Research Paper Example: Tattoos as Art in Different Cultures

6 pages
1518 words
Wesleyan University
Type of paper: 
Research paper
This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

I have decided to write about this topic because never have I been to a public place, be it the streets, the beaches, swimming pools or even social institutions without spotting some form of inked skin. From ankle to sleeve tattoos, facial to general body art; tattoos have taken the modern society by storm. The social media has showcased thousands of tattoo parlors with millions of followers every day making this form of art an ever-growing part of the modern society. Some of the modern sportspersons have been pictured showcasing various forms of body art, a feature that has influenced an extensive section of the society to embrace this culture. The tattoo industry has sprung up on the main Television networks, gaining eminence. Some of the drawings are stunning and adorable, others bizarre and ugly while some are incomprehensible to those who set their eyes on them, but hold a significant meaning and symbolism to the owner. It is therefore sensible to say that tattoos, as a form of body art, constitute an important part of peoples cultures.

The Pew Research center conducted research which revealed that 36% of the maiden population in America, that is, people between the ages 18 and 25, have been tattooed. In addition to other elements of pop culture such as hair-dying and body piercing, body tattooing is the most prevalent form of self-expression. That explains why the tattoo industry has been named the sixth fastest growing industry in the United States, backed up by an average of 140 million searches on Google (Heimlich 2009). This outcome is an indication that very many individuals seek to decorate their bodies to express themselves.


A couple of decades ago, tattoos were associated with dangerous motorcycle gangs, prison inmates, and sailors. Such body markings were mainly meant to define an identity, mark territory, or symbolize a belief in something. It was a rarity to spot body ink from people who held executive jobs like accountancy or managerial positions. In the current generation, body inking is for everybody as people consider it also as a form of art. The industry has gone viral as some artists even hold tattoo exhibitions. The word tattoo originated from a Polynesian tradition, the Tahitian words ta-tu or tatau first described the body inking practice before Cook and Banks coined it to mean prick or mark.' Cooks expedition to the Polynesian islands and back to England transferred the practice to Europe.

Origin and archaeological evidence

While the question as to where tattoos originated from remains mysterious, the scientific evidence indicates that this culture has been part of human history for years. A prehistoric man (Otzi) discovered by the German hikers in 1991 on the glacial areas of the Alps, was studied by scientists. The carbon dating done on the remains of the mummified body of the ancient man showed that he had more than fifty tattoos between his ankles to his neck. It was concluded that the markings represented ancient cultural practices and rituals. The detailed scrutiny of the archaeological artifacts from the Paleolithic era suggests how sharp bones were used to insert clay and red ochre or into the skin for artistic as well as cultural purposes.

As a cultural practice, some archaeological records maintain that tattooing has existed since the Bronze Age and has only extended into the contemporary cultures. There have been qualitative and quantitative studies that have affiliated this practice with the military community. It has come out that soldiers inked their bodies to identify with each other, as a sign of prestige or punishment. The transfer of the tattooing culture into other cultures has been favored by the soldiers ability to influence the communities with which they associate. Taken from this study, too, was that tattoos are sources of motivation or remembrance.

Just like other cultural elements, tattoos represent a broad range of meanings. Scholars have settled on the idea that some of these body marks represent ethnic marks, traces of treatments for physical ailments, of some identity marks (Cain & Byard, 2008). Other anthropologists have found that such body marks were associated with brave people labeled as warriors by their communities. The military community was considered to be a microcosm of the heroes of the society, and so is Otzi as per the tattoos that were discovered on his body.

Tattoo culture in Egypt

The Egyptian culture has a lot to offer as far as tattoos are concerned. There exist evidence that various figurines of the ancient Egyptian women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs. The female figures found at tomb scenes revealed tattooed thighs. In Northern Egypt, at a small town of Gurob, tattooing tools were discovered in the form of bronze elements at around 1450 B.C. Additionally, there were female mummies whose figures bore body markings, all of which were engraved for specific reasons or purposes. Women who bore tattoos were exemplary of loose morals and lower status. They were ignored or dismissed by men as they were regarded as prostitutes or dancing girls.' The same perception was evidence in the Greco-Roman culture where womens status in the society was dictated by body markings. The funerary inscriptions on the tombs of the Egyptian females were enough to determine the social classes to which they belonged. One of the mummies, known as Amunet whose tomb was located at Deir el-Bahari represented the few women who had associations with the royal status (Bianchi 1988).

