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.
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
century, criminals and outcast were tattooed with marks
from a generally recognized system of codification.
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.
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
In the beginning of the 20
century, in his manifesto, “Ornament
and Crime”, Austro-Czech architect and influential theorist of modern
architecture, Adolf Loos, condemns ornamentation and advocates