Tattoo Art: More Than Skin Deep

Tattoo-inspired clothing at “My Tattoo” studio in Alhambra, CA
Tattoo-inspired clothing at “My Tattoo” studio in Alhambra, CA

Originally published in The Quarterly magazine, Fall 2013

Tattoos may symbolize rebellion to some, and to countless others, it expresses creativity, freedom and even love beyond words. Whatever your leaning, the rich history and overall artistry of tattoos demands a more thoughtful look into an entirely unique realm of beauty and intrigue.

Today, we find tattoo art on more than skin. It is juxtaposed to painted masterpieces at UCLA’s Hammer Museum during an earlier exhibit featuring Ed Hardy, one of the most renowned tattoo artists.

Vibrant and lively tattoo art is also popularized on items like wallets, shoes, clothing, watches, eye ware, cell phone covers, car seats, baby carriers, special edition spray cans and soda cans.

But from where did these signature designs originate? And what have they evolved into today?

Since the time of our primitive ancestors, tattoos have, at different periods, been a form of spirituality, status, honor, adornment and even punishment. Sometimes they were used as amulets and at other times, a bond between lovers.

The earliest discovery of body modification by coloring the skin was found in an upper Paleolithic cave in France where tools for tattooing were carbon-dated at nearly 40,000 years old. And from 30,000 BC, a carved figure with tattoo markings on the arm was found in Germany.

The oldest evidence of tattoos on an actual person was a surprisingly well-preserved Ötzi Iceman found in a glacier in the Italian Alps, near Austria, carbon-dated at nearly 5,300 years old.

Unlike the needle method used in modern tattoos, the Ötzi Iceman’s markings were made by incisions with charcoal placed inside for coloring. More than 50 lines and crosses were found on his skin; but the evidence for these patterns suggest a more medicinal purpose since they closely follow acupuncture lines.

Before 2,000 BC, women in Egypt were known to have tattoos as a safeguard during pregnancy and against illness. Shortly after, women began to use tattoos as fashionable adornment.

During the millennial transition from BC to AD, from Asia and the Americas to Europe and Africa, evidence indicates that tattoos were in broad use for various purposes.

During the Han Dynasty in China, it was used to mark people as property or criminals. Around the same time but in a different part of the world, it was also used to set apart the upper class. The Greek writer Herodotus, from fifth century BC even stated of Scythians and Thracians, Indo-European tribes, “tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.”

Despite the ebb and flow of tattoo popularity around the world and through the ages, modern tattoos in the United States are believed to have originated from Polynesia.

In 1769, after Captain James Cook’s first exploration of the cultures in the Pacific, he brought back to Europe sketches by Sydney Parkinson of intricately and extensively tattooed Maori men, like that of a “Portrait of a New Zealand Man.” To be tattooed in patterns of dots, swirls and tribal shapes all over the body, including the face, was an honor, a rite of passage and a mark of attraction.

From the Tahitian word “tatau” which means to “strike or mark,” the modern “tattoo” was established. And it’s no wonder that mariners adopted the practice first, bringing a taste of the islands to people on the mainland in Europe and America and helping them grow more accustomed to the art form. Of course, these seamen, often in the Navy, donned nautical symbols and images, like anchors, stars, ships, ocean waves and mythical sea creatures.

And as people traveled more frequently throughout the world, unique types of tattoo art spread. In America today, some of the more popular styles include: black and gray, full color, tribal, portrait realism, pop culture, traditional Asian/oriental and new school or neo oriental.

Though individual tattoos vary vastly, one thing remains: it is most often an immensely personal form of devotion and expression that literally changes the wearer for life. They carry with them at all times, a piece of art, a work of beauty, a memory of a loved one, an object of devotion or a simple symbol of who they are.

Those who are tattooed are just as diverse as the tattoos they wear. For instance, some Christians tattoo Bible verses or words of inspiration on their arms like, “Love God, Love People” in beautiful script. Alex Wu, an ordained minister in Orange County, wears an Asian dragon tattoo, not from a sordid past but from a confident present, an expression of his roots.

A mother wears a realistic portrait of her late son to help her grieve the loss while a group of ladies etch pink ribbons on their skin to help celebrate their friend’s remission from breast cancer.

Though tattoo art is everywhere, etched onto nearly any kind of object, at its very essence it is ink for the skin. And according to Penelope Jones, Assistant Dean of Student Services at the USC School of Fine Arts, when asked about how to differentiate the quality of tattoo art she said, “Because it is site specific, the most successful tattoos take into consideration the placement, the person’s individual physique like the crevices in the skin and hills of the body.”

Kohei Toyama, a tattoo artist at My Tattoo in Alhambra, echoed Jones’ sentiment, adding, “You have to remember you are working near muscle, bone and on a live moving person.”

Even when it is not on the skin, “It is tattoo art because of the history, culture, lifestyle and tradition behind it,” says Andy Tran, one of 5 students, along with Toyama, in the My Tattoo family of artists under master trainer Jess Yen.

When asked about what he would say to skeptics of tattoo art, Toyama replied, “Right now, there is so much skill required… It’s just art.”

And he is right. In Los Angeles alone, a mecca for gifted tattoo artists, the highly talented come from all walks of life.

There are those with a master in fine arts like Roni Zulu, who is also an accomplished cellist, to those who are self-taught, like Dan Smith who was featured on LA Ink (a past reality TV show hosted by tattoo artist, Kat Von D) and a reputable musician to boot. Even Ed Hardy, born in 1945 and raised in Southern California, was bound for Yale, when he decided to become a tattoo artist instead.

As with any excellent artwork, tattoo art comes alive as the artist creates within their confined environment, keeping in mind the cultural roots of the medium and putting their spin on shadow gradients, detailed lines, color combinations, and even 3D-like images to tell a story, the wearers story.

Tattooing is like putting a wonderful illustration on a live canvas. But for those who appreciate the art and desire it on more than skin, it is often placed on objects and found in museums to be admired even more broadly.

When asked where tattoo art is headed, Tran said, “The industry is growing and evolving so quickly, we [as artists] are pushing ourselves to new boundaries. It is limitless.”

History of tattoo credits: “Tattoo” by Thomas, Cole and Douglas;;

9 Comments Add yours

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    1. asukwang says:

      Thank you for reading! It was a fascinating piece for me to do. I don’t keep up w/ the world of tattooing, but will continue to share a variety of interesting stories. Please stay in touch!


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