Ink with meaning: What we can learn from the tattoos of our ancestors

Story highlights

Tattoos are more popular than ever before

Having a tattoo has become a marker of individual identity

A tattoo speaks volumes about cultural background and personal identity

A new book explores the origins of tattoos and body art through the ages

CNN  — 

Eight thousand years ago, a pencil mustache was tattooed onto the upper lip of a young Peruvian man. His mummified body has since become the oldest existing example of tattoo art on the planet.

Today’s world is, of course, almost unrecognizable by comparison. But according to Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University – author of a new book about body art – the tattoo has made a powerful comeback.

“There has been an extraordinary, epochal change in the last 25 years,” he says. “When I was a child in the 1960s, we didn’t see tattoos everywhere. But there has been an explosion in popularity, and this tells us a lot about who we are, both culturally and as individuals.”

In fact, according to some studies, up to 38% of Americans and a fifth of British adults have some type of long-term body art.

Many interlocking factors have a bearing on the popularity of the tattoo. Foremost among them is a change in the popular conception of the body.

“Because of advances in technology and medical science, people no longer understand the body as something natural that you’re born with and live with. Instead, we understand it much more as something that is changeable and mutable,” says Professor Thomas.

“People have all sorts of surgical interventions, medical and cosmetic. It is even possible to change your gender. This means that we now see our body as something we have a responsibility to design and make. Even something as simple as a fitness routine or a tan indicates this attitude.”

A permanent stamp of identity

In addition, as global mobility leads to the increasing pluralization of society, identity is also being seen as something to be designed rather than inherited.

“People are no longer simply British or Australian or Californian,” he says. “Our identities are far more particular, linked to our interests, affinities to cultural or spiritual traditions, tastes in music, and subcultural allegiances. The tattoo has become a vehicle for that sort of particular identification.”

The recent surge in popularity for tattooing started in the California counter-cultural scene of the Sixties and Seventies. During the 20th Century, tattoos had become associated with criminals, sailors and members of the military, who had become dislocated from mainstream society and wanted to stamp a commemoration of that experience on their bodies.

The Californians took that trend and subverted it, inventing their own designs and viewing body ink as an art form rather than a type of social branding.

More recently, there’s been a return to traditional forms of tribal tattoos. Ancient Celtic designs, or those originating in the Pacific Islands, provide inspiration for a great number of body ink enthusiasts (although it remains unusual to see a young man with a tattoo of a pencil mustache).

In the past, however, tattoos were not used to form individual identities. Instead they tended to be a collective cultural project, constituting particular social markers. Sometimes they created a spectacular appearance when a tribe all shared the same design; in other instances, they were used as initiation or coming-of-age rites.

“In Samoa, men have elaborate tattoos inked on their thighs, buttocks and lower chest,” says Professor Thomas. “It is a painful ordeal that requires a man to submit to the authority of the elders. When he emerges, he is celebrated as a hero.”

Tattoos and individualism

The Samoans, and many other traditional communities, saw having a tattoo as an important process rather than a possession. The whole body was tattooed at once, and it was rarely supplemented. By contrast, the modern tattoo enthusiast tends to view them as an expanding collection that creates permanent markers of important moments in an individual’s life.