As a young child I would peer closely at my father’s tattoo, mesmerised at the full-rigged sailing ship permanently etched into his upper arm. He was a seaman and it seemed that tattoos were just part of being a sailor. That belief was enforced the day my mother and I drove to Auckland Princes Wharf to meet my eldest brother (a sailor as well) who while throwing his duffel bag in the back of the car winked at me as he showed off his new ‘ship’ tattoo.
Growing up in New Zealand, it would never occur to me to have a tattoo myself. For women to have a tattoo in those days, and until quite recently was taboo, except for the Maori but more on that later. The idea of permanent makeup intrigued me though. It seemed such a practical idea. Part of the reason for my interest was I had what I called ‘poppy eyelids’….they needed some sort of ‘filling in’. Eyeliner was such an important part of the everyday look and made such a difference… I felt embarrassed without it.
So when did the art of cosmetic tattoo begin? Whether permanently adorning the face or body with tool and ink… tattoo is in fact cosmetic, and permanent makeup to this day, is tattoo. Incidentally the word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word Tatau meaning ‘mark’ or ‘strike twice’.
Tattoo was known way, way back in the glacial age, or more than 8000BC. Whether it was originally for the purpose of beautifying and enhancing, or bringing attention to the face and body, or for mystical religious reasons, it was here to stay.
Nut, charcoal, plant, soot and other natural substances created brilliant colours which were implanted with splinters, thorns, bone and needles. ‘Firing’ turned natural materials to carbon which were ground to a dust and then usually mixed with water. In 1991 the famous tattooed ‘Ice-man’ was found around the Italian-Austrian border, carbon dated around 5,200 years ago. There have been many examples recovered before and since but some of the earliest evidence goes back some 7000 + yrs, from the Chilean culture. Arguably, South America has the longest continuous history of tattooing in the world.
Egyptian women were fans of permanent makeup and in fact Cleopatra the most famous Egyptian Pharaoh (although ethnically Greek) was embellished with permanent makeup. Exquisite tattoos were common amongst Royalty, but also given to Egyptian concubines, entertainers (dancers and singers) and often included symbols of Bes, Goddess, protector of women.
At the time of the Roman Era, the Britons, Iberians, Gauls, Goths, Teutons, Picts & Scots were all practicing body tattoo. However, there is no evidence of it being popular with Hebrews, even before the Mosaic Law, which prohibited it. Today Jewish law still clearly forbids tattoos.
So this ancient art has been important to hundreds of civilizations with pigment bowls and tools for tattooing being found throughout the Middle East to Southern Asia. The Incas, Mayans & Aztecs were tattooing long before Christianity. Crude implements for embedding pigment have been discovered in rock strata in France, Portugal, Romania and Scandinavia. Humans of every class, and animals too, endured branding and markings made from natural colorants scratched or rubbed into the skin. Unintentional permanent markings have come about as well, with gunpowder or coal dust (as with coal miners) and other substances finding their way into wounds and scratches. Artists expanded the palette using cadmium, organic dyes and oxides to create pigments that were diverse but equally unsafe.
Tattoos have been used to record and mark courage, status, honour and spirituality in every form. Slaves were identified with it. Stories, myths and legends have been documented and tattooed dots have even been aligned with pressure points for therapeutic purposes.
The Ainu tribes were nomadic and travelled across Asia to Siberia settling in Northern Japan and amongst them tattooing was commonplace. Contemporary Ainu women today have their chins and upper lips tattooed blue black or black in a design for sexual attractiveness.
With cosmetic tattooing being in vogue for millennia, bold and delicate designs alike had spread from far away places as ancient Egypt, India, Philippines, Borneo, Africa, and Japan, Cambodia and China. Seamen from South America found themselves in the South Sea Islands and New Zealand where unique cultures again were expressed with etchings and patterns on the skin.
As a child I remember watching an elderly Maori lady get off the bus at a certain time every day and glide past me wearing her ‘moko’ on her chin. I knew then, this type of tattoo was unique to the Maori and the placement around the mouth gave the Maori woman ‘speaking rights’.
In the old days, a chisel was used first to cut deep into the skin. A special moko ink made from kauri gum, vegetable based pigments and/or body substance from one type of caterpillar was rubbed into the incision with a serrated implement (uhi). The resulting design healed with grooves rather than a pattern smooth to the skin.
The moko not only had great status with Maori society but every change in design showed ancestral and tribal differences. Identification of the various tribes and social classes through the moko and other extensive engraving in the skin, was then and is still worn with great pride. In recent years, Maori cultural tattoo has made a revival amongst a minority, often giving the wearer identification, and self-esteem.
Still, the art of holistically reading the messages within the tattoo is not as understood today as it once was. Then knowing and understanding each line or groups of line, was a way of life.
Nowadays I look at my attractive 30yr old daughter as she dramatically arches an eyebrow at me, and gives me her smile. That look that says so much!
Today’s permanent makeup is used as it always has been…to enhance and beautify.
We are now not only spoilt for colour choice, but we need never grimace in pain at the procedure and can choose, natural pigments that are stable, free of impurities, true to colour, and safe. My how things have changed!