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A History of Ink

Historical and modern body markings and tattoos from around the world.

Posted 02.03.15 by Allison Fischbach

Show me a man with a tattoo and I'll show you a man with an interesting past. - Jack London 

Image of tattoos on the legs of a Tahitian man

Tattoos are not simply for sailors. Modern tattoo art is growing in popularity with the widespread availability of sanitary professional tattoo parlors. Chances are you, or someone you know, has some ink - a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center concludes that one in three adults between the ages of 18 and 25 has a tattoo.

Tattoo and body art act as expressions of personality and passions, experience and history, and the history of tattoos is long and varied. Disparate cultures across the globe have used, and still use, tattoos as a form of cultural identity and symbol of social standing.

The art of tattooing has ancient roots, having been in practice since at least the 4th millennium B.C.E. Mummified remains have been found in Eurasia, Siberia and Egypt bearing tattoos, some of which are believed to have been administered as a healing practice. One mummy, labeled the Siberian Ice Maiden, found in 1993, shows evidence of elaborate patterns of chimeric animals covering her left arm and wrist. The pre-Christian Scottish Picts were also notorious for their detailed and extensive war-inspired dark blue markings, with ink made from a copper-based pigment.

In this exhibit are displayed the tribal tattoos of the Maori of New Zealand, the sak yant sacred tattoos of Thailand, and the scarification rituals of the Ga'anda and Tabwa women, the secretive irezumi tradition of the Japanese, the underground culture of tattooing in the Russian prison system, and relatively modern use of tattoos and body art in the Western world.

Peruse the selection to find inspiration for your next ink. More books on tattooing can be found from GN 419.15 to GT 2346 in our Stacks and Quarto sections.

Circulation Policy for Books on Exhibit

Circulating books on display in the museum cases are available for check out at any time. Please see a staff member at the circulation desk to request a book from the cases. Titles, when available, may be checked out at any time from the MRC. For books on display from the Special Collections (Cage), please see a reference librarian.

Image Information

Thumbnail: Tattoo from an inamte at the Kraslag Corrective Labor Camp, Kansk, Krasnoyarsk Krai. Circa, 1960. "Communist Party of the Soviet Union: You've chosen the right path, comrades!" From Russian Criminal tattoo encyclopaedia by D.S. Baldaev, HV 6098 .B3513 2008 v.3 Stacks
This Page: Tattoos on the legs of a Tahitian man, from Tahiti tattoos by Gian Paolo Barbieri, GT 2346 .F93 B37 1998 c.1 Quarto

Founded in 1826, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is the oldest continuously degree-granting college of art and design in the nation. The College enrolls nearly 3,500 undergraduate, graduate and continuing studies students from 49 states and 65 countries in fine arts, design, electronic media, art education, liberal arts, and professional studies degree and non-credit programs. With art and design programs ranked in the top ten by U.S. News and World Report, MICA is pioneering interdisciplinary approaches to innovation, research, and community and social engagement. Alumni and programming reach around the globe, even as MICA remains a cultural cornerstone in the Baltimore/Washington region, hosting hundreds of exhibitions and events annually by students, faculty and other established artists.