Nearly a quarter of Australian women have tattoos. Some history attribute this to feminism. It is interesting to me that tattooing has become mainstream in the west, a practice that dates back thousands of years.
Tattoos have been discover on ancient Egyptian female mummies. From the 5th century BCE, Thracian women had sleeves tattoos on their arms. Traditional Maori culture had the eldest daughter of elite families tattooed as part a sacred ceremony.
I also researched abstract painted motifs on female Cycladic Cycladic sculptures. These motifs, I believe, are evidence that women were tattoo in Cycladic islands in Greece during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2000 BCE).
My upbringing influenced my interest in tattooing. Growing up in Aotearoa from the ages 8 to 28 allow me to be expose to both Maori and Pacific Islands tattooing styles. The tattooist in Pacific cultures has been traditionally male (and often continues to be so).
However, there are ancient stories that say that the ancestral gods wanted the tattooist to be a woman to protect the practice and to be the primary recipient of tattoos. Tattoos done by both men and women in Maori society before the arrival of the British.
However, the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act criminalized tattooing as one of Tohunga’s teachings or practices. This act was repeal when the Maori Welfare Act of 1962 was introduce in Aotearoa. There has been a revival in tattooing, both among men and women.
My First Seven Tattoos
My friends were tattoo-lovers growing up. When I turned 18 in 2000, I went to a local tattoo parlour to become legal adulthood. I also got a small tattoo. It was a custom-made tattoo that I created using elements from my zodiac sign.
My second tattoo was my first mermaid-inspired design. This was an expanded version of a charm that my father gave me. I wanted to be like the mermaid, able to adapt to different environments (above and below the sea). I had just moved from my home to make my way in a new place and attend university.
Manu Edwin, a Maori tattooist did my next five designs (Are You Experiment, Electric Lady, and Axis Bold as Love, as well as two large mermaids on either side of me back), When I was struggling with depression, I listen to a lot Hendrix, particularly the three albums by The Experience.
Edwin agreed with my belief that tattooing can be transformative. As he tattooed me, he would listen to each album loudly in his studio. This was just like how music and singing were use to drown out the tap tap of tattoos inked into skin using hand-held tools from the Pacific region.
The physical pain of getting tattoo makes it easier to see the emotional and mental benefits. The result of a tattoo is permanent and must be treat gently over the next few weeks.
My tattoos transform something that was ugly in my past into something I love for my future. Let’s take a look at four cultures from the past that had their women tattooed before I tell you about my eighth and most recent.
Maori History (ca.1250 CE)
Elsdon Best, an ethnographer, was a researcher who collected detailed information about the Tuhoe tribe (from North Island of Aotearoa in the early 1900s). In his book The Uhi-Maori (1904), he recounts how elite families tattooed younger sisters before tattooing the eldest, who was considered the most sacred.
Tapu was the tattooing of the lips or chin of the first-born child of a chief’s chief. This rite was known as ahita ngutu (sacred flame). To ease the pain and sacred process of tattooing, members of the tribe would surround the patient with whakatangitangi (repetitive song) and sing to them. The song for women was the whakawai-taanga nugutu.
An individual’s family history would determine the motifs of the tattoo, as well as the location of tattoos on the body. Papatea, or people without tattoos, were consider lower-status and attractive. To be tattoo was a sign that you are highly regard and desirable in your community.
Thracian History (ca.500 BCE)
Thrace of the Greco Roman world existed in parts of Turkey, southeast Bulgaria, and east Macedonia. Pictorial representations Thracian women with tattoos found on Greek red-figure vases, such as this one with a Thracian woman attacking Orpheus.
Luc Renaut (an art historian) suggests that tattooing in Thrace add beauty and value to women living in a society in which they were purchase for marriage (that’s, they incur a bride cost). This contrasted with the Classical Greek or Roman systems, where the bride’s relatives paid (a dowry), to the groom’s.
Classical vases depicting women (ca. 500 BCE), depict Thracian women with figurative and geometric tattoos. These tattoos emphasize the Thracian-ness displayed by the woman in this scene. They also indicate that she isn’t your average Athenian girl who can’t handle the lyre.
The Greek vase painting is a visual representation of the geometric and figurative motifs that Thracian women use: zigzags and dots, lines, checkerboard patterns and spirals. Ladder patterns and stick-figure animals are all included.
Tattoos were apply to the arms, legs and ankles history. Sometimes, entire arms and legs were cover in bands of different designs row after row.