Tattoos have mixed, colorful history

By Chelle Delaney

The Marine Corps has banned them, particularly “sleeve” tattoos, the “big, garish tattoos” that take up most of an arm. A Marine who gets one risks dishonorable discharge and two years in prison.

The other military services also vote against visible tattoos, requiring that they be “small” tattoos.

Still, the Army, hungry for recruits, has recently relaxed its tattoo guidelines. They’ll still take you on as a recruit even if you’re tattooed on your hand.

However, the ban of visible tattoos has also spread to police departments across the country. Many are, like the Marines, banning the display of tattoos. Have a tattoo on your arm? Wear a long-sleeved shirt. Have a tattoo on your calf? Wear long pants. Police chiefs have decided that tattoos “take away from an officer’s appearance.”

People marking their bodies have a long history in places around the world — piercing the skin and inserting a colored substance. The ancient Egyptian arts included body marking, usually performed on young children.

The Greeks and the Romans used body marking, called “stigmata,” to indicate ownership, “belonging” to a sect or a slave owner, or even to show that this was a criminal.

But in the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:28, it says: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”

So perhaps it’s understandable that, shortly after the emergence of Christianity, by order of Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373), the stigmata were banned as disfiguring that which was “made in God’s image.”

Was that “disfigurement” abandoned during the Middle Ages? It seems that it was, because when British Captain James Cook stopped off in Tahiti during a round-the-world voyage, he described the process, which the Tahitians called “tatua,” saying “they stain their bodies by indentings, or pricking the skin with small instruments made of bone, cut into short teeth, which indentings they fill up with a dark-blue or black mixture prepared from the smoke of an oily nut.”

And it was in Cook’s diary, dated 1769 that the word “tattoo” first appeared.

That’s according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1777. But it wasn’t just the word that was discovered. It was the process. Cook’s sailors and other sailors got tattooed and brought their tattoos home with them, where other people fancied them.
Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had a snake tattooed around her wrist.

But America didn’t wait for her son Winston to discover tattooing. Matter of fact, it was in the U.S. that the first tattooing machines were invented and patented in 1891.

Tattooing has, over the years, had a mixed reputation. Forbidden in the Old Testament. Forbidden by Christian rulers. Forbidden to Muslims by Mohammed.

Used by the Romans to signify “belonging to” or slave to; used by indigenous “inferiors” and lower-class occupations; yet tattooing was also considered self-expression, commemorating one’s heroes and one’s beliefs.

Tattoonists became “artists; tattooing became “body art;” and those who were tattooed became “works of art.”
But not to those who run the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Army.

But the tattoos are liked by those who wear them.

Chelle Delaney is associate publisher of the Quay County Sun. She can be reached by calling 461-1952 or by emailing: