Popeye's meant he sailed the Atlantic. Robbie Williams looked to Maori culture for inspiration in choosing his. Winston Churchill's mother discreetly covered hers with a bracelet.
All three bear a personal history etched in skin — a practice as old as man, but until recently in Western culture, one that was relegated to sea salts, criminals and whores. Today, the tattoo isundergoing a renaissance such that only the deeply unfashionable remain unmarked. Or so it would seem to a viewer of mtv, where celebs like Pink, Anastacia and Eminem proudly flaunt their skin art.
"Skin Deep," an exhibition at London's National Maritime Museum that runs through Sept. 30, traces the history of tattooing in modern Western culture from its roots in Polynesia to its trendiness today. "Itis definitely more acceptable in Western culture than ever," says curator Karin Buch-Nielsen. "Often you see tattoos as something negative, but we are trying to bring out the positive side of it."
Prehistoric man was thought to have practiced tattooing — puncturing the skin with crude tools dipped in pigment that left a permanent mark possibly for therapeutic purposes — and mummies withdecorative tattoos have been discovered in many parts of the world. Yet for nearly as long as there has been tattooing, there has been condemnation. The Romans considered decorative tattooing barbaric, a slur still evident in the Latin word for tattoo, stigma, and used tattoos to mark slaves and criminals. Despite its deep roots in ancient cultures, tattooing had fallen out of practice in Europe by thetime Britain's Captain James Cook set sail for the Polynesian Islands in 1768. This is where "Skin Deep" picks up the tale.
Though Cook and his men were not the first Europeans to encounter Oceanic tattooing, they were the first to record the practice systematically. Through expedition artist Sydney Parkinson's striking drawings, on display at the museum, the Western world got its firstglimpse of the intricate designs of the Pacific Islanders, like the full-buttock tattooing of the Tahitians and the elaborate face tattooing of New Zealand's Maori tribes, which mapped family lineage and personal histories. Cook also introduced to the English language the word tattoo, taken from the Tahitian.
The sailors were fascinated. "For them it was a completely new thing," says NicholasThomas, professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and an exhibition consultant. "They were astonished by the pain that people had to go through." Displayed in the museum are early tattooing tools made of bone, cut to a jagged edge to puncture the skin — a far cry from today's handheld electric tattooing machines that inject ink into the skin with a fine needle.
Cook'smen didn't fully understand the significance of tattooing among the Oceanic people, for whom the designs were both rite of passage and symbolic protection against the spirit world and earthly enemies. Yet the sailors were eager to be marked themselves. "Tattooing is an example of how a small, remote society had a tremendously significant impact on European culture," Thomas says. "This changed thebodies of Europeans in a radical way."
Sailors adopted the practice with gusto, designing mariner motifs of their own. A turtle meant a sailor had crossed the equator, an anchor (like Popeye's) that he had sailed the Atlantic. Crucifixion scenes were also popular motifs — a vain attempt to avoid flogging, as it was hoped no one would dare whip the image of Christ. Soon, brandishing a tattoo fromevery port of call was all the rage. By the 19th century, 90% of all U.S. Navy sailors had tattoos. "They were like personal souvenirs on their body," Buch-Nielsen says. "It was like how we might buy a little Eiffel Tower or a postcard today." Because tattooing emerged from the underclass of mariner culture and grew in port districts, areas long linked with criminals and prostitutes, it...
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