit world. The people of Borneo, especially the Kayans, believe that not only would their tattoos get them into the proper spirit world, but could also be used as a further qualification, for obtaining certain profitable occupations in the spirit world.
Clan markings are another common ritual tattoo. Not only can you recognize your friends quickly, even in the frenzy of battle, but more importantly, your people are connected even beyond death. The Wu Tang Physical Culture Association is one of the modern groups that are trying to revive the clan tattoo.
Modern people still tattoo to continue relationships with deceased loved ones, even if they do it on a subconcious level. You can see gravestones with spouses, parents, children, and friends names on them, sunken ships on surviving sailors, and symbols of battles lost on returning soldiers. All of these are modern examples of tattooing to connect the living to the dead.
Tattooing as a rite of adulthood. or passage into puberty is another common tattoo ritual. The idea is: if a girl can’t take the pain of tattooing, she is un-marriageable, because she will never be able to deal with the pain of child birth. If a boy can’t deal with the pain of his puberty tattoos, he is considered to be a bad risk as a warrior, and could become an outcast.
Since the dawn of tattooing, people have been marking themselves with the signs of their totem animals. On the outer level of meaning, they are trying to gain the strengths and abilities of the totem animal. On a more inner and mystical level, totem animals mean that the bearer has a close and mysterious relationship with this animal spirit as his guardian. Totem animal tattoos often double as clan or group markings. Moderen dragon, tiger, and eagle tattoos often subconsciously fall into this category. My snake tattoos are examples of conscious totem markings
Tattooing for health purposes has been a widespread practice in the Orient and South Pacific. The Tibetians learned to tattoo, from their southern neighbors, the Shans. The Tibetians quickly decided that tattooing a sacred mantra on a moving part of the body was akin to mantra wheels and mantra flags, which created the same effect, as chanting the mantra for the same amount of time, that the mantra is in motion. This helps the tattoo wearer to achieve inner as well as outer balance and harmony. The Tibetians also tattoo on certain acupuncture points and with medicinal herbs in the dyes, to obtain certain medical effects. In the 1970’s, Richard Tyler, a.k.a., The Rev. Relytor, revived ritual Tibetian tattooing, in his Uranian Phalanstery, on the Lower East Side of New York City. The Rev. was in communication with the Dalai Lama’s doctors and recieved medical dye additives from them. Unfortunatly, The Rev passed away in 1983.
Another common practice in tattooing for health was the tattooing of a god on the afflicted person, to fight the illness for them. In India, the Monkey God, Hanuman, can be tattooed on a recurring dislocating shoulder, to relieve the pain. Ainu women tattoo marks to assume the appearance of their goddess, so that evil demons of disease will mistake them for the goddess, and flee.
An offshoot of tattooing for health is tattooing to preserve youth. Maori girls tattooed their lips and chin, for this reason. When an old Ainu lady’s eyesight is failing, she can re-tattoo her mouth and hands, for better vision.
Tattoos for general good luck are seen world-wide. A man in Burma who desires good luck will tattoo a parrot on his shoulder. In Thailand, a scroll representing Buddha in an attitude of meditation is considered a charm for good luck. In this charm, a right handed scroll is masculine and a left handed scroll is feminine. Today, in the West, you can see dice, spades, and Lady Luck tattoos, which are worn to bring good luck. My first tattoo is a lucky spade that I got during my first month in the Army. It was the Vietnam era, and a young soldier needed all the luck that he could get.
The Hawaiians are prominent among people who have specific tattoo gods. In Hawaii, the images of the tattoo gods are kept in the temples of tattoo priests. Each tattoo session begins with a prayer to the tattoo gods that the operation might not cause death, that the wounds might heal soon, and that the designs might be handsome. Many modern American tattooist will tell you, “When you should get a tattoo, the tattoo god will tell you that it is time.”
In the 1970’s, American tattooing discovered primitive, tribal tattoos. People wanted simple designs with meaning and they began copying designs, primarily from Borneo, Japan, and the islands of the South Pacific. In the 1980’s, people of European stock began looking for tribal tattoos of their own origins, Mike McCabe, of New York City and Micky Sharpz Lewis, in England, answered the call with Celtic design tattoos. They were followed by Pat Fish, from California and, eventually, by a horde of young tattooists who copied their style.
The ancient Celts didn’t believe in written record keeping, consequently, there is little evidence of their tattooing remaining. Most modern Celtic designs are taken from the Irish Illuminated Manuscripts, of the 6th and 7th centuries. This is a much later time period than the height of Celtic tattooing. Designs from ancient stone and metal work are more likely to be from the same time period as Celtic tattooing.
Sailors were the first to return tattooing to Europe. They were some of the last people to retain their magical ideaology of tattooing. From the 1600’s to the Second World War, sailors tattooed a chicken on one foot and a pig on the other, as a charm against drowning. In the Big WWII, this was augmented with a new charm against drowning, twin propellers, on your rear end, to propel you to shore. When he had five thousand sea miles under his belt, a sailor recieved a bluebird on his chest. When he doubled the mileage, he got a second bluebird. A clothesline with skivvies and girl’s stockings represented a second cruise. When a sailor crossed the equator, he could get Neptune tattooed on his leg. A hula girl tattoo meant that he had been to Honolulu, and a sailor crossed the international dateline to earn the right to wear a dragon.
Outside the unsular life of seamen, tattooing with magical significance has had a worldly decline, since the 1850’s. In the late 1800’s, even the tribes of Borneo began to trade designs among themselves, until the meanings were lost. In the late 1960’s, tattooing for the sake of art alone became quite popular and has been on the rise ever since. This has vastly improved the artistic quality of tattooing in the past thirty years, but unfortunately, the idea of RITUAL TATTOOING is almost lost. The effects of the sacrifices of Pain-Permanence-and Blood, that our primitive ancestors were so aware of, are slipping away.