Written by Sean Herman
Tattoos are a living, breathing thing, existing symbiotically with us. They can change rapidly, making them one of the most impermanent arts. The maximum life span for most tattoos is 70 years or so, aside from cases like Otzi the Iceman, whose lifetime was around 3300 BCE. Most people will not end up being preserved in ice, the perfect storm of conditions, preserved via the wintery storm that took their life. For most people, when their time comes and they move on to their next journey, their tattoos are left behind, quickly dissipating back into the air around them. In essence, tattoos are just like our life spans, gone within the blink of an eye, and also fluidly moving, ever changing, and becoming something new.
Examples of the tattoos found on Otzi the Iceman. Click the images to move through the images.
As tattooists, we get to take part in a sacred act, opening up the skin that guards people, now making them vulnerable. We then get to put something back into that wound, something either positive or negative. We have the ability to give people something, during that time of vulnerability, that their body will heal over, and the skin that guarded them will wear for their journeys to come. Scientifically, our tattoos are always changing. Tattoo needles, made in various groupings, are pushed through the skin by small, precise machines, pushing through the epidermis at some 50 to 3000 times per minute, and distributing ink into the dermis, the deeper layer of skin housing our nerves and blood cells. Our nerves produce triggers, declaring that a break has occurred. These triggers tell our immune system to get to work, and attempt to fix break has occurred on our protective skin, creating inflammation. In essence, the pain is a signal of something being fixed. Job specific cells called macrophages come to triggered area, guided by following the inflammation, and they begin to consume the ink that has been pushed through the puncture wounds. What ink that is left is then soaked up by skin cells called fibroblasts. Much of the macrophages and fibroblasts are then trapped there, suspended in the dermis, in perpetuity. This suspension of the ink in the cells are why we see tattoos as they are, but the slow dispersant back into the body is why they appear to fade over time. Perpetuity can only be so long. There’s that impermanence thing again. Change is all around.
“These ornaments or marks of honor are not printed without pain; for a start they draw the pattern on the skin; then, with a needle or a small well-sharpened bone, they prick to blood, following the pattern; after which, they rub on the pricked place with a powder of the color asked by the one who gets that mark.”
-Henri de Tonti (French explorer via the 1600’s)
Our reasons for getting tattooed over time have varied, the unifying theme being something of significance through an image, an icon. In the Middle East mourners rubbed the ash from funeral pyres into self-inflicted wounds, thereby carrying a piece of the departed with them forever. (1) Daniel Bouquet, a medical doctor in Cairo, wrote on the “medical tattooing” practices in Ancient Egypt. In describing the tattoos on the female mummies found at the Deir el-Bahari site, he reveals that they may have served a medicinal or therapeutic purpose:
“The examination of these scars, some white, others blue, leaves in no doubt that they are not, in essence, ornament, but an established treatment…”
Across the water. in the Philippines, tattooing has long been a part of their culture. Some were tattooed to show rank or accomplishment, while others were for something much more. Many indigenous peoples of the Philippines, including the Bontoc Igorot, Kalinga, and Ifugao people believed that tattoo had magical qualities. Markings of accomplishments, therapeutic, and magical, that is definitely how I would describe the ancient craft of tattooing, while the explorer Captain Bossu provides another viewpoint. Captain Bossu wrote of his experience as an explorer getting tattooed around the same time as Bienville, offering some insight to this experience. Captain Bossu recounted,
“I sat on a wildcat skin while an Indian burned some straw. He put the ashes in water and used this simple mixture to draw the deer. He then traced the drawing with big needles, pricking me until I bled. The blood mixed with the ashes of the straw formed a tattoo which can never be removed. After that I smoked a pipe and walked on white skins which were spread under my feet. They danced for me and shouted with joy. They then told me that if I traveled among the tribes allied to them, all that I had to do to receive a warm welcome was to smoke a peace pipe and show my tattoo. They also said that I was their brother and that if I were killed they would avenge my death. . . . I cannot tell you how much I suffered and how great an effort I made to remain impassive. I even joked with the Arkansas women who were present. The spectators, surprised by my stoicism, cried out with joy, danced, and told me that I was a real man. I was truly in great pain and ran a fever for almost a week. You would never believe how attached to me these people have become since then.” 2
Bossu felt as if he was a part of something, a feeling I longed for, the glory of acceptance. To be part of something.
