A fascinating post by Victor Mair at the Log:

Lars Krutak has several excellent articles on tattoo among the Iroquois and in Siberia and Arctic regions that provide insight for the functions of tattoos in other parts of the world. One observation that may be made about some of the tattoos Krutak has documented is that they serve as a sort of signature, albeit a highly complex and artistic one.
Now I come to the nub of this post. Note that the earliest (around 1200 BC) Chinese character for writing, wén 文, originally depicted and referred to tattoo (concerning this website, see my post on “Chinese ‘Etymology'”).
A few centuries later, when wén 文 acquired the meanings of “culture, civilization, writing”, a new character based upon it (by adding the silk radical to the left) was created to stand for the original meaning, wén 纹 (“lines, design”). It is remarkable that this character is still used in the Mandarin word for “tattoo”, viz., wénshēn 纹身 (lit., “lines / design-body”). Thus, there is a direct and unmistakable connection between tattoo and the development of writing in China. This is not surprising in light of the fact that the burial practices of the elite in the East Asian Heartland (EAH, subsequently to become the core of a sequence of dynasties now retrospectively referred to as “Chinese”) during the second half of the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BC displayed clear affinities with steppe cultures.

See Mair’s post for links and, of course, for more discussion of this very intriguing idea.


  1. So my Pictish ancestors were proto-literate, eh? And the Polynesians too? Hm. Ah hae ma doots.

  2. You made me wonder just how old tattooing really is and after some cursory research I see that it dates back to the Neolithic Period, at least 5th Century B.C. and possibly earlier. Holy crap. I hate no idea. I would’ve guess maybe 500-1000 years or so. Fascinating.
    I wonder if perhaps our own skin was the next thing we wrote/drew on after the ground and cave walls, what a thought–our own skin predates paper as a writing medium.
    Got any tattoos, Stephen? If so, can we see? 😀
    I don’t, but that’s more a function of the fact that I’ve always thought that if I get a tattoo it won’t be for the sake of simply having a tattoo, it will have to be because I have a concept so important to me that I want it permanently marked onto my own body…I have yet to run across anything that important to me yet. We’ll see.

  3. There are a number of examples of what *might* be proto-writing dating back to the 6th or 7th milleniums BCE (such as the Jiahu tortoise shells and the Vinča script). I’ve long through it likely that at least some cultures did their proto-writing (or whatever this was) on skins, wood or other materials unlikely to be preserved. Tattoos make as much sense as anything else.
    Didn’t Otzi have tattoos?

  4. …and if I had read the whole link I would have seen that yes indeed, Otzi did have tattoos. Wikipedia says they’re thought to have something to do with healing, though. Apparently they resemble acupuncture marks.

  5. I wonder if perhaps our own skin was the next thing we wrote/drew on after the ground and cave walls, what a thought–our own skin predates paper as a writing medium.
    Exactly. It makes perfect sense, but would never have occurred to me.
    Got any tattoos, Stephen?
    Are you kidding? I come from a generation when only criminals and juvenile delinquents got (or were thought to get, anyway) tattoos. I don’t think I personally knew anyone with a tattoo until I quit grad school and moved to New York. Which is not to say I disapprove of people’s right to do whatever they want with their bodies! But I reserve the right to mutter about “kids today” and “getting off my lawn.”

  6. Jeffry House says

    And, upon seeing a tattooed young woman, to mutter “tramp stamp”.

  7. dearieme, I don’t know about your Pictish ancestors, but I do know that the past tense does not apply to Polynesians and their tattoos, and I’m certainly neither brave nor stupid enough to tell Tame Iti that his moko is meaningless. Moko do encode real information about whakapapa.
    Maybe we’re working from different understandings of proto-literate, but I find it hard to reconcile the real meanings conveyed in the wood carvings and woven panels of wharenui and tattoos with your doots. And if we’re talking Polynesia and proto-literacy, we can’t forget Rapa Nui and its Rongorongo and the question of whether it’s a script or a system of memory aids.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    hat, you need to run out and acquire one or more of the three volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia by Danzig Baldaev. I only own one of the volumes (bought cheap at the Strand a while back), but they’re totally amazing documents from the Soviet era of the people who had such a bad-ass attitude toward the regime that they would put anti-Communist propaganda (often scatological) on their skin in permanent fashion.

