The Pigmentation of Imagination

An Overview of the History and Psychology of Tattoos

“Primitive tribes were certainly convinced that the spirit, having escaped from the body at death, retained a replica of its earthly tenement. They therefore used tattoo marks as a means of identification in the next world and a passport to future happiness.”

~ Ronald Scutt

The dead man and the secrets he would soon reveal were held fast within the Ötzi Schnalstal glacial ice high in the Ötztal Alps. His corpse was discovered by two German tourists and, after he was crudely excavated from his icy tomb, it was established that he may have been a shepherd and that his last meal consisted of red deer meat, chamois meat and highly refined wheat grains. His skin, which was extremely shiny from his encasement in the ice, was imbedded with 57 carbon tattoos. Authorities eschewed the use these indelible marks for any kind of identification purposes … because all of Ötzi the Iceman’s relatives would have died some 5,300 years ago.

Written histories are indelibly inked with tales of tattooing, ritual scarification and other forms of body modification. The word tattoo itself is derived from the Polynesian word tatau, which, in one form of the definition, is a description of the sound made by the tattooist’s tools made from bone, tusks, turtle shells and wood. The origins of the practices of various forms of ancient body modifications and the meanings behind them are widely varied, as they are to this very day.

Tattoos have been used to signify an association to a specific group or clan, to show the caste and status that a member holds within that clan or tribe. Tattoos may even relate a person’s history or a personally held belief. Other methods of identifying tattoos tend to be less savory. Many cultures used tattoos to identify criminals and their crimes, such as the British Army tattooing a large “D” across the chest of a deserter or, in the case of the Nazis, utilizing numbered tattoos as a way of inventorying those that they imprisoned in their concentration camps.

Many cultures use tattoos as a method of protection, whether real or otherworldly. 
Natives on the Island of Tucopea (Tikopia) carried regular armor for battle with humans, but they also wore tattooed breastplates to combat evil spirits. Mariners used to utilize tattoos to save them from a more realistic threat: the cat ‘o nine tails. The sailors would have the image of Christ tattooed across the whole of their backs, giving their captains pause when meting out corporal punishment.

“We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible.”

~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

In modern times, the reasons for getting a tattoo, piercing or body modification are as varied as they were in ancient times. Now these choices seem to be overlaid with seemingly incessant psychological questions regarding this personal choice. While there is still a common association between the criminal element and tattoos (with the Yakuza and the Russian mob being directly identified by their tattoos), the acceptance of tattoos in America has become more mainstream … but as in any type of art form, the line of personal expressions moves farther, just slightly out of reach of the “norm.”

A meandering psychological debate has waged for many years as to where the line of acceptability is and what are the psychological reasons for such personal choices. There are those who feel that certain facets of body modification are virtually a social standard, but that other aspects become a form of self mutilation. The arguments seem to be rather arbitrary and based either on a cultural norm, a religious inference or a personal observation masked in psychological rhetoric. While circumcision is widely accepted within many cultures, others view it as an extremely invasive form of mutilation and one in which the person being mutilated has no choice. Most people cringe when they see extreme examples of personal piercings or hear stories about people who have endured scarification, gunshot wounds and even amputation in the name of self-expression. They stand, mouth agape, asking why someone would pay money to endure that type of pain, while at the same time shelling out thousands of dollars to have metal appliances attached to their teeth in the name of vanity. These same people discuss cosmetic surgery in restaurants in the same way other people discuss getting new clothes. Anything that one does to alter one’s natural appearance, from getting a hair cut to wearing contact lenses, is a form of body modification … so where’s the line of acceptability?

“When the designs are chosen with care, tattoos have a power and magic all their own. They decorate the body but they also enhance the soul.”

~Michelle Delio

Since the questions of body modification were on my mind, I recently stopped into a tattoo parlor aptly called Modified Skin, located at 4716 S. Dixie Dr. in Moraine. Owner Josh Wiley was tattooing a photo realistic rendition of Pinhead, a character from the horror movie Hellraiser, on a petite woman’s calf. His black latex gloved hand was in stark contrast to the alabaster ankle which it was wrapped around. His other hand held a screamingly orange tattoo gun, which he manipulated effortlessly, creating a more defined portrait with every pass of the darting needles. The other tattoo artists and piercers gathered around as Wiley and I began to discuss some of the elements of tattooing. The one thing that was extremely evident was that, from the artists to the patrons, everyone in the store belonged. This was not a place where you purchase something and leave. Not only did the artist create something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, you have also shared a part of yourself. Even though it is less visible, it is just as indelibly etched in the memory of the moment.

