Happy Friday! With the long weekend upon us, it's likely a lot of you are going to be partying it up (we know we will be!), but just as many of you are undoubtedly happy to have a few days to just take it easy at home or on the beach. If that sounds like a plan, why not indulge in some eye-pleasing media while you're at it? Below are some of our favourite body-mod related books and videos. So sit back, relax, and enjoy!
Sailor Jerry Collins : American Tattoo Master
To call Sailor Jerry a legend would be an understatement, and this book shows us why. Filled with stories, pictures, original sketches, and more, this book is a must-have for all fans of old-school tattoos and tattoo history.
Flesh & Blood
This fascinating documentary takes us into the world of innovative, and sometimes controversial, body mod artist Steve Haworth, and the subculture he helped create.
The Tattoo Coloring Book
Think colouring is just for kids? Think again! This 240 page collection of original tattoo designs lets you step into the artist's shoes and revisit your childhood by filling them in however you see fit.
Tattoo Nation : The True Story of the Ink Revolution
Featuring some well-known celebrities and artists, Tattoo Nation tells the tale of how tattooing in North America evolved from a mark of rebellion to a respected art form.
If one Googles “tattoos + feminism”, a lot of…interesting results come up. Everything from powerful declarations of autonomy to brash “slut shaming” to images of feminist symbols will be offered. To say the message is mixed is quite the understatement. And that’s to be expected; it wasn’t all that long ago that women with tattoos and piercings were generally pushed into three categories: the promiscuous (see: “tramp stamp”), lesbians (see: any woman with short, brightly coloured hair and a nose-ring), or freaks (see: all of us). These stereotypes were never very accurate, of course, but they did, for better or worse, connect body modification to the feminist movement. Society was forced to view women as more than housewives and care-givers. We had autonomy; we were in charge of our own bodies, our own appearance, and our own symbolism. And that philosophy continues today. As Margot Mifflin writes in her 1997 book, Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo, “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”
It’s hard to say whether tattooed women followed feminism or vice versa, mostly because it’s difficult to say when feminism arose. Depending on whom you ask, feminism has been around for centuries, or only a few decades. What we can say, however, is that the tattooed women of history, whether consciously or not, were making feminist statements. In eras where a woman’s role was clear, and mostly involved cooking and breeding, these women bucked those expectations. They had careers. They were independent. They often stayed single, or partnered with like-minded individuals. A handful of them became tattoo artists themselves – a move that is still, sadly, fairly uncommon. These bold women created an intrinsic link between the female self and body modification by defying societal standards and claiming their bodies as their own.
And yet, despite the progress, the history, and the normalizing (approximately 23% of American women – compared to 19% of American men – are tattooed), a lingering stigma remains. Caroline Biggs, a blogger and Women’s Studies grad student, details her experience with having a feminist tattoo here, and how drastic the difference between female responses and male responses to it are. While most women express admiration for it, many men see it as a challenge, and sometimes even a threat. Joanne Ogilvie, a feminist writer, takes that point even further, stating “The assumption that, as a female, my body should be “pure” leads a whole lot of people to question my tattoos, why I have them, and whatever will I do when I’m old and wrinkly?”, issues that most tattooed men will never have to deal with. Even now, in the 21st century, in an era where women can do or be almost anything we wish, the concept of a heavily tattooed woman seems to run counter to what we perceive as feminine. We’re still faced with a dichotomy of softness, purity, and femininity, or hardness, boldness, and debasement. A woman who chooses to get tattooed is, effectively, sacrificing part of her perceived femininity. She is opening the door to statements about how a woman “should” look. How a woman “should” exist in society. And, as obnoxious as that may be, as much as many of us would rather not politicize our appearance, we must be proud of that fact. We must smile in the face of those ignorant shoulds, content in the knowledge that, as our numbers grow, the power of those attitudes lessens. They are the last whimpers of an outdated standard, and our tattoos are a fitting send-off.
Once considered little more than a fad, Asian-inspired tattoos are one of the most enduring and popular styles in North America. From koi fish to yin-yangs to Oni masks to Kanji, everyone likely knows someone donning such art. But where did this trend originate?