  9. only criminals and juvenile delinquents
    And young men in the armed services.
    Tattooing was in vogue among the upper classes for a time. A persistent rumor is that Jennie Churchill had a snake on her wrist. See, for instance, Pulitzer’s epitome of Yellow Journalism, the New York World for August 28, 1897, with an artist’s rendition in the upper-right corner. George Burchett in his Memoirs claimed that Tom Riley did hers, and that he, Burchett, worked on Edward VII.

  10. the question of whether it’s a script or a system of memory aids
    Surely a script is a system of memory aids ? For the scribe, to recall what he said or might have said. For the lector, ditto. Write once, read anywhere.

  11. A friend of my wife’s evaded the Vietnam-era draft by having the words FUCK THE ARMY tattooed on the outside of the fifth finger of his right hand.

  12. The Bible forbids tattoos, so they must have been known in the ancient Middle East.

  13. Trond Engen says

    I’ve seen British royal tattoos in photos from between the wars. I wonder why and when. I hardly ever see photos of the British royal family from between the wars.

  14. Trond Engen says

    I remember! In the press photos for the launch of one of the volumes in Tor Bomann-Larsen’s biography of Norway’s king Haakon VII and queen Maud. He had access to the private family photos of the Norwegian royal family, and Maud was a daughter of Edward VII.

  15. Jean-Michel says

    “A friend of my wife’s evaded the Vietnam-era draft by having the words FUCK THE ARMY tattooed on the outside of the fifth finger of his right hand.”
    Hmm…there’s a photo in Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” of a guy saluting the camera, with the words “FUCK THE ARMY” visible along the outside of his little finger. Perhaps some other people had the same idea (or maybe someone just wrote it in marker for the purposes of the photograph), but then it’s also possible your wife’s friend is immortalized in one of the counterculture’s more dubious classics.

  16. “The Bible forbids tattoos”
    cz it must be could be perceived something like that, decadent?
    ancient tattoos, must be they used some kind of anesthesia, no? otherwise it should be pretty painful i imagine, anyway it’s a business of some very patient and tactility not challenged people, who are getting tattooed, and the painters too must be pretty patient to deal with the human skin, more mastership is required perhaps compared to paper or any other still surface
    henna, for example, too, i imagine it must be also requires much patience to allow people to draw on one’s body that extensive pictures, must be feels very itchy and as if like bugs crawling on the skin, the brushes
    i always wondered how hanzis were evolved from the first images of “sug zurag” the paintings on the ancient caves walls, i think that was the explanation of kanjis iirc, i wonder whether really the first hanzis were written on the cave walls or any kind of scrolls, never thought about tattooes though, so those paintings getting more abstracter and abstracter and acquiring finally just the phonetic meaning, though for hanzis it’s always the images what come first, it’s so much patience, perseverance of tradition to last this long that it draws surely much respect for the cultures
    ancient runes everywhere were similar to hanzis i guess too, just didn’t last long enough or maybe those evolved into hieroglyphs, just Chinese invented paper first and it gave like a better chance for the characters to survive

  17. ancient tattoos, must be they used some kind of anesthesia, no? otherwise it should be pretty painful i imagine
    No, they didn’t have anesthesia, they just took suffering for granted. Read about premodern operations sometime—makes me glad to have been born when I was.

  18. Here is Jean de Thévenot’s 17th century description of getting Jerusalem tattoos, a relatively common medieval practice that Protestant visitors did too after the Reformation and which lasted through the 18th. (Englished.)

  19. I don’t think anesthesia is typically used with tattoos nowadays.

  20. There’s an interesting hypothesis going about that some of our mysterious chronic pain disorders (fibromyalgia, etc.) might originate in our not experiencing enough day to day pain and discomfort, in the modern world, for our nervous systems to calibrate properly. (This is tangential even for a Language Hat comment, nicht?)

  21. i imagined they were getting some kind of inhaled herbs thing/opium at least, as a part of a religious or some other rituals, so that is not that, and people surely might enjoy a little pain too, i remember my coworker telling me he enjoys his back pain a little, sweet pain he would say

  22. could be perceived … decadent?
    The Biblical prohibition is now understood to be a blanket one. But the specific context is remembrance of the dead. And the Talmud, while clarifying that one is not liable (to flogging) for ink without incision or incision without ink, but only both, also debates the possibility that it is only trouble to tattoo a name (השם), with the “I am the Lord” part at the end of the verse emphasizing monotheism. So that the problem was only tattooing the names of other gods. Which is something the Canaanites might have actually done and so worth worrying about.

