October 20, 2009


Tattoos mark human history

Acclaimed artist gives TC3 talk of how canvas of skin endures through ages

TattooBob Ellis/staff photographer
Veteran tattoo artist and author Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand speaks about the history of tattoos Monday at Tompkins Cortland Community College. Her talk, titled “The Art That Art History Forgot,” was sponsored by the College Entertainment Board.

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — The art of tattoo has been regaining the status it held for centuries as a mark of adulthood and a way to commemorate periods of a person’s life, says nationally renowned tattoo artist Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand.
Associated through the 20th century with sideshows, drunken military men on leave, motorcycle gangs and prisons, the art of creating designs through injecting dye into skin actually predates cave paintings.
“Before recorded history, tattoos meant something,” Hellenbrand told an audience Monday of about 50 people at Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Forum. “It takes you to a moment in your life. It’s become very trendy now but the impetus is the same — it was done by a shaman or magic person in the tribe, who marked people into being men and women.”
Women had tattoos. So did warriors and hunters. Some cultures, such as New Zealand’s Maori, covered faces and bodies with designs carved into skin. The Japanese created designs on their bodies that told stories or fables.
“So tattooing is not what you think of as lowlife art that came along after World War II,” said Hellenbrand, a tattoo artist since 1971.
Her talk, titled “The Art That Art History Forgot,” was sponsored by the College Entertainment Board.
The audience included her old friend Bryan Bancroft, a well-known Cortland tattoo artist. Cortland has five tattoo businesses.
Tattoo art each year attracts thousands of Americans, who have their bodies decorated with designs in either black ink or many colors. Some have their arms covered with designs, what is called a sleeve. Some have text written across their backs or ribcages.
Hellenbrand said tattoo’s history is difficult to trace because there are no artifacts, since skin does not last.
But historians can estimate from evidence such as tools found in caves, which appear to have carried ink and date from 33,000 years ago.
She said the Roman Empire outlawed tattoos for 1,000 years because Christians, who rebelled against the empire, used cross and Jesus Christ images to identify each other. Europeans did not see tattoos until explorers discovered distant lands and came back with tattooed people who had been captured and were displayed in carnivals.
Royalty began to get tattoos. The tattooed people who displayed themselves made a great deal of money.
Peoples across the rest of the world, outside of the Roman Empire, never stopped tattooing. They used the “hand poke” technique of puncturing the skin and injecting ink, before artists began to use needles.
Some Japanese allowed their back skin to be preserved after they died.
The first American artist found his customers in military camps during the Civil War, which began the military tattoo tradition. The most popular designs were flags, birds, flowers and hearts.
Thomas Edison invented an electric pencil, which was adapted into the electric needle that tattoo artists began to use in the 20th century. Technology improved, as inks, designs, needles and healing processes made tattooing more sophisticated and medically safe.
The word tattoo comes from the Samoan word “tatau,” meaning appropriate, balanced or fitting. Hellenbrand believes that true artists embed their spirit into a tattoo design.
Bancroft agreed, saying there are many bad tattoo artists who will draw any design a customer wants, where he will not do some.
TC3 student Andrew Slocum of Marathon, 22, a College Entertainment Board member, has two multi-colored tattoos on his chest. Above his heart, he has a Molotov cocktail shaped like a heart that says “Remember Your Mortality” in Latin. On the other side of his chest, he has a diamond with a slogan about never giving up on what he wants to do.
“My uncles on my mother’s side all have tattoos, and I always wanted one,” he said. His tattoos were done by Kevin McKnight of Sacred Art in Cortland.
TC3 student Jamie Gerhart went up to embrace Hellenbrand afterward and told her, “I am honored” to meet her.
“I have a back piece (design) and two half-sleeves,” said Gerhart, who is from New Jersey. “I started getting tattoos 12 years ago. It’s been really cool to be part of the evolutionary process, to see the change in how tattoos are accepted.”


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