So it’s July and you’re probably all at the beach as I type away in a breezy and slightly grey pub garden in London.
What I have to say is, first of all, lucky you; and secondly, what is the most prominent thing we see at the beach, besides silicone?
The answer is probably tattoos.
Tattoos have spread all over Lebanon, from inspirational quotes on the arms of the artsy fartsy crowd in Mar Mikhael to scorpions on the biceps of club bouncers. The Lebanese as a nation are pretty much obsessed.
Even though the tattoo might seem ubiquitous today, do we really stop to think of the story behind them? Body art can include everything from piercings and tattoos to scarification and implants. Tattoos, of course, have a very distinct history. Alright, so here are a few important dates and, so as not to bore y’all, we’re not going back further than 3200 B.C.!
3200 B.C. Ötzi, the world’s oldest mummy, has a tattoo: about 60 lines and crosses on his lower spine, right knee, and ankle joints.
1769 Captain James Cook sails into Tahiti and discovers Polynesian tattoos, along with the island’s word for the art form: tatau.
1974 Don Ed Hardy opens Realistic Tattoo in San Francisco, the first custom-only, appointment-only studio in the U.S.
2004 Clothing line Ed Hardy Vintage Tattoo Wear launches, featuring the artwork of the famed tattooist.
Old tales suggest that tattooing probably arose at various locations through bloodletting practices, scarification rituals, medical treatment, or even by chance.
The main reason for the disappearance of ancient tattooing traditions in many places was the end of their almost total isolation, through travel and conquest, when European mariners became interested in tattoos and returned home with some. There was an exchange between tattoo cultures when sailors from Europe combined indigenous motifs with their own. The Catholic missionaries who followed in the wake of the explorers and conquerors considered it their sacred duty to convert the populations of the new territories to Christianity and “civilize” them. Like cannibalism and human sacrifice, tattooing was regarded as barbaric. Ironically, survivors of the assaults were tattooed and branded with marks of ownership.
Tattooing underwent a brief wave of popularity among Europe's aristocracy in the 19th century: as a young prince, the future King George V had a large dragon tattooed on his arm on a visit to Japan in 1882, and Winston Churchill's mother, Jeanette, had a discreet snake on her wrist.
Speaking about criminals and tattoos, there is a series of great books focusing on Russian criminal tattoo that are well worth checking out, to understand the huge role that these markings play in the Russian criminal community. But what about tattoo history in our region of the world? Well, according to an old Arabic saying, tattoos enhance the allure of a girl. They were seen as intimate jewelry, which a woman used to entice and express her desires, which wasn’t possible in everyday contact with men. Also, until recently, the men of an Iraqi tribe would not consider marrying a woman who was not tattooed in some way. On a slightly darker note, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used “punitive tattooing” until 1994, when Amnesty International got involved.
On a personal level, a tattoo is part of one’s identity. Just as, at long forgotten tribal events, tattoos could have indicated age, marital status, power, or class, the tattoo today still says a lot more than we may initially think. Humans have always wanted to belong but also to differentiate themselves. Today, having a tattoo is as much a personal choice as it is a visible sign of membership to a specific subculture.