  23. It’s too bad most contemporary tattoos are just decorative curly-whorlies and 9th-grade margin doodles. If people are serious about continuing with tattooing they ought to teach modernist tattooing at architecture school and have a BA course in conceptual tattooing at art schools. Now I come to think of it they ought to start teaching hairdressing there too. Some of what I see on the street is appalling. Imagine how the standard would improve if they taught hairdressing at Yale. Car design too, come to think of it.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    Tattooing remains quite common among Coptic Christians, broadly speaking, including the Egyptian church’s daughter churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea. I have gone to church in Manhattan with a string of nice Eritrean immigrant ladies of a certain age, one of whom has a cross tattooed in the middle of her forehead, which is in the Old Country a sign that you are a pious and respectable matron even though in the U.S. forehead tattoos are often a bit much even for the outlaw-biker/transgressive-performance-artist demographic. (In Egypt wrist tattoos of crosses are apparently the most common – inter alia it appears to be a fairly safe and socially-tolerated way of signalling NO I AM NOT A MUSLIM.)
    AJP: I think Yale would be more likely to add tattooing/hairdressing at the MFA level.

  25. No, they didn’t have anesthesia, they just took suffering for granted.
    Maybe not always. Wiki says the mild topical anesthetic Aloe vera may have originated in North Africa.
    From the entry:
    Aloe vera has a long association with herbal medicine, although it is not known when its medical applications were first suspected. Early records of Aloe vera use appear in the Ebers Papyrus from 16th century BC, in both Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History written in the mid-first century CE along with the Juliana Anicia Codex produced in 512 AD.

  26. In the Haida town of Skidegate there is a Maori married to a Haida woman. The entire (right?) side of his face is covered with a blue-black tattoo from hairline to jaw.
    The story I was told was this: When the Maori king was visiting Vancouver with his retinue, this man went to visit him. In the course of conversation it was determined that man and king were related. One of the king’s party was his tattoo(er? ist?), so the king offered the family tattoo, and the man accepted.

  27. Notice how the translation of Aetius’s recipe that’s all over the web (Wikipedia) is missing the second application of leek juice after wiping off the blood and before smearing in the ink: CMG – no deep linking, enter page 418 for VIII 12 Περὶ στιγμάτων and click OK. Is that an astringent?

  28. Ötzi the Iceman has something like 50 tattoos on his body. He died more than five thousand years ago.
    “Unlike modern tattooing methods, the tattoos were not produced with needles but by means of fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed.”
    I suppose charcoal is ‘benign dirt’ — a substance that is not likely to cause infection. No doubt prehistoric people noticed pretty early on that dirt is liable to get trapped in wounds and when it does and the wound is pretty superficial the ‘dirt’ shows up as discolouration of the skin when the wound heals over.
    That’s how tattooing started, no doubt. People figured out that they could take matters in their own hands. They went ahead and made shallow incisions and rubbed charcoal into the wound to make lines and patterns. But to what purpose?
    In Ötzi’s day and age tattoos were dead simple and evidently their only purpose was therapeutic.
    One only wonders.
    Perhaps this was a question of bad versus worse?
    Lets say Ötzi had a really bad left shoulder and he was in continual pain, a persistant dull pain. It’s possible that getting a tattoo was a relief because the procedure was really painful, new and sharp pain momentarily cancelled out old and persistent pain.
    But I think this explanation is too simplistic.

  29. You’re right, JW. Even though they aren’t fine arts hairdressing and tattooing would be MFA not BA courses at Yale. BA would be ridiculous. I could see it hooking up to the Drama School. I think this is a good idea, but the university is probably too snotty to want to do it.

  30. leek juice … Is that an astringent ?
    According to this, the juice of the houseleek (and other kinds of Crassulaceae) is cooling and astringent. S. F. Gray wrote here that the juice is “either detersive or mawkish“.

