When I was young, there was a TV personality that I admired. His whole chest and arms were inked and colorful. It was the first thing I noticed about him. Well actually, I noticed the obvious Pepsi logo on his bicep. His tattoos were cartoon-like and spunky, it was the coolest thing in the eyes of a 12 year old. Surely I have seen tattoos before, but never this many. Tattoos were for people like him, people who were alternative and punk. His whole upper body was a canvas of art. One other thing I noticed was that he had 9 piercings. As the years went by, I noticed how common tattoos and piercings were. I have had two ear piercings since I was a child. Almost every adult I knew had at least one tattoo, and every woman I knew had ear piercings.
Therefore I began wondering, how did tattoos and piercings become so common? How has this form of art changed over time?
Body modification has slowly evolved into an art form. There are obscure places that people get done that haven’t even been heard of before, like piercing your tongue or even splitting your tongue into two. However, this form of self-expression was not always used this way.
Body piercings and tattoos can date back to early civilizations. The earliest man to have a tattoo is Otzi the Iceman, who lived about 5,000 years ago, had tattoos of lines and dots along acupuncture points. He received his tattoos for spiritual and healing reasons. Otzi the Iceman had both of his earlobes pierced and stretched as well. During Ancient Egypt times, people believed that evil spirits entered through your ears and piercing them would prevent this. Tattoos served many purposes in history like initiation rites for tribes of indigenous peoples, or Samoan clans. Tattoos and piercings were also used to identify your social status, and it marked slaves and criminals in society.
Since Otzi the Iceman, people have only tattooed their bodies for spiritual, magical, and healing reasons. This tradition carried on for centuries until around 297 A.D, in Japan. During this era, Japanese people had decided to tattoo their skin as a form of self-expression. Their tattoos were elaborate and eye-catching, the designs were very detailed and nothing like tattoos from centuries prior. Tattoos began to evolve in full body suits, specifically men in the Yakuza during the mid 1600s to 1800s.
Tattoos and piercings varied from culture to culture. Among Polynesian and Japanese people, tattooing was practiced for pleasure. But in the western culture, it was only used as a means to mark slaves and criminals. Tattoos and piercings had a bad reputation in America.
This changed during the 1960s, the emergence of the hippie movement. The Counterculture Movement were a group of people known as hippies that protested against the Vietnam War, commercialism, and societal norms. People began getting tattoos to stand against societal norms, and for their own personal pleasure. But tattoos and piercings were still associated with criminal activity.
When MTV was founded in the 80s, young audiences were exposed to the influence of rock musicians. Young people were able to visibly see the tattoos and piercings of the musicians. However, the rise of AIDS made people weary about using needles. Within the next decade, tattoos and piercings slowly became common after AIDS became better understood by society. This form of self-expression allowed kids to stand out from the crowd, but it also gained a rebellious reputation.
Since the growing popularity of tattoos in the 80s and 90s, it only evolved from there. Tattoos and piercings represented different ideas through each culture. Each part of the world has a unique story to tell through their history of tattooing and piercings. In America, it has come a long way from a bad reputation to it being a common trend in our daily lives.