The origins of tattooing


19th Mar 2021 Life

The origins of tattooing

In this excerpt from The Philosophy of Tattoos, author John Miller delves into the romantic origins of the practice of tattooing.

Tattooing begins with the gods.

In Tahiti, the story starts with Ta’aroa, the supreme creator. Before the world came into being, Ta’aroa existed inside a shell. In time, he broke out and found himself in a void. Bored of the emptiness, he made the earth, sea, sky and all the world’s creatures from fragments of the shell. He made artists to manufacture other gods, and then a daughter named Hina, who gave him another daughter, Apouvera, who in turn gave him two sons, Matamata and Tū Ra’i Pō. Another daughter called Hinaereeremonoi was born, and she was kept in seclusion to preserve her chastity, but Matamata and Tū Ra’i Pō discovered her and fell in love. In an attempt to seduce the beautiful young goddess, the two brothers drew designs on one another with charcoal. Hinaereeremonoi was enthralled by the images and came out of seclusion in the hope of being decorated too. So, for Tahitians, the art of tattooing was born.

Maori tattoos
A Māori chief with tattoos as seen by Captain James Cook and his crew. License public domain

In Maori mythology, tattooing emerges from the love between a chief called Mataora and Niwareka, a spirit from Rarohenga, the underworld. Looking for adventure, Niwareka travelled to the upper world and fell for Mataora, whom she soon married. All seemed well but one day, in a rage, Mataora struck Niwareka and she returned angrily to Rarohenga.

Full of remorse, Mataora pursued her and, when he arrived at her house, he found her father, Uetenga, busy tattooing. At that time tattoos did not exist beyond the underworld; Mataora’s face was adorned with designs but they were only painted on. After the spirits mocked Mataora for his wipe-clean body art, he asked Uetenga to give him a real tattoo. The process was agonising, but Mataora endured it and Niwareka forgave him. The lovers reconciled and left Rarohenga behind. As they arrived back in the upper world, they brought with them tā moko, the Maori art of facial tattooing, and Mataora became the first earthly tattooist.

"Tattoos are part of wider creation myths that tie body art into the fabric of the universe"

Polynesia is often thought of as the cradle of tattooing, but there are a great many tattoo creation stories from elsewhere too. Among the indigenous Mundurucú people of the Amazon, tattooing comes from the creator Karusakaibo, who tattooed men to resemble him so they could emulate his feats in hunting. For the Mentawai people of Indonesia, tattooing was taught to the people by Pagete Sabbau, the first shaman, though the people were not necessarily delighted by the all-powerful magician and tried (unsuccessfully) to kill him.6 The mythological significance of tattooing is not confined to stories that relate how tattoos came into the world. Tattoos are part of wider creation myths that tie body art into the fabric of the universe.

Among the indigenous people of the Arctic, the creation of the sun and the moon is woven together with a tale that alludes to tattooing. Before the heavens were formed, a young woman was "visited during the night" by an unknown man. To track the culprit down she put the local tattoo pigment of oil and lampblack on her nipples and waited for the visitor, who, sure enough, invaded her bed again. In the morning, she was horrified to see her own brother’s lips covered in black markings. She fled, pursued by her brother, into the sky where they became the sun and moon, with the stars formed from the sparks of the young woman’s torch.

An 1888 Japanese woodblock print of a prostitute biting her handkerchief in pain as her arm is tattooed. Based on historical practice, the tattoo is likely the name of her lover.
An 1888 Japanese woodblock print of a prostitute biting her handkerchief in pain as her arm is tattooed. License public domain

There are many variants of these tattoo creation stories; no set of authoritative texts has been compiled that chronicles the ways in which distinct cultures have conceived of the emergence of tattooing or have characterised the role of tattooing in the development of human civilisation. A complete tattoo mythology would be a vast book, particularly if it were magically possible to recover all the tattoo stories that have been lost in the thousands of years since tattooing began. Many indigenous tattoo cosmologies have traditionally been transmitted orally. Some tattoo cultures have declined or died out as living practices, so that only archaeological fragments of them remain.

There are doubtless tattoo myths and styles that have vanished entirely; nothing will ever be known of them again, not so much as an inch of mummified inked skin, or a shard of bone needle.

"Tattooing has existed more or less forever and more or less everywhere"

Despite what might be lost, we can be certain that tattooing has existed more or less forever and more or less everywhere. Tattoos are deeply plaited through human time and consciousness. They emerge as a defining part of human cultures, tied in with elemental energies of sex and violence, but also with a crucial role to play in the formation, maintenance and communication of social structures. Many cultures think of tattooing as coterminous with the existence of the human world: as long as there has been human culture, there have been tattoos. In some traditions, it is only when you’re tattooed that you can consider yourself fully human.


The Philosophy of Tattoos book cover

Excerpt from The Philosophy of Tattoos by John Miller, published by the British Library 

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