Tattoos: From Otzi The Iceman To Theron
May 13, 2014

Tattoos: From Otzi The Iceman To Charlize Theron

In these celebrity-obsessed times, it seems that every time one of the worshiped ones spills a bit of ink on their body and calls it a tattoo, it’s big news. From the Beckhams and Jolie to Charlize Theron’s leg fish and foot flower, we are supposed to be impressed, as if they have invented something new or special. In fact, tattoos can be traced back 5,000 years to a guy we now know as Otzi the Iceman. So who was Otzi?

Back in 1991, two German hikers were walking in the mountains between Italy and Austria when they found a human corpse lying in the ice and melting snow. They had discovered the 5,000-year-old mummified remains of Otzi, a Stone Age warrior. Excavations of the site uncovered the remains of skin, muscle, leather and hide, string, grass, hair, a bearskin cap, even a fingernail. Beside Otzi lay an axe, a dagger, and part of a longbow. There are many remarkable things about Otzi, including the fact that he has the oldest tattoos known to man. More than 50 marks can be seen on the body in several groups of lines and crosses. These were made by rubbing charcoal into incisions, rather than the later ink-and-needle process. One theory is that they were made as a kind of pain-relieving treatment – the markings were found at points on the body where heavy use had resulted in strain and wear. Otzi probably bled to death when a flint arrowhead penetrated a shoulder and severed a major artery.

Tattoos are nothing new then, and a new exhibition at the Museum of Indigenous Arts in Paris celebrates the art of the tattoo down the ages. Exhibits range from photographs of tattoos from around the world to tattooing equipment, skulls, and even bits of tattooed skin. The event compares the ancient anthropological tradition of body-marking, where the marks are often ritualized or ceremonial displays of power and magic or symbols designed to ward off evil spirits, to the darker side of the tattooist’s world in the west where tattoos were frowned upon and treated with suspicion by society as symbols of the underclasses and criminals. In Osaka, Japan, for instance, public sector employees were ordered to have tattoos removed because of their association with the “Yakuza” – Japan’s organized crime network. In both Tsarist and post-revolutionary Communist Russia, criminals were tattooed forcibly with marks that indicated the nature of their crime and subsequent punishment.

Nowadays, body art is almost mainstream, with an estimated 25 percent of Americans having a tattoo of some kind. The curators of the Paris exhibition believe that tattoos have become almost like a new art form and claim that, “it’s an art movement that’s developing and changing all the time.” There is no doubt that tattoos can be beautiful things. From the intricate stripes and spirals of the Polynesians, to the full body art of today’s tattoo obsessives, there is no doubting the craft and vision of the tattooist’s art, perfectly illustrated by these illustrations from “Le Mondial du Tatouage.”

Image Credit:

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Email


Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

Send Eric an email