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Tattoos - A Sailor’s Life History
By Lynn Whitney
Your teenager just came home sporting a new tattoo. Or maybe you are thinking of getting one yourself. Long a symbol of rebels and gangsters, the modern tattoo has become a widely accepted fashion statement. So, just how did this exotic yet painful practice make its way into the mainstream population?
The first documented tattoo was found on Otzi the Iceman. Found in the Otz Valley in the Alps, Otzi’s mummified remains date back to the 5th or 4th millennium BC. He was tattooed with some 57 dots and lines, located on his lower spine, behind his left knee and on his right ankle. Their placement resembled acupuncture placing and is generally regarded to have been a form of healing.
Various other cultures around the world and throughout time had their own tattoo traditions. Julius Caesar described in Book V of his “Gallic Wars,” the dark blue, war-inspired tattoos of the Picts, the ancient race of Britons and first known inhabitants of Scotland.
By the 19th Century the art of tattooing had infiltrated British society, largely due to the influence of sailors. The sailing tradition of tattooing is believed to have begun with Captain Cook’s three voyages to the South Pacific. While in Tahiti in 1769, aboard the Endeavor, Captain Cook and his Science Officer and Expedition Botanist Sir Joseph Banks, first noticed the indigenous body art and coined the word tattoo, from the Tahitian tatau.
Banks himself, along with many of the crew, returned with tattoos, introducing the practice to Europe, from where it continued to gain popularity in seaports around the world. However, the reasons behind the exotic, yet painful art form bewildered Banks. “What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reasons for it.” After much consideration, he concluded: “……possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.”
And superstition was one thing sailors shared with the Polynesians. With the inherent dangers and uncertainties of their lives, sailors often resorted to talismans to ward of bad luck and invoke good fortune. Intensely proud of their accomplishments, they also used tattoos to record certain milestones in their voyages.
Here are some meanings and de-codings of traditional tattoos and piercings.
Originally part of the sailing culture to protect from harm and record a living history, tattoos have become a modern expression of individuality. Every picture tells a story…..