Depending on which Asian culture we’re talking about, tattoos have been considered deeply sacred, or grossly barbaric, for thousands of years. In ancient China, tattoos were largely shunned, given only to criminals – though a classic Chinese novel also features three heroic main characters who are tattooed. In the Philippines, tattoos have denoted rank and accomplishments for centuries. In Japan, the tradition of tattooing goes back nearly ten thousand years, and has symbolised everything from rites of passage to gang affiliation. What all of these cultures have in common, however, is the process itself. Traditional Asian tattooing involved attaching handmade needles (or sometimes just a sharpened bone or shell) to a thick piece of wood, usually with silk string or leather, and puncturing the flesh thousands of times. Sometimes a specially prepared ink was used, other times black ash was rubbed into the punctures. Large pieces could take years to finish, with the recipient returning every few days for two or three hour sessions.
So how did such a long and secretive process make its way to the other side of the world? Most of the tattoos we recognize as “Asian” are actually strictly Japanese. In China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and numerous other Asian countries, tattoos were largely symbolic, and did not feature distinct images – instead, they were series’ of dots, dashes, and contained patterns. The huge and detailed koi fish, pictorial representations of gods and demons, oni masks, cherry blossom trees, etc., that we associate with traditional Asian tattooing could, for many decades, only be found in Japan. As such, they could only have been discovered, and brought over, by someone who could bridge the gap, both geographically, and culturally. Enter the infamous Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. While it was certainly not him alone who brought Japanese tattooing to North America, most agree that he had the largest role to play. At 19, Collins enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and spent much time in Asian waters. There, he was exposed to various styles of art and tattoos, and got to know several prominent artists. As a life-long sailor, he was able to keep correspondence with various groups of people from both the underground and professional sectors, and most importantly, with Japanese tattoo masters. This allowed him to immerse himself in the world of Japanese tattooing and bring these ideas and techniques home. So while the name Sailor Jerry may invoke images of old-school flash, it is also him that must be credited for the large and intricate “traditional Asian” pieces we marvel at today.
Oddly, these pieces are now far more popular here than in Japan, or anywhere else in Asia. Still often seen as the domain of criminals and gang members, these large pieces are shunned by the general public throughout Asia. When Sailor Jerry began tattooing in this style, and apprenticing others to do the same, he may have had little idea that he was reinventing, and preserving, a long hidden tradition.
Memorial tattoos – that is, tattoos dedicated to the passed on – are a delicate and sensitive thing. For many, they are far more than a tattoo, even far more than a dedication; the process of choosing, getting, and healing a memorial tattoo is a ritual – personal, private, and of great significance. Their history goes back as far as tattooing itself; several ancient cultures had a version of the memorial tattoo, from a single dot or dash to represent the deceased to complex and highly detailed designs. Modern innovations have given us almost unlimited options, making the decision of what to get even more difficult than it already would have been.
When choosing a memorial tattoo, there are several things you want to keep in mind. Aside from the normal tattoo considerations such as placement, size, and detail, you’ll also want to ask yourself what you want this piece to represent. Obviously, it is in memory of a loved one, but what kind of memory? Are you wanting to symbolise them as a person? Do you want to immortalise an inside joke or special moment between you? Is there a specific object or activity connected to your memory of them? Do you want the piece to have meaning only to you, or do you want everyone who sees it to know who it’s dedicated to?
Once you’ve decided what you want your tattoo to represent, you’ll want to think about the design itself. The go-to for many is a basic name, date of birth, date of death piece – straightforward, simple, and to the point. But many others want something a bit more artistic, a bit more symbolic. Consider who they were as people, what their passions were, what they stood for, and what your relationship entailed. Think about what they would want you to get – would they appreciate a beautiful, elaborate expression of your love, or would they prefer something funny and lighthearted? How did they see themselves? Were they a musician, deeply religious, obsessed with Star Wars, extremely political? Choosing a piece that speaks of who they were, how you connected, or a particularly meaningful memory you have of them assures a memorial you will be proud to wear.
This is, of course, just advice – ultimately, you are the one who needs to be satisfied with your tattoo. But like funerals and wakes, memorial tattoos are, in the end, not just a ritual of passing, but a celebration of life.
With Easter once again upon us, religious symbolism can be seen everywhere. From crosses to eggs, even the most innocuous of Easter images have religious origins. So too do many forms and styles of tattooing; while it is a common myth that tattoos go against standard religious beliefs, the truth is much more…colourful.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the earliest known tattoos were often religious in nature – images of worshipped animals, symbols representing gods, and designs intended to ward off evil spirits are incredibly common in numerous cultural histories. But what about more recent times? Any of us that grew up in Christian environments have likely had Leviticus 19:28, the verse in which “cutting or marking the flesh” is strictly forbidden, quoted to us more than once. It is this verse that has led to the belief that tattoos are not permitted in many religions. Biblical scholars, however, argue that it is not tattooing itself that is forbidden, but a specific kind of ritual in which tattoos are employed. In fact, many Christian groups throughout history, such as the Knights of St. John and the Montanists, used tattoos to show their allegiance, and more recent groups, including Croats and Coptic Christians, tattoo themselves as a form of protection and declaration of faith.
