Would you choose to undergo suffering for the sake of art? Not just any art, but that which uses your flesh for the canvas? Well, that’s what happens when you get a tattoo. The more body art, the more pain as a needle pierces your skin and shoots color into a tiny hole over and over again. A small flower on your ankle. Or your whole torso covered with dragons and skulls.
According to archeologists who have dug up mummified remains with evidence of skin art, it appears that humans have undergone the pain of being tattooed since the Stone Age. In some cultures, tattoos were evidence of punishment or the mark of a criminal. In other societies, a tattoo was for the wealthy and ruling class—a type of self-decoration. In ancient Egypt, body art seems to have been done mostly on women rather than men. The most famous old, tattooed guy is Otzi, the Ice Man, found in the Alps with 61 designs on his flesh. How did these ancient humans do this without the modern needles and ink we have now? Like the Iroquois Indians, they probably cut into their skin with a blade and then sprinkled soot or coal dust or something similar into the wound for color.
Getting body art in our American culture is no longer just for bikers or gangs or sailors as it once was. Celebrities, athletes, even grandmas are now opting to express themselves by getting a tattoo or, as some say, a “tat.” Others call it getting “inked.” If you are in Tokyo or Osaka, you can use the word “irezumi.” It means to insert ink and is the Japanese word for tattoo. In fact, the Japanese irezumi artists are well known around the world for their tattooing skills.
Nearly 40 years ago an American photographer, Sandi Fellman, took her polaroid camera to Yokohama to do a book on the art of Japanese irezumi. (The Japanese Tattoo, Abbeville Press, 1987). She featured one of the most famous tattoo artists at that time, Mitsuaki Ohwada, sometimes called Horikin (carver of gold). His love for irezumi went back to his childhood. But he had to hide it from his family whose status in society would not have let them approve. When he was in his teens, he began to experiment by doing designs on hams and sausages. Eventually he tattooed under his arms or inside his thighs and other places on his body where his family couldn’t see them. His design skills as an adult and reputation helped make Yokohama a famous center for irezumi. He died in 1989, just a few years after traveling to the United States to be part of “The Art of the Japanese Tattoo” exhibit at the Peabody Museum. Other Japanese artists have carried on his passion for body art.
Tattoos are illegal in some parts of the world. Some countries prohibit any form of religious tattoo. All tattoos with any type of Nazi design are outlawed in Germany, France and Slovakia. In the U.S. you must be age 18 or have a parent’s permission to get a tattoo----unless you live in Iowa. There, if you are under age 18 and married, you and your spouse can get “inked” all you want. Despite being known for their amazing body art, in Japan tattoos are often banned at beaches or pools. Hmmm….did anyone tell our Olympic athletes that?