The earliest evidence of humans marking their bodies was discovered in 1991 when tourists exploring the Austrian-Italian border came upon the mummified remains of a man who died more than 5,000 years ago. Small lines made by rubbing powdered charcoal into vertical cuts marked the mummy’s lower back and legs. While Roman warriors and administrators told of Celts from Britain and northern Europe who decorated their bodies, Christian custom opposed body modification. Europeans discovered that American Indians frequently painted or marked their bodies, but tatau first entered European conversations in the 19th century when Joseph Banks, a naturalist who sailed with James Cook, reported the Samoan term. The engravings of Sydney Parkinson and John Webber, artists who accompanied Cook, gave visual meaning to the word and stimulated interest in body art.
Within indigenous societies, marked bodies integrated individuals within the community. For many, body markings held spiritual significance. When Olive Oatman was purchased by a Mohave family from another Indian community, her chin was tattooed, not as a sign of slavery or indenture but to insure she would have a good afterlife. Whether a tattoo venerated a person’s ancestors, signified social status, or propitiated spiritual forces, its significance was broadly understood within the community.
In contrast, Europeans and Americans more frequently wore tattoos as a form of esoteric self-expression that marked their membership in a particular subculture. Sailors, carnival workers, and prisoners used body art to distinguish themselves from society at large. When New York inventor Samuel O’Reilly patented an electric tattoo machine in 1891, it spurred a flourishing business in Chatham Square, New York, but for most of the 20th century the tattoo trade relied upon and reinforced distinctive countercultures.
In the last quarter-century, the risqué and deviant undertones of body art have faded. To the extent that tattoos no longer represent membership in a subculture, their meaning has become increasingly personal, with less certain social significance. In Miguel Gandert’s portrait of Teresa Gutiérrez we recognize the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe inscribed on her back, but we are left to wonder why she wears it.