The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 8th

Inking Art Draws On History

But evidence of skin art has existed for a much longer time, as images of humans with markings on their bodies have been displayed on artifacts dating back 30,000 years.

Female mummies discovered in Egypt have shown signs of body art. Designs were often located on the stomach and supposedly relate to fertility.

Tattooing lived on through the great civilizations. The Persians passed on their knowledge of body art to the ancient Greeks, who in turn gave it to the Romans. Until it was prohibited in the fourth century, tattooing was used to identify criminals and slaves.

The people of Japan had the same purpose in mind. According to a historical account written in A.D. 720, tattoos were used as punishment --they identified criminals, and their presence would effectively destroy a person's social standing.

Conversely, some cultures saw body art in a very positive light. The Maoris of New Zealand viewed tattooing with the utmost respect, and the rewards for expert "skin-carvers" were great. The location of the art differed among the sexes. Women had art carved primarily on their chins while males had facial tattoos called "moko."

For men, the moko became like a new identity on top of the real face. The spiraling or curved designs connected a person to a tribe, a family or to their god.

Elsewhere in the South Pacific, tattooing was just as prominent. The men of the Marquesas Isles had designs from head to toe, while the women were marked extensively on the buttocks and limbs. "Pahu tiki," which means wrapping in images, was incredibly complex, and its sophistication has not been equalled to this day.

While they might not have been as culturally important to the different native tribes of the Americas, tattoos were still used for a variety of reasons. Among the Mayans, tattoos often signified bravery. The natives of Mexico also imprinted themselves with lasting images of their idols.

Further north, body art might have set apart those warriors who had been exemplary in battle, or it might have indicated social or marital status. Some tribes used intimidating body art to instill fear in their enemies. In any case, they had to patiently endure long periods of pain while the artists used awls and needles to make the markings. The purpose of tattoos depended on place, tribe and gender.

But body art wasn't nearly as prevalent in Europe, thanks in no small part to an edict of the Catholic Church in A.D. 787. Pope Adrian I saw tattooing as a pagan practice and banned it on any part of the body.

During the 18th century, however, the art form began to spread as sailors began returning from the South Pacific with various tribal designs marked on their bodies. The term "tattoo" was actually coined by the British explorer Captain Cook -- he had derived the word from the Tahitian "ta-ta-u."

As the practice of body art became more and more popular in the British navy, U.S. sailors picked it up as well. Records of American sailors having tattoos during the early 1800s have been found in letters, logs and other sources. The state of American tattoos remained stagnant until it was given new life in the mid-20th century by a tattooist living in Honolulu -- Norman Collins.

Modern tattooing owes much to Collins, known to body art afficionados as "Sailor Jerry." Considered to be one of the best tattooists of the twentieth century, he was responsible for introducing countless additions to American body art, which are often reflected in today's designs.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.


The Daily Tar Heel's 2023 Rivalry Edition

Special Print Edition

Games & Horoscopes

Print Edition Games Archive