Body Art: Is It Taboo? A look at the Origins of Body Modification

Piercings and body modification are wrongly conceived as taboo because they are unfavorably portrayed by television and movies, which contradicts the origins of the art and why the art was created in different cultures. These misconceptions have had negative effects for some who chose to wear them. Being turned down for jobs, bank loans and even dates are some of the obstacles that have to be over come if one chooses to adorn his or her bodies with permanent art. Why is this, you may ask? Body art invokes the ideas of criminals, satanic worship, and unsavory characters. Tattoos and piercings are also almost always perceived to be gang related. This essay is meant to clear up these misconceptions by taking a look at the origins of body art and the meanings that different forms had when they were created.

There are many opinions about the religious aspects of body art. Some people with anti-modification beliefs say that the practice is forbidden in the Bible. However, in the Old Testament, it was said that body jewelry was often given as bridal gifts or as part of a dowry. For Bedouin and nomadic tribes, decorating ones bodies with ornaments were seen as symbols of beauty and wealth. (Wilkerson, L. 2004)

In Genesis 24:22, Abraham asked his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant found Rebekah. As a wedding present, Rebekah was given the gift of a “shanf”, which is the Hebrew word for “nose-ring”. (Morrison, C. 1998)

In many religions, body art is believed to be an act of Satanism. ““Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” – Leviticus 19:28. But according to biblical scholar William McClure Thomson, it was the symbols used and the area of the body in which it was placed that was satanic, not the practice of body art itself. According to McClure, “Moses “either instituted such a custom (tattooing) or appropriated one already existing to a religious purpose”. Thomson went on to quote Exodus 9 and 16 “And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, this is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I cam forth out of Egypt; and it shall be for a sign unto thee upon my hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes” theorizing that Moses borrowed the practice from the Arabs. McClure went on to say that “the prohibition in Leviticus referred only to heathen tattooing which related to idols and superstition and not to “Moses-approved” tattooing”.

Witchcraft is also a practice that gets credit for body art and modifications. However, like any other group of people, there are members that have body art and some that do not. People who have tattoos or piercings that also practice Wicca, a form of witch craft, usually wear symbols representing the five earthly elements of sun, wind, earth, fire and spirit, also occasionally moons. These symbols are in no way connected to “black magic”, paganism or Satanism, but reflects personal choice and taste.

When people today think of body art, they think of it as a modern practice for rebellious teens and people with questionable backgrounds. The fact is that body art has been practiced for thousands of years, all around the world.

In October 1991, in the Tyrolean Alps between Austria and Italy, a tattooed man approximately 5,500 years old was found. “Oetzi” is the oldest known human to have tattoos preserved on his mummified skin (Reese, 2009).

The earliest known human remains with piercings dates back to Egypt over 5,000 years ago. This male mummy had his earlobes pierced and stretched to accommodate larger gage plugs, circular pieces of metal, either hollow or solid that are inserted into the hole of the earlobe. In ancient Egypt, only royalty was allowed certain kinds of piercing, For example, only the Pharoh himself could adorn his navel with a piercing. (Wilkerson, L. 2004).

In Africa, a form of tattooing called scarification was used to note the bravery of women for enduring the pain of childbirth. The first scars, or tattoos, were applied when a female reached puberty. Additional scars were added after the birth of a child and at the end of breastfeeding.

In some aboriginal tribes, piercings and tattoos were used to acknowledge a right of passage, as when a young male enters “manhood”. Body art was also used to mark a males physical strength.

In Ancient Egypt, around 2,000 to 3,000 B.C., tattoos were used on females to promote protection, fertility and motherhood.

Tattoos and piercings became prominent in the late 1800’s amongst sailors and men in the military. The most common were tattooed symbols that represented faith, patriotism, courage, defiance of death and longing for loved ones left behind. Sailors also believed that the piercing of one ear would improve ones long distance site. If a sailor was lost at sea and his body was washed ashore, it was said that whoever found his body was to keep the gold earring in return for a proper Christian burial. Being of both superstitious and religious nature, sailors would spend much of their earrings to insure this would be the case if they were to die at sea. (Wilkerson, L. 2004)

In the last century, body piercings in the Western world was surfaced prominently as ear piercings. However, in the late 1960’s when young people, often referred to as hippies, traveled to India, America started seeing piercings of the nose or nostrils. After that, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, piercings of all types spread quickly.

Tattoos swept the nation even more rapidly than piercings. By 1900, there was a tattoo shop in every major American city. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, working class men sported tattoos as symbols of strength and masculine pride.

Now, body art is a common site in America. The most common reason for a person getting a tattoo or a body piercing is personal expression. Tattoos are chosen or designed to represent something personal about the bearer, from the name of a loved one, to a symbol that relates to the person’s personality. Piercings are used to adorn the body with decoration.

The bearers of body art are often looked at with preconceived bias. A good majority of this bias has stemmed from the negative portrayal of tattoos and piercings in the media. Characters who are criminals, drug addicts or from unsavory backgrounds, all sporting tattoos or piercings, can be seen in countless movie and television roles. Although there are some unsavory characters who modify their bodies, not all people who do so are unsavory characters.

Body Art Marks of Identity. (2000, May 29). Retrieved February 5, 2009, from American National History Museum:

Krcmarik, K. (2006, April 1). History of Tattooing. Retrieved Feburary 5, 2009, from MSU:

Reese, P. (2009, January 1). Tattoo History, Tattoo Culture, Tattoo Facts and Statistics. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from Vanishing Tattoo: