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Tattoos: The Human Body as a Work of Art

A Chinese manuscript from 297 CE refers to the tattoo as a mark of

barbarism and a sign of disgrace. Similarly, a Japanese manuscript from

720 CE shows that the emperor would tattoo his subjects as punishment.

This is the earliest documentation of using the tattoo for such a purpose.

41

The punishment included marking the criminal by tattooing his forehead

or hand with a mark of disgrace, and hence marginalizing him. In Japan,

by the early 17

th

century, criminals and outcast were tattooed with marks

from a generally recognized system of codification.

The

Yakuza

tattoo culture was formed in Japan, around three hundred

years ago, during the Edo Period, as a counter-response to the forced

tattooing of criminals and outcasts. Members of this organized crime

group covered their marks of disgrace with ornamental tattoos. These

tattoos turned into not only an integral part of their way of life, but also

their very trademark.

During the 19th century, several criminologists developed a theory

stipulating that people who intentionally hurt their skin by tattooing are

insane, perverse, or have a negative personality. This theory influenced

the conceptualization of the practice of tattooing for many years to come.

Thus, for instance, the tattoos on the bodies of Egyptian female mummies

were believed to be a sign that these women were prostitutes; the tattoos,

in this case, were interpreted as protective signs against venereal diseases.

Tassie disagrees with this hypothesis, since, as he states, it adopts the

view of the classical world, which marked the criminals and slaves with

facial tattoos, while in ancient Egypt tattoos on the bodies of women were

related to fertility and protection from maternal death.

42

Bianchi states

that the eroticism reflected in the Middle Kingdom Egyptian tattooed

figurines, indicates that the these tattoos were associated with fertility and

reincarnation. Bianchi goes on to propose that the Egyptian mummies of

tattooed women, belonged to women who participated in the rituals of the

goddess Hathor.

43

In the beginning of the 20

th

century, in his manifesto, “Ornament

and Crime”, Austro-Czech architect and influential theorist of modern

architecture, Adolf Loos, condemns ornamentation and advocates

18e