In Hinduism, tattoos are not only permitted, but often encouraged. Markings on the forehead are thought to enhance spiritual health and open chakras. Women tattoo their faces with dots around the eyes and mouth to ward off evil, and men will tattoo Aum on their hands and arms to improve their karma. Several Hindu deities are portrayed with tattoos and other similar markings.
Neopaganism, an umbrella term for various forms of witchcraft, new-age spiritualism, and traditional belief systems, has no single policy on tattooing, but it’s safe to say that it is not generally frowned upon. In fact, many pagans utilize tattoos to memorialize their spiritual journeys or declare allegiance, often adorning themselves with their chosen gods and goddesses, pagan symbols, and sacred geometry. Others use tattoos as part of their private rituals, getting fertility symbols, images of talisman and amulets, or scenes from favourite myths. Gerald Gardner, a well-known figure in paganism and Wicca, had several tattoos depicting what he considered magical symbols, including a dagger, snakes, dragons, and anchors.
These are just a handful of spiritual paths that allow and encourage tattoos – there are many more, including traditional Japanese, Egyptian, and African religions, many Buddhist sects, and more progressive sects of Islam. On this Easter weekend, perhaps we can all take a few moments to appreciate the interconnectedness of symbolism and body modification throughout the world, and its history.
A few of our posts have discussed the history of mods, explained that full-body tattoos or heavily tattooed women aren’t near as recent as you may think, and delved into ancient methods of tattooing – going back as far as 10,000 years ago. What you may not have seen yet, however, are the countless vintage tattoo photos circulating the internet and museum archives. Here are a few of our faves:
In the late 1920s, an English sideshow performer named Horace Ridler contacted legendary tattoo artist George Burchett about being “tattooed all over”. Horace would come to be known as The Great Omi, and would go on to tattoo a large part of his body in animal-like stripes, stretch his earlobes, and get a veterinarian to pierce his septum at a painfully large gauge. Being heavily tattooed and having a couple of piercings isn’t all that odd today, but back then, it was enough for him to make a career for himself as a freak and sideshow attraction. What is most notable now, however, is that Horace took a practice that has been fairly common in Japan, parts of Africa, Papua New Guinea, and many other places, for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and brought it to the western world. That’s not to say Horace was the first European to be heavily tattooed, but his travelling show made him one of the most-seen.
Full body tattoos, of course, did not originate as a freakshow novelty. Japan has a ten thousand year old history of full, or partial, body suits – most of which were, and still are, done with a single needle. Depending on the era, these large and colourful pieces were the symbol of the wealthy upper-class, the criminal lower-class, artists, gang members, or cultural heroes such as warriors and firemen. Interestingly, Japan has always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with tattoos – even completely outlawing them at one point – and so, despite their long, rich history of body suits, artists are very careful to design these tattoos so that a standard dress shirt will still entirely hide them.
In parts of Africa, a method that combines scarification and tattooing has long been used to cover the body in intricate and deeply symbolic patterns. Small cuts are made to the skin with thorns or razors, and charcoal or coloured ash is rubbed into them. This process often begins at puberty, and continues throughout one’s life, telling a story of that person’s experiences, rank, spiritual journey, and social status. For both women and male warriors, special designs are also applied for protection of one’s own body, and offspring.
Papua New Guinea also boasts a long, fascinating history with full body tattoos. Unlike many other cultures, tattoos in Papua New Guinea were largely the domain of women – girls began getting tattooed at just five, and most artists were also female. The meaning behind the tattoos varied – some were ritualistic, others erotic, and still others were fertility or religious symbols. Styles and motifs were often passed from generation to generation, so the body suits also indicated one’s family ties and status. So important, and such a major part of their culture, were these tattoos that women who did not have them, or enough of them, were considered unsuitable for marriage. Some tribes believed that tattooing has existed as long as heaven and earth, and that the first peoples emerged from the soil, already tattooed.
In Europe and North America, full body tattoos are still a very new and uncommon thing, though our reasons for getting them don’t differ all that much. In order for someone to commit to such a major piece of work, it invariably has to mean a lot to them, and therefore, is likely to have something to do with their family connections, chosen sub-cultures, or life’s journey. One has to wonder if freakshow performers like Horace had any idea the huge cultural gaps they would begin bridging when they were staring down a veterinarian’s needle.