  31. never knew that aloe vera was a topical anesthetic, it is used for the wound healing that i know and for the cough, always thought it’s just anti-inflammatory
    if to use not charcoal but its ashes, that could have been really not very infectious for the first tattooeing perhaps, no? how it perhaps went, first started as covering with ashes the skin, perhaps, because it’s warm or whiter or darker with the charcoals, then perhaps it was caught up on some wounded site that upon healing got permanently colored which was noticed then the doing incisions started perhaps, as if like, not from the inflicting pain through incisions as a part of a ritual like
    i googled use of ashes and it seems people use cremation ashes for the ink in tattooing commemorating the dead, again so very unexpected thought to occur to people
    so it’s started then as to display symbols, to show one’s affiliation to a tribe, religion or cast, not something that could be connected to just that, sensual, pain or other individual experience something to be prohibited by the bible

  32. I’m trippin’ on “silk radical.”

  33. Japanese “traditional” tattoos (i.e. a few centuries old, based on the art style of Edo woodprints) are basically made with bundles of needles, dug into the skin by hand; there’s no anesthesia, and they say it’s painful but bearable.
    Incidentally, I find those tattoos to be (in my opinion) the most artistic, in the way the’re designed as a balanced ensemble over a large area of the body. It’s a shame they’re still very much the stuff of criminals and juvenile delinquents (and certain manual laborers and such despised groups). Recently I’ve noticed the Japanese wikipedia page on tattoos has a warning about “violent or bizarre” content; of all 66 current versions of the article, only the Japanese has such a warning.
    I’d still very much like to get one, even if it means I’d be forever banned from public baths and hot springs—they’re just too beautiful.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    AJP, if you can get a few million in potential funding lined up, I’m sure we can find you someone from the university’s “Development Office” who will at a minimum listen to your proposal very politely. The possibility of getting the Drama School in the mix has some potential, although also could lead to turf battles . . .

  35. @Stephen and his lawn:
    Ha! At least you can admit it. Also, MMcM is right, you forgot people in the armed services. I very much know what you’re talking about, I mainly grew up in conservative areas of the country and tattoos with one special exception (remember, those same people/areas tend to be very supportive of military service members): military tattoos. I’ve heard of countless cases of jobs (I’ve seen many examples of this with law enforcement jobs) with very strict ‘NO tattoos’ or ‘No visible tattoos’ policies that all made a special exception for military tattoos, e.g. I know of multiple instances of someone being hired as a police officer in departments that have a very strict ‘no visible tattoos’ policy who have tattoos on their forearms but those tattoos were military tattoos so they got a special exception and that’s the only time an exception is ever made for that. If you see a cop with a tattoo on his forearm, look closely, probably 7 times out of 10 it’ll be an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (Marine Corps), ha!
    It’s a case of a combination of a high level of respect for military service coupled with the fact that everyone knows that tattoos in the military (particularly maritime branches like the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) are a very old tradition (probably 150-200 years at least), along with the attitude that “hey, boys will be boys” and the sort that serve tend to be a bit rough but we love them anyway because they’re good ‘ol boys who went off to fight for their country, and they were young and maybe a bit dumb at the time, but proud of their service, so we’ll give them a pass for this, it’s fine, we understand, wink, wink.
    I didn’t word that as well as it could’ve been, but I’m just trying to encapsulate the attitude towards them, it’s just a very interesting cultural phenomenon I’ve noticed: tattoos are still taboo and considered “low class” or the sort of thing only criminals get in many parts of the country, with the one exception of military tattoos, those get this interesting sort of very special treatment where having them is actually more of a positive than a negative because it indicates that you served and that’s something that’s considered a very positive character trait for someone to have. Interesting (not judging either way, I’m just saying it’s interesting).

  36. Crap, I wish we could edit comments. A small correction for clarity:
    “I mainly grew up in conservative areas of the country and tattoos with one special exception (remember, those same people/areas tend to be very supportive of military service members): military tattoos…”
    Should be:
    “I mainly grew up in conservative areas of the country and tattoos with one special exception (remember, those same people/areas tend to be very supportive of military service members) were definitely very taboo just like you said (they generally meant you were a criminal, a scumbag): military tattoos…”

  37. Will they name it the AJP and Mrs AJP Crown Yale Program of Better Hair Management & Tattoos? That’s what I want.
    Some of the figurative doodles I don’t like. The Japanese don’t seem to understand any better than the other tattooers that the human body is not a blank canvas. There’s stuff already there – a nose, nipples, shoulder blades – that has nothing to do with fish, and they often don’t sit well together. The fish are graffiti; it’s as bad as the well-known art restorer at the Met (I’ve forgotten his name) who couldn’t resist painting a tiny bicycle on the surface of every Rubens he worked on.

