Will tattoos finally be accepted as art?

He continues: “The other day someone sent me an advertising leaflet from the British Post Office, which showed the father of a toddler with a visible full sleeve. There was a time where a relatively conservative organisation like the Post Office doing that would have created a backlash. Now it’s accepted as progressive.”

However, Lodder insists it’s important we frame tattoos as a historic “medium” rather than a “phenomenon”, with the media often downplaying the artform’s heritage by only narrowing in on the buzz of more recent popularity. To truly understand the trajectory of tattoos, he says we must dig deep into the history. “Western tattooing has been a commodity-based art form for only about 140 years,” he explains, suggesting that one of the key drivers behind its commercialisation in the UK was King George V, who got a “desirable” tattoo of a dragon on his arm during a trip to Japan as a teenager in 1881. Conversely, though, he adds, “we also have to remember there’s physical evidence of tattooing that dates all the way back to 3250 BC.”

Ancient roots

Lodder is referring to Ötzi, a European Tyrolean Iceman whose frozen body was preserved beneath an Alpine glacier along the Austrian-Italian border, before finally being discovered by a perplexed German couple 5,300 years later during their walking holiday in the Alps. Ötzi had 61 tattoos across his body, with the tattoos (which were primarily sets of horizontal and vertical lines) thought to have had a therapeutic purpose akin to acupuncture – since they tended to be clustered around Ötzi’s lower back and joints, areas where anthropologists say the Iceman was suffering from degenerative pains and aches.  

Other ancient corpses have revealed even more intricate designs. The “Gebelein Man”, who has been on display in the British Museum for more than 100 years, has a tattoo of an interlocking sheep and bull on his arm. The naturally mummified corpse dates back to Ancient Egypt’s Predynastic period around 5,000 years ago, with the tattoos applied permanently under the skin using a carbon-based substance [experts believe it was likely some type of soot]. There’s also evidence that the women of Ancient Egypt had tattoos, with experts speculating that they were carved into the skin so that the gods would protect their babies during pregnancy. The 1891 discovery of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes, showed extensive tattooing across the mummified corpse’s abdominal region.

A heavily-tattooed female warrior priestess dubbed the “Princess of Ukok” was discovered by archaeologists in the Altai Mountains – which run through Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan – back in 1993. The discovery of this 2,500-year-old corpse was particularly significant due to the pristine preservation of the skin and a torso featuring beautifully sophisticated illustrations of mythical beasts, including the antlers of a Capricorn.

Believed to be 25 when she died, the princess was one of the Pazyryks, a Scythian-era tribe that saw body tattoos as a marker of social status, and something that would make it easier for them to be located by loved ones in the afterlife. All these discoveries, according to Lodder, completely shatter the notion that tattooing is somehow a new “trend” – if anything, it is one of the oldest artforms on record.

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