The tattooing culture of the Americas – Times of Malta

This is part three in a three-part series of articles. Read part oneand part two.

The Americas were discovered by the West through Italian explorer, navigator and coloniser Christopher Columbus in 1451 for the Catholic Spanish monarchy. Soon after this expedition, this vast continent began to be populated by Europeans as well as by the people kidnapped from African countries and forcibly taken to work in the Americas as slaves.

Tattoos were already sported by the native indigenous population at the time. An account by 16th-century Spanish explorers describes Mayan tattooing in present-day Mexico and several other Central American countries, with their tattoos being said to represent a deed of courage by the natives. These heavily-tattooed natives frightened Cuzco and the Spanish armada that accompanied him.

A tattooed mummy, discovered in Peru in an ancient pyramid, belonged to a mysterious woman with a perfectly preserved skull and traditional Moche braids all intact. This mummy was laid to rest, hidden in a gold-filled underground chamber for over 1,600 years and remained undiscovered until an archaeologist noticed rectangular patches of soft clay in the pyramids floor a telltale sign of a grave.

This burial site was a sacred location, in a courtyard near the peak of the biggest pyramid at El Brujo. The rulers of this civilisation controlled the northern coast of Peru from 100 to 800 CE and this grave was probably reserved for a king, a queen or a great warrior, given the valuable treasures that were found inside the leaders tomb (Frank, 2014).

Early Jesuit accounts also testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among native Americans (A Brief History of Tattoos, 2013). Among the numerous Indian tribes, the Chickasaws, who were outstanding warriors, were recognisable by their various tattoo signs. The Ontario Iroquoians were decorated with more elaborate tattoos which reflected their high standing in the tribe. In northwest America, Inuit womens chins were tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity (A Brief History of Tattoos, 2013).

After centuries in which tattooing was regularly practised, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, in the fourth century, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great (280CE AD338), banned the facial tattooing of slaves and prisoners.

A few centuries later, in the year 787, Pope Hadrian 1 also prohibited all forms of tattooing on the human body. The Judeo-Christian religious authorities started to consider tattooing as sacrilegious because it symbolised an other group (Jones, 2000). The Church leaders thought that this art form was contrary to the Churchs teaching, using the bible to justify their position on tattooing, as per the following extract from Leviticus 19:28: Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the Lord.

Therefore, for almost 1,000 years, until the beginning of the 19th century, the art of tattooing in the West essentially went underground and was almost forgotten. It was only revived following Captain James Cooks return voyage from Polynesia, when he brought with him a native adorned with tattoos.

Henceforth, the art of tattooing started to regain momentum, mainly among individuals related to maritime and naval jobs who started to adorn their bodies with tattoos. Subsequently, it became a popular practice and part of a subculture pertaining to military and maritime services personnel.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the art of tattooing in the West essentially went underground

The practice of tattooing found new meaning for soldiers during World War II, as a way to establish group solidarity and also expressing love and devotion to loved ones (Govenar, 2000).

The majority of Maltese people, being ardently religious and faithful to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, obeyed their spiritual leaders and mainly refrained from having their body tattooed or branded in order not to be looked down upon by clerics and society in general.

This negative perception of tattooing despite its deep historic roots for millennia around the globe, even in the Middle East and the Mediterranean meant that it was still considered taboo by European societies until recently (Portelli, 2017). In Malta, legalised tattoo studios were still unheard of before the law came into force in 1976; only a handful of tattoo artists existed, with five tattooists situated in Valletta and another in St Georges Bay, just across from the main British military garrison (Portelli, 2017). The best tattoo clients were British service personnel and other naval personnel visiting our country.

The earliest tattoos recorded in the Maltese archipelago are those documented in passport application forms found at the National Archives, at Santo Spirito, in Rabat, where such documents from 1878 are conserved and catalogued (National Archives, Passport Applications 1878-1938).

These records provide us with the only surviving evidence regarding the early Maltese culture of tattoos owing to the fact that applicants were required to describe their tattoos in their passport applications.

It seems that the tattoo culture was reintroduced in the islands by the numerous British service personnel who were stationed on the islands at the time.

Late in the 20th century, a legal framework which started normalising the practice of tattooing art came into force in Malta. This act only came into force after several court cases were instituted by a major local tattooist.

In 1983, Act XIII, entitled Control of Tattooing, was issued by the Ministry of Public Health and, subsequently, amended the previous Act XL of 1976, chapter 270, so that tattooing was effectively legalised, with tattoo artists now being required to apply for a licence.

The law was again amended by Legal Notice 423 of 2007 and, subsequently, incorporated in its present form as Act XIII of 2015 (see chapter 270: Control of Tattooing Act). The tattooing licence is valid for a single calendar year and, as such, is renewed annually. The guidelines have to be strictly adhered to and heavy fines have come into force in this respect; this besides the possible threat of suspension of the licence of any tattooist who is not in line with the basic requirements of the law.

Nowadays, according to the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Ministry for Health, the number of registered tattoo instructors on the islands is nine and the number of licensed tattoo artists both permanent and semi-permanent is a substantial 210 (see Licensed Establishments).

The rapid increase in the number of tattoo studios attests to the popularity of the practice and the waiting time for an appointment with a tattoo artist now ranges from several weeks to a month.

According to a survey conducted in 2015 by MaltaToday, the number of tattooed individuals in Malta was quite high, with almost 16 per cent of the population being tattooed. This survey was conducted based on a sample of 511 invitations, with 400 replies and with a margin of error of +/- 4.9 per cent.

These figures are replicated in a subsequent survey by the same newspaper in 2019, where 15 per cent of the sample of 653 (margin of error +/- 5 per cent) claimed to have tattoos (Sansone, 2019). These polls tally with results from other countries.

A Fox News poll in 2014 found that nearly 50 per cent of women under the age of 35 have tattoos, almost double the rate of their male counterparts (47 per cent vs 25 per cent, Debono, 2015).

All the above examples point to the various reasons why people have tattooed their bodies over the years and in different cultures. This wide variety of reasons makes it important to document and study specific groups and their tattoos in depth as, otherwise, one might risk making simplistic and/or erroneous inferences into why people ink their bodies.

Lionel Cassola is a Master of Fine Arts in digital arts. This is the last article of a three-part series.

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The tattooing culture of the Americas - Times of Malta

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