Lydia oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia,
Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso even more so.
Lydia oh Lydia, that encyclopidia,
Oh Lydia the Queen of Tattoo.
On her back is the Battle of Waterloo.
Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus, too.
And proudly above waves the Red, White, and Blue,
You can learn a lot from Lydia.
–from Lydia the Tattooed Lady by Harold Arlen and E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg
It was in Tahiti, in July of 1769, that Captain James Cook first recorded his observations of the indigenous body modification. His notes are the first known use (by an Occidental) of the word tattoo. In the ship’s log, Cook recorded this entry: Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.
Cook added: This method of Tattowing I shall now describe…As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes.
The practice is, of course, far older than Cook knew.
Tattooing has been a Eurasian custom since Neolithic times. Ötzi the Iceman (discovered in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier between Austria and Italy and dated circa 3300 BCE) bears 57 tattoos.
The Man of Pazyryk (c. 500 BCE), a Scythian chieftain extracted from the permafrost of Altaï, is tattooed with an extensive and detailed range of fish, monsters and a series of dots that lined up along the spinal column and around the right ankle
Pre-Christian Germanic, Celtic and other central and northern European tribes were often heavily tattooed, according to surviving accounts. The Picts were famously tattooed (or scarified) with elaborate dark blue woad (or possibly copper for the blue tone) designs. Julius Caesar described these tattoos in Book V of his Gallic Wars (54 BCE).
The Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan also wrote of his encounter with the Scandinavian Rus’ tribe in the early 10th century, describing them as tattooed from fingernails to neck with dark blue tree patterns and other figures.
According to Robert Graves in The Greek Myths, tattooing was common amongst certain religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean world, which may have contributed to the prohibition of tattooing in Leviticus. However, during the classic Greek period, tattooing was only common among slaves.
Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jōmon or Paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BCE) and was widespread during various periods for both the Japanese and the native Ainu. Chinese visitors observed and remarked on the tattoos in Japan (300 BCE).
Between 1603 – 1868 Japanese tattooing was only practiced by the ukiyo-e (The floating world culture). Generally firemen, manual workers and prostitutes wore tattoos which communicated their status. Between 1720 – 1870 Criminals were tattooed as a visible mark of punishment, this actually replaced having ears and noses removed. A criminal would receive a single ring on their arm for each crime committed.
Tattoos are now utterly commonplace. No longer the mark of the criminal, the outcast, the outsider; no longer the province of the sailor, the biker, the junkie. I have one myself (acquired at the age of 19) as I imagine do many of you.
So let’s have poems on the subject of ‘body art’. No particular form this time. Just get out your needles and ink and prick a pattern…