Last Updated 24 Jun 2020

History of Tattoos in Australia

Category Australia, Tattoos
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A tattoo is the permanent insertion of ink or other pigments below the skin using a sharp instrument, as a form of decorative form of body modification. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian term "tatua," which means "to mark. ” Since the dawn of time, tattoos have been used for all kinds of purposes. Tattoos have served as symbols of rights, symbols of rank or seniority, symbols of spirituality, devotion, religion, rewards for bravery and security. In ancient times, they were also used as symbols of punishment, slavery and conviction. However, over the past century, tattoos have been most frequently used as body art.

The art of tattooing cannot be traced back to a specific time or place. One of the oldest tattoos however, was found to be engraved on the back of a well - preserved natural mummy of a man (now known as “Otzi the Iceman”) who was buried alive on the slopes of the Alps over 5000 years ago. However, research shows that if the skin rots after death, evidence of a tattoo completely disappears. This means that tattoos may have been around for longer than 5000 years, yet there’s no evidence to prove this. Numerous mummies that were excavated from the pyramids in Egypt have also been found to have tattoos.

These tattoos however, were engraved near waists of the women who longed for children and were a symbol of their goddess of fertility. There has been evidence to suggest that in the past tattooing was done for medicinal purposes and that the pigments used in tattoos had some sort of healing effect. For example, societies in the Arctic believe tattoos have powers that can ward off illness or protect people from all types of harm. They believed diseases such as rheumatism were caused by an imbalance in their souls, caused by evil spirits.

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They thought that these evil spirits entered their bodies through their joints, so they tattooed designs on their joints in an attempt to block them out. Furthermore, ‘protective’ or ‘guardian’ tattoos could be used by these societies to save people from disasters at sea, help them on a journey through the unknown, or even guard against the death of a new born. The art of tattooing was also popular amongst Christian adherents (as many received the tattoo symbolising ‘the Stigmata of the Lord Jesus’) until the church edict forbade them on the pretext of some quotes in the Bible.

The Old Testament law commanded the Israelites, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:28). This command from God is further explained in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 : “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body. ” Therefore, the number of tattoos amongst Christian adherents significantly decreased.

Tattoos have since then persisted in various parts of the world for various reasons and although tattoos have now become acceptable in contemporary societies, ‘tattoos are still condemned in God’s eyes. ’ In the Western world, tattooing has historically served as a brand of criminality or a sign of shame (as seen in "The Scarlet Letter" of Nathaniel Hawthorne. ) These branding mimicked those of the branding of slaves, the tattooing of prisoners of war in ancient Athens and the marking of the foreheads of French prisoners in the 18th and 19th centuries with letters signifying their punishment.

Australia has a rich historical background in which the art of tattooing has a special place. Date back to almost 4,000 years, the Samoan and the Maori tribes displayed a wide range of tattoos on specific parts of their body. In fact, these tribes of Australia represent the major history of tattooing. The Samoan tribes used to cover their lower body completely with all-embracing tattoos, though these tattoos held no specific cultural significance beyond fashion.

However, having a tattoo proved a statement that an individual could bear pain and those who didn’t have a tattoo were vulnerable to severe criticism from others as they were seen to be weak cowards. The average Samoan design could take as long as six months to complete. In order to complete the arduous task, a special tattooing shed was specifically built; only to be burned down at the completion of the tattoo. Special combs were utilised by Samoan tattoo artists to apply the designs. The combs would be dipped in ink and then tapped along the skin, so that the pointed teeth of the comb would puncture the surface and insert the ink.

This extremely painful procedure posed several hygiene issues and usually led to several health problems, such as infections. While the Samoans covered their lower bodies with tattoos, the Maori of New Zealand covered their faces. This tattooing technique, called “moko” was unique to the Maori. Each man wore an individualised pattern as the design was based on his own particular facial features. The tattooing artist would study the man’s face and create a design that would accentuate them, in an attempt to make his appearance more dignified and forceful.

