It's a little odd that someone as center-of-attention-phobic as I am has chosen something that is bound to garner close looks. I'm referring to my tattoos, which are obvious and colorful -- and include a full sleeve, so they're a little hard to hide.
Virtually everyone who comments on them, however, is complimentary. With good reason; my artist, James Spiers of Model Citizen Tattoos in Ithaca, New York, is -- in a word -- brilliant, and realized my vision of what I wanted just about perfectly.
Not everyone's a fan, of course. I was given the stink-eye by a sour-faced old lady in a local hardware store a while back, who informed me that having tattoos meant I was going to hell.
My response was, "Lady, that ship sailed years ago."
But if I do end up in hell because of my ink, I'll have a lot of company. Not only is tattooing pretty common these days -- since I got my first one, about twenty years ago, it's gone from being an infrequent sight to just about everywhere -- humans have been decorating their bodies for a long time. Ötzi "the Ice Man," a five-thousand-year-old body found frozen in glacial ice on the Austrian-Italian border, had 61 tattoos, mostly on his legs, arms, and back. (Their significance is unknown.) In historical times, tattooing has been observed in many cultures -- it was widespread in North and South American Indigenous people and throughout east Asia and Polynesia, which is probably how the tradition jumped to Europe in the eighteenth century (and explains its associations with sailors).
The role of self-expression in tattoos varies greatly from person to person. Ask a dozen people why they chose to get inked and you'll get a dozen wildly different answers. For me, it's in honor of my family and ethnic roots; the Celtic snake is for my wildlife-loving, half-Scottish father, the vines for my gardener mother. But the reasons for getting tattooed are as varied as the designs are.
The reason all this comes up is because of a discovery that was described this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science of the oldest-known tattoo tools, some sharpened turkey leg and wing bones found near Fernvale, Tennessee that predate Ötzi by over five hundred years. The hollow pointed tips of the bone tools still contained residue of black and red pigments, and the microscopic wear on the tips and edges match that found on tattoo tools found at other sites around the world.
The ordeal of being jabbed over and over with a sharpened bird bone, though, sounds a lot more painful than what I underwent, which was bad enough.
But it was worth it. After I stopped screaming.
In any case, I find it fascinating how old the drive to adorn our bodies is, and also that the designs had (and have) such depth of meaning that people were willing to wear them permanently. For myself, I've never regretted them for a moment; I'm proud of my ink, whatever the sour-faced little old ladies of the world might think of it. And knowing that what I have is part of a tradition that goes back at least six thousand years gives me a connection to the rituals and culture of the past.
And for me, that's something to cherish. Even if I do end up in hell because of it.