History Of Tattooing
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History Of Tattooing
Tattoo History Source Book: North America

Most nineteenth century scholars took no interest in North American native tattooing. In 1909 the American anthropologist A.T. Sinclair surveyed the literature and noted with dismay that "one of the great difficulties in treating our subject is that details or even mention are so often absent when the practice must have been common. Even the slightest hint is sometimes of value." In his definitive paper, "Tattooing of the American Indians" , Sinclair surveyed the records of tattooing in each geographical region of North America, but in many cases came up only with fragmentary one-liners such as "The Algonquin tribes everywhere seem to have practiced the custom."

Some of the most interesting descriptions of pre-Columbian tattooing in North America were written by l7th century French explorers and missionaries in Eastern Canada. A typical example is the French explorer Gabriel Sagard-Thêodat's account of tattooing among the Hurons, written in 1615:

But that which I find a most strange and conspicuous folly, is that in order to be considered courageous and feared by their enemies [the Hurons] take the bone of a bird or of a fish which they sharpen like a razor, and use it to engrave or decorate their bodies by making many punctures somewhat as we would engrave a copper plate with a burin. During this process they exhibit the most admirable courage and patience. They certainly feel the pain, for they are not insensible, but they remain motionless and mute while their companions wipe away the blood which runs from the incisions. Subsequently they rub a black color or powder into the cuts in order that the engraved figures will remain for life and never be effaced, in much the same manner as the marks which one sees on the arms of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem.

Numerous brief references to tattooing are found in writings of 17th century Jesuit missionaries whose reports were forwarded to Paris each year and compiled in volumes titled Jesuit Relations . Jesuit missions were scattered throughout eastern Canada, and missionaries reported that tattooing was practiced by almost all of the native tribes they encountered. In 1653 the Jesuit missionary Francois-J. Bressani reported:

In order to paint permanent marks on themselves they undergo intense pain. To do this they use needles, sharpened awls, or thorns. With these instruments they pierce the skin and trace images of animals or monsters, for example an eagle, a serpent, a dragon, or any other figure they like, which they engrave on their faces, their necks, their chests, or other parts of their bodies. Then, while the punctures which form the designs are fresh and bleeding, they rub in charcoal or some other black color which mixes with the blood and penetrates the wound. The image is then indelibly imprinted on the skin. This custom is so widespread that I believe that in many of these native tribes it would be impossible to find a single individual who is not marked in this way. When this operation is performed over the entire body it is dangerous, especially in cold weather. Many have died after the operation, either as the result of a kind of spasm which it produces, or for other reasons. The natives thus die as martyrs to vanity because of this bizarre custom.

April 14, 1997 Vol. 57, No. 8 T attooing and body piercing are time honored traditions in cultures through out the world. Early Christians used tattoos as symbols of recognition until 787 AD, when tattoos were banned by papal edict. 1 Captain Cook is credited with bringing this tradition to western culture following his Tahitian expedition in 1771. He coined the term “<< tattoo>> ” from the Tahitian word “tatau” which is onomatopoetic to the sound a tattooing instrument makes. In the early 19th century, tattooing became very popular with criminals and the working class in Britain and the US. Toward the end of that century it became “chic” among the elite. 2 Body piercing--historically a symbol of honor, strength, and courage--dates back to Egyptian times. Egyptian royalty pierced their navels, and Roman centurions proudly sported nipple rings. For many populations, such as the Sioux of North America or the Tamil Hindus and Sadu holy men of India, piercing is a central part of religious ceremonies and << tattoo>> parlors, dramatically decreasing the rate of infection. Nevertheless, with the surge of “body modification” in the United States, it is important that we remain alert to potential dangers. The popularity of body piercing sky-rocketed about two years ago. << tattoo>> studios, they also inspect body piercers’ procedures. Since body piercing is a cosmetic application--regulated under Chapter 431 of the Texas Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act--TDH investigators can currently cite a studio for failure to properly sterilize equipment, follow other aseptic practices, or maintain general cleanliness. Lack of statistical information on morbidity and infection rates directly correlates with lack of regulation.

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