Punk rock saved my soul. I’m not the first person to say it, but it is still as true for me. Growing up, punk rock was an outlet, something that told me I wasn't alone, something that told me other people felt the way I did. Screaming along words that meant everything to me, to us, something you can never really explain how it felt, but you know you loved it. With Ian Mackaye I said I was "out of step with the world", with Henry Rollins I said "I was tired of your abuse, try to stop us, it's no use", and with Milo Aukerman I said "my day will come, some day I'll be the only one". They spoke everything I thought and couldn’t find the words to say, giving a voice to a kid that didn't know how to use his own yet. Punk rock found me, and it saved my life. That was my first exposure to tattoos. Henry Rollins iconic, black, marks and symbols all over his arms, representing bands (like the misfits, or black flag) and experiences. I became enthralled with the idea of marking your progression through life, those accomplishments you won’t forget. A way to visually account for where you have been, and where you are going. Marks of progression, progression that unified a group and created a culture.
Years passed, and my interest in punk rock grew to a passionate love. With a weekend of shows, I was exposed to more that unified a culture, and made them feel whole. Matching tattoos, demonstrating ideals and passions, covering the bands I eagerly watched. Those symbols became ingrained in my mind, and I would just sit and draw them, over and over. I was hungry to have more, more history of tattooing, more images, everything. I remember one day reading a piece on Paulo Sulu`ape, that forever changed my life, and I fell down the rabbit hole of the magic of tattoo. At that point I had already received 2 tattoos from my friend Jason Cline, and would have been completely covered, if it wasn't for my vocation at the time frowning on the idea.
My hunger for family and acceptance grew from a childhood founded in isolation. Growing up with a parent living with bi-polar disorder and substance abuse had caused me to create my own world, alone in my mind, to cope with the reality around me. I longed for an encouraged acceptance, thus like many adolescents of that time, I became in the more radical movements happening with the Christian church. Christianity had become hardcore and punk rock shows, with the vocalist screaming about feelings of depression, and longings for acceptance. They spoke to me, so I assumed it was the church I identified with, never realizing it was still punk rock that held my heart. During that time I became heavily involved with the church, and the ideas of working with and helping others. I struggled for years, searching for an idea of God I had created, until finally accepting my folly. It took me years to understand that creator I searched for existed within myself, and others, and tattooing would be the way I will be able to share that sacrament.
Paulo Sulu’ape came back to mind, with the magical, spiritual connection in tattooing. The way he spoke about a connection to the person receiving the tattoo, and the power that it gave, it was amazing, it was inspiring, it was what I wanted to do with my life. From that moment I knew what I wanted in life: to connect. Years after I was affected by Paulo, I found myself working as a tattooist under the watchful eye of an amazing woman in the Netherlands. I came out there for a guest spot, and she became a person I held in high admiration. She had been in the industry, had seen the world, and had fought for tattooing. She was tough, and I respected her immensely.
One night we were having a meal out and she asked me this same question of "how did you get into tattooing?".
I began by telling her about Paulo Sulu`ape, and how his words changed my life.
She looked at me, smiled, and I noticed tears started coming down her eyes.
"Paulo", she said, "was the love of my life".
I sat in awe and listened to a story of them falling in love, getting ready to spend a life together, and his untimely death that forever changed her life. I listened, and was amazed.
I told her how his words changed everything I thought, to which she smiled at me, and softly said, "It's tattooers like you that Paulo lives on through, forever." We sat, in silence, with tears in our eyes, forever connected. To me, that is tattooing. Connection. A magical connection that can be therapeutic.
My thoughts for the “For the Love of Tattooing” series has been to share the aspects of tattooing that I love with people that may not have the experiences with it. With this part of the series, entitled “The Transformative Tattoo” I wanted to share stories and experiences on a more intimate and personal level of the experience of getting tattooed, and the life after. We will be working with Openoureyes.org, an amazing organization we love, bringing you stories from all kinds of people, about how their lives have been changed. From earlier we know that in tattooing we open people up, and have the ability to give them something positive to hold onto, and to heal with. A person's reasons for getting tattooed vary, from marking accomplishments, to redefining the self image they have, to creating an idea of hope. In this series we are going to cover different stories of people’s tattoo experience, my experience with them, and the change that this living amulet of a tattoo has created in their lives.
2. Balvay tattooing essay, Bossu, Nouveaux voyages aux Indes, 122–224.