I wept when I looked at the close-up photo of a number tattooed on a woman’s arm at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
When I stepped back to blow my nose and allow a group of teenagers to see the photo, one of the girls lazily chewing on a big wad of gum nudged her friend, “Hey don’t you think that’s a cool tattoo?”
“Ohmygod I love it!” said the friend.
So many things I wanted to say, and wished I’d said, but I was speechless.
I know tattoos weren’t invented in Nazi Germany – concentration camp inmates were simply branded like cattle – but I don’t understand, and I can’t explain why tattooing has become such a popular worldwide form of expression that people willingly spend thousands of dollars, suffering many hours of torture to cover their skin with some very carefully selected illustrations they can never remove.
The word tattoo [from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ meaning ‘to mark something’] was brought back from Tahiti in 1769 by Captain James Cook!
Tattooing, for spiritual and decorative purposes, dates back thousands of years across Europe, China, Japan, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Samoa and New Zealand.
- The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Japanese tattooed criminals as a visible mark of punishment.
- In 54 BC when Julius Caesar invaded Britain he described seeing long-lasting decorations pricked on the skin of the inhabitants.
- During the Middle Ages, Christian Crusaders identified themselves with the mark of the Jerusalem cross on their foreheads so that they could be given a proper Christian burial if they died in battle.
Some people (as I show in these two photos I took at the Hollywood Bowl) choose one or two small tattoos such as butterflies, flowers, or designs…
But many people prefer to cover large portions of their skin.
- If you cover the upper arm it’s called the ‘half-sleeve‘
- the ‘full-sleeve‘ includes the upper and lower arms.
When I met Max in San Diego, he was happy to explain his tattoos to me.
- The tattoo on his forearm is of a flapper from the Great Gatsby
- in the middle is a Homage to James Elroy, with the Crest of Montenegro above it
- on the right, “To mine own self be True”
- the watch: “All dogs go to Heaven“. The time is at 11:11 “The Wishing Hour“.
I met Adrian at my cash register. She told me there’s a lot of synchronicity with birth dates in her family: both her father and her father-in-law were born on 02.03 and her grandson was born on 02.03.04 and the numbers are in the tattoos.
The first tattoo is of her grandson, the fisherman is her husband, and she spent a long time making sure I understood the tattoo on the right:
- Purple is the color of cancer.
- Radiation is purple.
- Many people in her life have died from cancer: her mother, her father, mother-in-law, father-in-law, aunt, uncle and a good friend. All their initials are on her arm.
- Even though she’s taken them all the girl is pretty, because there’s always hope …
Angelina (below) told me:
“Most people can only take three hours of tattooing pain at a time. Each one of my tattoos took about six to nine hours.”
“When you’re tattooed it feels like a razor blade digging in you,”
“Each tattoo gun has six to nine tiny needles working at a time.”
OMG that sounds far worse than childbirth!
She has a cherry blossom on her back, a peacock on her arm, and the Japanese Great wave inside her arm.
This is Emory from Vancouver, Canada whom I met at the Museum yesterday. She told me that the Borneo Rose (on her right leg) guards the wearer from evil spirits, and is usually tattooed on a young man’s shoulders.
The above is just a small sampling of the hundreds of tattooed arms and legs that walk past my cash register.
For more information you can check out Camila Rocha’s site. She’s a tattoo artist from Brazil who came to my cash register two weeks ago.
Have you seen the book The Japanese Tattoo by Sandi Fellman? It was difficult for the American photographer to meet the Irezumi
”an extreme and secretive group of people living in the underworld of Tokyo and Osaka who have transformed themselves into living works of art through tattooing…”
and she had to spend a long time gaining their trust before being permitted to photograph them.
“These are people who have chosen to suffer years of torture and perhaps even shorten their lives* to make their bodies look unnatural.“
* tattooing shorten lives when too little free skin is left to breath or perspire.
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I’d love to hear what you think of tattoos. Can you explain why they’re so fashionable?