The artists and owner began to share their stories, most of them written in ink on their skin. Ashley “Ashes” Owens told of turning 18 and getting a tattoo, a stylized asp on her upper left arm. Billy Johnson, an apprentice piercer, told of how he got interested in piercing after seeing the botched belly button piercing that Owens had received … he just innately knew he could do better. Johnson sported many piercings and was proud to display his new tattoo that Wiley had inked for him. Caleb Relliford, a tall, bespectacled young man with a shock of black hair, upped the ante by pulling up his shirt to reveal scars running down his back in a cascade. Most people would expect a story of a horrendous accident to explain away the scars, but Relliford willingly received his at the hand of a professional wielding a scalpel, all of which held a special meaning for him.

The conversation ran the gamut from each artist explaining their own style of tattooing to their own philosophies behind their art and their choices. As Owens donned shorts to show off a corpse-like crow that Wiley had designed and inked along her coltish leg, Wiley and Relliford discussed the popularity of tribal art in tattooing. Wiley abhorred the style, mostly on the grounds that it was too nerve wracking to do all that fill in work, while Relliford stated that he preferred the Hawaiian/Polynesian style of tribal art because it held a special meaning to people of that heritage, although he conceded that doing the fill in was akin to filling in a blank piece of paper with a ballpoint pen. The conversation careened again as everyone began talking at once about some of the questionable choices people have made in choosing a tattoo. Wiley said he had just had a woman come in to have her ex-boyfriend’s name covered up … with her new boyfriend’s name.

The conversation veered into some of the preconceived notions and misconceptions people have about the art and the industry. One of the things that fascinated me was the new form of tattooing that can only be seen under black light, somewhat disappointingly named “black light tattoos.” Wiley said that a lot of people were afraid of it, some believing that it can cause cancer while others holding to the misinformed idea that the process used radioactive chemicals to produce the illuminated designs. Wiley explained that it was actually tiny microspheres held in sterilized, distilled water which are tattooed under the skin and that the microspheres react to the black light. Owens and Wiley later showed off their own black light tattoos, which are invisible under normal light. Ashes had a scroll work design across her chest while Wiley had whole sleeves done from his wrists up to his elbows.

An image began to form in my mind as I watched Wiley finish up his customer’s tattoo, as he added glints of white to approximate a glare off the character’s metal pins. What if the reason that people get tattoos are virtually the same as they always have been, but that the circumstances have changed? What if people told their stories through their skin, holding closest to them the things that mean the most? What if others felt protected from the willful demons of our society by utilizing a tattoo to separate themselves as an individual? What if groups use tattoos to identify those who are more accepting and less judgmental of an individual’s choices? What if people felt that the mortality of the flesh could be, to some degree, circumvented by creating a canvas of expression out of their own bodies?

In the end, we all hold imagery within ourselves, a sense of what we feel is symbolically significant. We all hold an image of ourselves and daily wish that others would care enough to glimpse our true nature. There are others who, by unwaveringly make a choice, force others to see who they truly are … regardless of whether or not they realize how much of their soul they reveal.

“The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation.”

~James Cook (1779)

Ephemerally Ageless

The Art of Henna

For those of you with “commitment issues,” there is an alternative beyond childlike temporary tattoos. Henna art is noted in ancient writings, from an Egyptian pharmacopoeia revealing the healing powers of henna to the Song of Solomon and the Talmud, which uses the plant as a metaphor for forgiveness and absolution. I recently spoke with a local henna artist, Lily Whitehead, to talk to her about what makes henna art an alternative to permanent tattooing.

“Everybody always comments on how the henna smells, saying that it smells so good,” Whitehead stated rather candidly. After going through some of the processes and ingredients that went into the henna paste, she went on to say, “The oils in the paste … well, the eucalyptus oil especially … has a relaxing, calming, soothing effect, so I think it’s a calming, relaxation type of thing to people. The cool part of it is that it’s not just ‘in the moment’ because they (the customer) walk away with something that lasts a while. I know that for the next couple of weeks or so, they’re going see this design and it’s going to make them happy and they’re going to think about me and the whole experience. So, it’s something that kind of stays with them, which I think it is really cool.”

Lily Whitehead is available for private parties, cultural events, art shows and much more. To contact Whitehead, call (937) 626-8013 or visit her Web site at


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