My previous post – prompted by our upcoming exhibition Skin – looked at the origins of tattooing. During my research into the subject, I was struck by how much tattooing in the ancient world seems to have in common with modern tattooing.
Although indigenous tribal tattooing may have all but disappeared globally, in recent years tattoos have experienced something of a renaissance in Europe and North America. These days you can’t walk down a high street in any bustling Western city without seeing people with visible tattoos. Interesting when you consider that as recently as 100 years ago tattooing was still generally associated with the underbelly of society: sailors, soldiers, criminals and prostitutes.
Opinions vary regarding the cause of this shift in opinion. Undoubtedly the advancement of equipment played a vital role – thanks to the first patented electric tattoo machine (developed by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891 as a modified version of Edison’s electrically powered ‘stencil pen’), tattooing became much faster, safer and less painful. But it wasn’t until the 1960s with flower power, rock and roll and the prospering of the West that the climate seemed right for forms of body decoration to flourish. And attitudes seem to have been relaxing ever since.
However, despite all this progression, ancient tattoo imagery still resonates through many modern tattoos.
Most ancient tattoos tend to fall into two camps – abstract patterns of black lines and dots or animal imagery (and sometimes a combination of the two). These types of imagery are particularly popular with the modern tattoo crowd, with the style known as modern-day ‘tribal’ being one of the most common. Modern tribal tattoos are almost always solely black and are composed of lines and swirls. They are often abstract shapes but sometimes depict animals and other simple figures. More examples
Although the tattooed Scythians of 2500 years ago may seem impossibly distant from most tattooed Westerners in terms of geography, culture and time, their bold tattoo symbols still hold some sway among modern devotees. Seemingly inscrutable and yet tantalisingly familiar, their images draw our curiosity back to a time and place that may help us to interpret them.