In addition to marking the prostitutes, the tattoos in ancient Egypt have also been assumed to help protect women from sexual assault or even sexually transmitted diseases. According to what other scholars have agreed to, this was a therapeutic process which dealt with resultant diseases from sexual activities. According to how the tattoos were distributed i.e. around the abdominal regions, breast areas and thighs, it was meant to safeguard pregnant women during that phase and up to delivery. Similarly, in Greece and Rome, the tattoos were considered brands that symbolized servitude, markers of fertility or the sign that one needed some protection (Cain & Byard 2008). The gods have mandated the ability to protect unborn children from any form of harm. So striking is the fact that in Egypt, the art of body tattooing was a common phenomenon with women. The available archaeological and mummified evidence also indicate hieroglyphics and iconography suggestive of high ranking men and the Pharaohs having tattoos.

The Egyptologists interpretation that associated tattooed women with prostitution and lower class has been criticized by other scholars labeling it confusing. Women of high status also existed and had tattoos, especially those who belonged to the court and even the priestesses. The perception later changed as far as body art and women were concerned; the marks were subsequently known to represent a cultic identification with a god (Hathor). Amunet was a priestess whose worship of Hathor presented a womans relationship with a supreme being (Bianchi 1988).

Tattoo culture in Japan

In other cultures, tattoos carry more meanings as compared to others. For instance, in the Japanese culture, the tattoos can be used to verify whether or not an individual belongs to a member of a criminal group. Japanese cultural tattoos are designed in various ways to reveal the tribe to which one belongs, or whether they have significant roles in the community. It requires careful selection when choosing a Japanese tattoo. Some are religious while others are not. One way in which the Japanese cultural tattooing differs with many others is that the traditional body inking has been performed even on children (Gilbert, 2000); a practice that is almost non-existent in other areas or most cultures. The Japanese decorative tattooing was inspired by what was called Irezumi, or the clothing tattoo.' That was a cultural practice in which an individuals naked body was transformed into an array of decorative images. Such imagery had connections with ones oral traditions like deities, heroes, sages or famous lovers and was visualized famous body artists. The Yakuza adopted tattooing to identify themselves as outcasts (Yamada 2009).


Even though some cultures and religions prohibit body art, the majority still flock tattoo parlors to ink their bodies. The implications of tattoos are skin related, but the process is safe. The contemporary society is full of tattoo enthusiasts who consider the human body as a kind of canvas for painting. Notable and skillful artists in the United States, as well as other regions of the world, have contributed immensely to the establishment and the transformation of the tattoo culture. This practice has permeated into a global trend rendering the art of tattooing as part and parcel of the modern culture.


Bianchi, Robert S. 1988. Tattoo in Ancient Egypt. Marks of civilization; artistic transformations of the human body Pp. 21--28.

Cains, Glenda E, and Roger W. Byard. 2008. The Forensic and Cultural Implications of Tattooing. In Forensic Pathology Reviews Volume 5. Pp. 197--220. Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press.

Gilbert, Steve. 2000. Tattoo History: A Source Book. USA: Juno Books, LLC.

Heimlich, Russell. 2009. "Tattooed Gen Nexters". Pew Research Center.

Yamada, Mieko. 2009. "Westernization And Cultural Resistance In Tattooing Practices In Contemporary Japan". International Journal Of Cultural Studies 12 (4): 319-338. doi:10.1177/1367877909104241.

Have the same topic and dont`t know what to write?
We can write a custom paper on any topic you need.

Request Removal

If you are the original author of this essay and no longer wish to have it published on the website, please click below to request its removal: