Lost Tracks: Story Behind Tattoos

Tattoos are known worldwide as part of pop culture. However, in many countries, they are part of the ancient traditions and have long been the subject of research of many scientists. In 2015 Mumtaz Firat carried out such research and won an award for his work in folklore studies.   Below is the research carried out by him:

Brief History of Tattoos

A tattoo is a permanent pattern or a sign on a human skin that is received by filling the pores on the skin with color. The color is applied to the skin with a pointed subject.    

The tattoo has many meanings. It serves both as decoration, as a defense against sinister forces, and as an amulet. People of south-eastern Turkey traditionally make themselves tattoos as decoration and protection against malefic. It is notable that for the tattoo to serve as an amulet they can for example add human milk to the color   

In 1991 in the Alps, they found the mummy of the ice-man Ötzi who lived 5300 years ago. It allowed having an idea of what human beings looked like in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age: 57 tattoos were found on his body. The interesting thing is that all the tattoos were in the human body areas that are used in Chinese medicine for therapeutic acupuncture.

Apart from the ice-man traces of tattoos were discovered on mummified bodies found in Asia and Egypt.  This proves that there was a tradition of tattooing people belonging to the ruling classes. However, it does not mean that people of other social classes could not get tattoos.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that in Thrace (a province in the Roman Empire) tattoos were considered as a token of nobility.  It has been said that a non-tattooed person may bring wickedness.  Meaning that the representatives of the noble class made tattoos as a sign that they are nobler than the representatives of other classes.

On some islands of Oceania, tattoos were considered a sign of privilege. But not all the tattoos but some of their shapes. While the well-off class could get tattoos in any place of the body, the poor could get them only on a limited area of the body since tattooing was a rather expensive procedure.  Thus tattoos in ancient times were used to position oneself in the hierarchical social system.

We can also learn about the history of tattoos from other sources, for example from the ancient writers. 15 ancient writers mention that tattooing was popular among the people of Thrace, ancient Greeks, Galls, Germans, and British people. In Ancient Rome, tattoos were infilled on the slaves and the delinquents. After adopting Christianity tattooing was under the ban in Europe but others, in particular, the people of the Middle East continued the tradition of making tattoos.

Tattoos were practiced among the arans during the reign of Muhammad as indicating the different sources. But the prophet had a negative attitude to the drawings on the body hence many Arab authors presented this topic from a negative perspective.  But regardless of the bans, the tattoo has long been present in the life of Arab people.   The sources indicate that the history of tattoos began in Algeria (at that time part of the Ottoman Empire) and was brought to Istanbul by the Algerian sailors in the XVII century.

The Europeans rediscovered the art of tattoo during the great conquests, bumping against the American Indians and Polynesians.  The word «tattoo» came to the European languages from the island of Tahiti, it was recorded by the traveler James Cook during the trip in 1796.

The abovementioned information collected from different parts of the world during different historical periods shows that regardless of the differences in application technique and symbols tattoos were a universal phenomenon and had one common meaning: the religious one.

Tattoo and Faith

There is a mass of evidence that the traditional tattoos are associated with faith in an inexplicable way:  information of many people they have magical/religious features and its owner receives specific privileges. For example, a tattoo with a dear was as an assistant during the animal hunting the meat of which was an indispensable source of food.

With the beginning of the agrarian revolution, the important stage in the development of humanity, significant transformations happened in the minds of people that also affected the meanings that people put into their tattoos. These changes led to the formation of a new way of thinking fundamentally different from the primitive man. 

Belief in the power and the influence of animals, plants, and acts of nature in general on a person have changed into belief in the power that controls all the processes in nature. Thus, people discovered God and there was the transition from polytheism to monotheism.  The emergence of monotheistic religions hurt the tattoo traditions: these religions did not approve of the drawings on the body, considering them one of the elements of the pagan faith.  

The religious concepts took a heavy toll on the forms of tattoos: they impose what symbols can be infilled on the body, and which ones are not allowed, or completely forbid tattoos.

Some research about the history of tattoo in Turkey

The first research regarding the history of tattoos was published in 1975 in a Turkish magazine dedicated to folklore.  The author of the research was Abdul Kadir Gyuler, he published the article entitled  «The Origin of Tattoos from Mardin, Kiziltepe Region». According to Abdul Kadir Gyuler, these tattoos occurred in Africa and Asia. 

Since cultural boundaries are blurred, it is impossible to determine the exact origin of the tattoo. Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, India; we will never be able to determine where this cultural flow began because all the cultural traces have been mixed a long time ago. The only thing we can say for sure on this subject is that nomads living particularly in the south-east of Turkey, in the north of Iraq, on the north-west of Iran, n the north of Syria have played a major role in keeping the tradition of tattoos.

Source: Mümtaz Fırat “Kaybolan İzler-Güneydoğu’da Geleneksel Dövme ya da Dek ve Dak.”

Translated by Anna Movsisyan armat.im

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