Ötzi the Iceman has been mentioned a few times on the I-Kandy blog, and for good reason. The approximately 5300 year old natural mummy radically altered the known history of body modification; he had tattoos and piercings that had, until then, only been found on much younger mummies and in more recent cultures. Of particular interest to many were his seemingly stretched earlobes. Before his discovery, stretched lobes had been pretty well exclusively associated with African and Asian cultures, going as far back as Egypt’s famed pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, one of the first known people to have them. Ötzi is two thousand years older, and thousands of miles removed from Tut, however, which tells us the practice of stretching is both much older and more global than we had thought.
There are several famous examples of ear stretching, which offer us a bit of insight into the hows and whys of the practice. Both Tutankhamun and Gautama Buddha likely had stretched ears to symbolize their status: large jewels, unavailable to the common folk, would be worn in the ears, and the weight and size of them would cause the ears to stretch tremendously. It is said that when the Buddha renounced his earthly riches, he removed the jewels, but his ears remained elongated. This became a symbol of his sacrifice, and he was henceforth depicted with long, bare ears. The Moai statues of Easter Island sport very long ears, which may serve to elevate the status of their ancestors, whom the statues are thought to represent. One Moai myth even separates the tribes of the time into the “Long Ears” and “Short Ears”. Several Hindu and pre-Hindu deities are depicted with jewel-filled stretched lobes as well, which indicate a wisdom and wealth well beyond the average person. While all of these cultures and eras differed greatly, it seems that for all of them, stretched lobes were indicative of a higher status.
Status is not the only reason to stretch, however. Tribal cultures worldwide have long engaged in the same practice, but for very different reasons. From Kenya to Thailand, stretched lobes and lips symbolise religious beliefs, coming of age rituals, and exercises in patience and devotion. Several ancient cultures believed that spirits could enter a body through its orifices, and that metal could ward them off. The more metal one could place in their ears, the safer they would be, so stretched lobes were more practical than anything. Others saw stretching as a way to mark moments of enlightenment and understanding – the larger the hole, the wiser the wearer.
Today, stretching has become a common practice worldwide, largely for aesthetic purposes, and to some extent, as a way to reconnect with ancient cultures. Jewelry designed for stretched lobes has become a multi-million dollar industry, and techniques are constantly being refined. In this sense, professional piercers are also historians of sorts, many having researched and experimented with the various types and methods of stretching. Slow and steady is still, however, the oldest, safest, and most satisfying way to approach the practice. When it comes to stretching, “patience is a virtue” is both literally and figuratively true for us “long ears”.
Because Easter has a few different histories behind it, it likewise has many different symbols: everything from chocolate bunnies to decorative eggs to the crucifix is put on display this time of year, each with its own meaning and story. Symbolism is an inescapable aspect of religion, and, similarly, of tattooing. In fact, for many years – even centuries – symbolism and tattooing were one in the same; people did not generally get tattooed for aesthetic purposes, they got tattooed to mark a milestone, as part of a ritual, or to distinguish one group from another. Every tattoo was the symbol of one’s status, position, tribe, or religion.
Prior to the discovery of Otzi the Iceman, found in Europe, it was believed that Egyptians were the first to engage in tattooing – figurines adorned with images, mummies with faint designs, and tools that seemed made for the purpose gave a strong impression that they had been the innovators of such a practice. As more and more artifacts and bodies are uncovered, however, we learn that tattooing, particularly to symbolize one’s status, has existed for far longer, and in far more parts of the world, than previously believed.
In recent years, Eurasian mummies and entombed bodies have been discovered near modern-day China and Russia, adorned with animal designs, lines of dots, and mythical monsters, believed to be symbols of strength and virility. In Borneo, tribal tattoos consisting of thick black lines and nature themes have symbolised the stages men and women have gone through and the skills they possess since ancient times. Maori and Samoan tribes have long used tattoos, often covering most of the body, to make clear their social status and position within the tribe. Throughout Central and South America, ancient peoples ranging from farmers to the socially elite have been found bearing tattoos – generally animal designs and small symbols – that seem to have magical or ritualistic qualities to them, likely thought to bring them luck, protection, and wealth.