  38. In a remote echo of the Sinitic etymology, the word for ‘write’ or ‘writing’ in most Polynesian languages derives from the word that originally meant ‘tattoo’, Proto-Polynesian *tatau.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    If you want someone senior and tenured on the Art School faculty (or Architecture or Drama – I think Med school and some other things might be even pricier) to be redesignated the AJP and Mrs AJP Crown Professor, they’ll do that for $3 million if you’ve got the cash and a quick google doesn’t show you to be too obviously unsavory. But that assumes it’s for someone already teaching what they already want in the curriculum. Since you’d be ordering off the menu, you might need to poke around the menu a bit to get a sense of what sort of “naming opportunity” your concept would be analogous to. AFAIK, Yale has not yet joined the rather peculiar fundraising boomlet of selling “naming rights” to campus bathrooms, although elsewhere in the Ivy League both Harvard and Penn have done so. See

  40. I couldn’t compete with the Falik Men’s Room at Harvard, and I don’t have $3 million. IIT already has Crown Hall, and it would work well as a hairdressers, I wonder what 3 new initials would cost.

  41. Some of us already have an entire Ivy League university named after us.

  42. Yup, you win.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    IIT is an interesting idea, although since the hairdressing profession in the US is often specialized by race/ethnicity (because of genetically-linked differences in the texture etc. of the hair being worked on as well as cultural factors), I could see the different racial/ethnic mix of the IIT student body compared to the immediate surrounding neighborhoods of Chicago perhaps giving rise to controversy or tension. I see that University of California-Santa Cruz (which of course has a fine linguistics department, long adorned by Geoff Pullum and still inhabited by the lady who gave me an awful but deservedly so grade in Semantics many years ago) has a Crown College which might also be a good place to add on to. You’d think tattooing studies, in particular, would be the sort of groovy/alt/post-hippie/interdisciplinary thing that would be a good fit with (perhaps unfair stereotypes of?) what makes Santa Cruz distinctive compared to other parts of the UC system. Probably both IIT and UCSC would be more reasonable on pricing than the Ivies.

  44. It’s quite a nice location. I’ve always been a bit scared of UC Santa Cruz – not because of Geoff Pullum, especially now he’s in Scotland – but there was one of those hillside strangler types hanging around there for a long time. Tattooing would definitely work there. Maybe hairdressing ought to be in a more urban environment.
    Are you one of the Milwaukee Brewers, JW? I expect everyone asks you that.

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    Alas, no, although when I was a student in Chicago in the early ’90’s a friend and I once drove up to Milwaukee and caught a Brewers’ game. I didn’t get any discounts or special treatment or anything. The best current conjecture (according to a cousin of mine who has looked into it and explored how DNA-testing can bridge over gaps in the documentary record) is that my particular claim to the surname crossed the Atlantic in association with the Y-chromosome of a late 1650’s immigrant to the New Netherlands who spelled it Brouwer. If we are related however distantly to anyone the least bit prominent surnamed Brewer I am not aware of it. Some distant cousin of my father did enough research into some other branches of the family (not surnamed Brewer) to debunk to his own satisfaction three different interesting myths about ancestors, one of which I already didn’t believe, one of which I had never heard prior to its debunking (namely that some four or five-greats-grandmother had been the illegitimate daughter of the then-Duke of Devonshire), and one of which I am still open-minded about. (OK, you say you’ve proved from reviewing microfiche of early 19th C. British military records that great-great-great-grandfather F. didn’t, contrary to family tradition, serve in a Highland regiment garrisoned on St. Helena while Napoleon was prisoner there, but you’ve actually proved it only if he kept the same name after crossing the Atlantic, which some people did not, especially if they were, oh let’s say just for example deserters from the military or otherwise on the run from the authorities.)

  46. “naming opportunity”
    A wall in a well-known Israeli hospital bears the names of many donors. A fundraiser once told me that staff in the hospital’s development office call it Plaquistan.

  47. Justin Smith says

    On Polynesian tattoo as literacy, see:
    Simon Schaffer, “‘On Seeing Me Write’: Inscription Devices in the South Seas,” 97, 1 (2007).

  48. Lars (the original one) says

    A case in point for military tattoos: King Frederik IX of Denmark was a navy officer.

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