The pattern would be carved into the skin with a bone chisel and the ink would be placed in the cuts to create the tattoo. The whole process, which took up to weeks to complete one face, was awfully painful and would consequently cause a lot of swelling. Maori women also had their faces tattooed, but it was limited to the lips and chin only. In Australia, the modern art of tattooing began when the European convicts were sent into exile here in the late 1700's, after Captain James Cook brought tattoos back to England as curiosities after encountering Tahitian tattoos when in the South Pacific in the 1760’s.

To express diverse human emotions, the prisoners used to make tattoos by etching the black sediments of the oil lamps into their skin, forever recording their hopes, beliefs, loves and disappointments. At this time, tattoos became a way for convicts to make human statements about themselves. The positioning of a tattoo was also particularly significant as the most personal of messages were reserved for parts of the body that were usually covered up. For some convicts, tattoos were purely decorative, while others transcribed the dates of their trials, or dates when their sentences were up.

Family trees and slogans and religious symbols were also quite common. The most popular tattoo however, was the anchor, which was a symbol of hope and loyalty, and was often attached to a loved one’s initials. The period between the First and Second World Wars has been dubbed the “Golden Age of Tattooing” as many servicemen in the army and navy tattooed themselves as acts of patriotism and nationalism. During this period, tattoos served as symbols of group identity, memorial dedications to home, girlfriends, wives, family and the wars themselves.

These tattoos were almost exclusively a male practice and connoted a bond between men forged by patriotic and militaristic duty, and by necessary association, masculinity and power. A new form of street or ‘biker’ tattoo began to emerge after the Second World War. Instead of patriotic values, however, this new style of tattooing had embedded in it defiance, “a challenge to mainstream middle-class values as well as to the traditional form of patriotic and love-inspired working class tattoo” (DeMello 2000:67). This style of tattooing became synonymous with biker and prison convict subcultures, and continues relatively unchanged to this day.

Although they began as an exclusive practice amongst males, they are now commonly found on women also. ‘Bikers’ were typically heavily tattooed with entire sleeves, legs, chests or backs covered in ink. Popular imagery included religious icons (Jesus Christ, crucifixes, the Virgin Mary), scales of justice, skulls, dragons, spiders, motorcycles, and biblical quotes. Specific tattoos identified the wearer as a member of a particular social group, gang or ethnicity. Throughout the several phases during the twentieth century, the tattoo industry was primarily underground and was relegated to the lower working classes.

In the 1960’s, however, tattoos ‘fragmented’ and were used as important identity symbols for convicts, punks, bikers and many subcultures within society. This fragmentation ultimately lead to the ‘tattoo renaissance’ which lead tattoos to become popular culture icons in the 1980’s and 1990’s. With the “tattoo renaissance,” tattoos came to be seen as an anthropological, sociological and ethnographic phenomenon which changed society’s views of the human body. Punk tattoos of the 1970’s were part of a lexicon of highly visible signs and symbols of sub cultural identity.

Inspired by the punk scene that emerged from the British punk scene in the early 1970’s, the punk subculture in Australia epitomised social marginalisation, hostile rebellion and protest. Punks manipulated their clothes, hairstyles and bodies as a form of self creation. Vividly and implicitly displayed in public, punk tattoos were the seeds of what would become mainstream tattoo practices. Nowadays, tattoos are “not just for bikers anymore” and are now the domain of the middle-class, educated and professionals. Many musicians, athletes, icons and role models now have tattoos, which has also been a contributing factor to their popularity.

But most importantly, women now make up 50% of those who have tattoos, as opposed to the past, when it was rare for women to have a tattoo. Today, tattoos generally tend to avoid the “negative” imagery associated with many traditional prison, biker or punk styled tattoos. Studies show that tattoos worn by the “career-oriented” include a wide variety of symbols and styles, from the big and colourful, to the small and monochromatic, from Christian iconography to tribal or indigenous designs. Further research has revealed the most popular tattoo designs to be small crosses, butterflies, flowers, Celtic rings and arm and ankle bracelets

These days, tattoos have become a large part of our popular culture. The demand for tattoos has grown rapidly, both amongst the rich and famous and within the general population as a whole. One in every seven adults today sports a tattoo as they have now become major fashion statement throughout society. The tattoo industry is growing tremendously, with an increased demand for tattoos, tattoo parlours, tattoo artists and tattoo supplies due to the recent acceptance of tattoos into mainstream culture.

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