I could go on all day, really, but I think you get the picture – tattoos have been part of human culture for thousands of years, even within isolated societies. We have, it seems, come up with this idea over and over again, feeling it relevant to mark our bodies with meaningful symbols. Early designs were often nature-themed or “tribal” – consisting of a series of lines, dots, and bands – generally to protect, show status, and mark the various stages of life. As societies, cultures, and philosophies evolved, so too did the symbols used. Celts and Britons took to intricate and ornate patterns to declare their status, Greeks and Romans began tattooing themselves as a mark of religious devotion or belonging to a certain group or sect, and China and Japan moved from tattoos that designated people criminals or of a certain trade to more ornate and less stigmatized designs, available to the general public.
Human beings, as a whole, seem to have a need to symbolize that which matters most to us. Regardless of culture, religion, or era, we have long marked ourselves and our surroundings, sometimes to separate ourselves from, and sometimes to feel a deeper connection to, the natural world and its many forms of life. Even in the modern world, we are constantly seeking more valid, more extreme, and more innovative ways to express where we see ourselves in relation to the world around us.
Whether chocolate bunny or crucifix, whether tribal design or modern art, we as humans are constantly pushing boundaries and refining designs to adequately symbolize what it means to be us. The evolution of symbolism is, it is no exaggeration to say, the evolution of humanity itself. While tattoos may still be stigmatized and frowned upon in parts of the world, from a historical perspective, they are the most common, long-standing, and widespread way to tell our story in a way that transcends both time and language.
For several decades, western culture held tattoos to be the mark of outcasts and rebels – bikers, circus freaks, weathered soldiers, and lifelong criminals were the main representatives of the artform – and for a long time, it seemed that, not only would tattoos never break into the mainstream,they were actually helping to define what ran counter to it. Having a tattoo automatically set one apart from “everyone else” – it was a symbol of being part of another culture, a culture that somehow transcended the standard societal norms. Over time, however, tattoos have crept in to every corner of our culture, and some have even reached the status of “trendy” – a term so mainstream it hurts.
In the 1980s, tattoos were still the domain of the underground, for the most part. The 90s saw them gain some popularity, however, and by the mid-00s, it was estimated that 25% of people aged 16- 40 had at least one tattoo. What happened in less than 30 years to push tattoos from the underground to the mainstream? A large part of that answer is undoubtedly pop-culture. Several musicians and artists of the late 60s and early 70s had visible tattoos (Janis Joplin is often cited as having a pivotal role in popularising tattoos with her small wrist and breast pieces), and by the 90s, the kids who had grown up with these artists were now adults with kids of their own that did not see tattoos as taboo, but as a form of expression they could relate to. Another major boost came from innovators working to create brightly coloured and long lasting inks – prior to this time, ink was most often black, blue, or a terrible red that faded almost immediately – vibrant colours made the idea of a tattoo much more appealing to many. The biggest influence, however, seems to be a shift in perspective – what had once been the mark of an outcast was becoming a legitimate artform; trained artists were picking up machines and creating something that went far beyond the outlines of eagles and hearts with daggers that had dominated the landscape in years prior.
When it comes to popularisation of anything that was once underground, of course, there will be those that champion the progression, and those that resent it. Entrepreneurs and innovators will see opportunity, while those thoroughly entrenched in, and attached to, their subculture will see hostile takeover. Both have valid points. Legitimising tattooing as a form of art and turning it into a multi-million dollar industry has unquestionably pleased and benefitted a lot of people. No longer do tattooists work out of trashy bars and dirty basements, and their rates have gone from the price of a case of beer to a more than liveable income. Clients can be adorned with anything their imagination can conceive of, and artists have far more options than ever before. When the underground becomes the mainstream, however, vital aspects of it have to adapt, and those alterations will please some and disappoint others. The idea of tattoos being trendy is no exception – many see this as an evolution of attitude, a long overdue acceptance of people expressing themselves in visible and creative ways. Others see it as a cheapening of what was once meaningful, turning a sacred act into a fad.
Fads are the bittersweet staple of all industries – they are invaluable in terms of making a mark on society, on bringing an industry to the forefront of people’s minds, but they are also almost always destined to be overdone and eventually become dated and cliché. Fads offer the best and the worst of an industry, and are always walking the line between the next big thing and yesterday’s news. And when it comes to tattoos, fads are evidence that no matter how far underground something may be, one stumble into the spotlight can be all it takes to gain the attention of the masses. Fortunately, the tattoo industry, just like the music industry, fashion, and art, has far more to offer than passing fads. One need only delve a tiny bit deeper than tribal armbands and Kanji to find an entirely new world of art and design. A world of innovation, of the grotesque, the beautiful, the dark, the vibrant, the one of a kind. A world that more and more people are exploring, and whose population becomes more diverse by the minute. We may no longer be underground, but we are adding much needed splashes of colour up here.