Explained (2018) s01e13 Episode Script

Tattoo

1 [buzzing] [man] There's something in our DNA, and I can't explain it, that drives us to mark our body in a way that's different from the people around us.
Every monkey wants to look different than the one next to him.
[narrator] These days, tattoos are everywhere.
Above my knee.
- Most of my arm.
- On my ankle.
[narrator] On athletes, movie stars, and even elected officials.
In 2015, almost one in three Americans had at least one tattoo.
Just three years earlier, it was one in five.
There are now tattoo conventions all over the world, including in Brazil, India, and Egypt.
But go back just 50 years, and tattoos were incredibly rare.
And in a lot of places in the world, that's still true.
In China, tattoos are banned from appearing on television.
In Japan, tattoos are often banned from public pools and spas.
And in the United Arab Emirates, you have to remove your tattoos if you wanna join the army.
But humans have marked themselves since the dawn of civilization.
I don't think there was one origin event or one place where tattoo was developed and then it spread around the world.
I think it was more of an independent invention in many different places.
We have this natural impulse to mark significant life-changing events.
[narrator] Ancient human cultures that would never have met each other developed their own traditions of tattooing.
There are 61 tattoos on Otzi the Iceman, a 5,000-year-old frozen mummy found in the Italian Alps.
So, if we've always done this, why are so many people suddenly getting tattooed now? It's the face I was born with and there's nothing I can do about it.
Well, that isn't quite true.
[woman] Tattoos are not the forever scar our parents warned us about.
[reporter] Tattoos on Apo Ani's body indicate that he had a high status.
It used to be convicts, carnies, bikers, and sailors.
[man] Since the days of primitive man, tattoos have remained a sign of toughness.
That's nice.
That one's nice.
And I thought, "Oh, I want one.
" They're part of me.
This is the inside of me, outside.
I have the portraits of my grandparents on my forearm.
This is kind of like an iconic building in South Minneapolis.
This bicycle here, this is for my great grandfather.
[narrator] Most of the tattoos you see today come from a handful of tattoo traditions.
I got it a few months after my 24th birthday.
So we have spearheads over here, and then some shark teeth.
And then over here, we have a tortoise shell.
- Tortoise shells were used as shields.
- [record scratches] [narrator] That is a warrior tattoo.
Centuries ago, indigenous Hawaiians tattooed patterns like that to mark achievements in battle.
Tattooing was widespread in indigenous communities all around the world for thousands of years.
Traditions were handed down for generations and marked coming-of-age, membership to a group, and spiritual power.
The first tools used to do this were pretty basic, like thorns or pieces of bone.
So designs in the ancient world were simple geometric patterns.
Symbols were usually inspired by the environment.
Plants and animals, waves and mountains, the sun and stars.
If you're from a certain island, certain vegetations grow there.
That could be like a landmark base of that kind of pattern.
It's basically an address.
So people could recognize that, "Oh, yeah, that pattern is from this side of the forest, this side of the island," and everything.
And they would know how to approach that man or that woman in a respectable way.
[Lars Krutak] These traditions were handed down by cultural heroes, ancestral heroes.
That's where they find their origins.
And every time that tattooing ritual is reenacted, you're calling on all of those entities from the past.
So it's an extremely powerful moment when the ink hits the skin.
There's this rhythm.
It's almost like a drum beat.
[rhythmic wooden tapping] And it kind of wakes the ancestors in some sense.
Another person joins you guys to stretch the skin.
They made their own soot.
They made their own ink.
So the forest is basically another ingredient in there.
[narrator] Tattooing was a painful ritual that, once completed, marked your place in your community.
This was especially true in Pacific Island cultures like Samoa.
In Samoan tattooing, simple designs representing animals, like the gogo, or seagull and centipede, which represented the unified strength of the community, were made into patterns and tattooed across the lower back and legs.
Pacific Island tattoo traditions developed uninterrupted for many generations until European explorers arrived.
Tattooing hadn't been seen much in Europe for over a thousand years.
Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, generally saw tattoo as a desecration of the body.
So when British explorer Captain James Cook landed on the Pacific island of Tahiti in 1769, he and his men recorded the indigenous tattoo practices.
As Cook wrote: "Both sexes paint their bodies, Tattow, as it is called in their language.
" The Tahitian word "tatau" is now the word used all around the world.
But almost as soon as Europeans discovered Pacific tattooing, they began erasing it.
Waves of colonizers and missionaries who followed voyages like Cook's took control of the islands and banned traditional tattooing.
[Lars Krutak] Once you could remove the tattooing from the people, it made it much easier to subjugate them to these Western ideals and break these indigenous patterns of local power and belief.
Colonialism and the Church, like, erases their history, their ancestors for them to disappear basically off the map and for them to have an identity crisis, and it's easier for them to assimilate.
[narrator] These tattoo traditions were never fully eradicated, and many of the original designs were recorded by outsiders like anthropologists and travelers to the islands.
And tattoo artists are now using these century-old works as references to design the tribal tattoos you see today.
[Japanese shamisen music] Well, my favorite one is this guy here.
Um, it's just a chair.
You know, when I first starting getting tattoos, it was about like being tough and, you know, there was an image of, "I'm tough, I can take this," and sort of overcoming something, overcoming pain.
Now that's just kind of - not as big of a deal.
- [record scratches] [narrator] That chair is definitely a contemporary take on tattooing, but look at the other arm.
Those waves and gusts of wind, for a long time, that's something you'd usually only see on Japanese criminals.
Tattoo was actually used as a criminal punishment in Japan for centuries, usually on the arms or face.
But penal tattooing died out by the end of the 17th century, likely because of the rise of decorative tattooing, which criminals could use to cover their marks.
But tattooing really took off in Japan in 1827 when a woodblock printer, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, made a series of prints based on the wildly popular book Suikoden, which featured legendary outlaws, some of them covered in tattoos.
His prints were a sensation.
Almost immediately, people around Edo, modern-day Tokyo, were getting tattoos of those same heroes.
[speaking in Japanese] Tattoos are a symbol of power.
You carve a hero onto your back to take on his characteristics.
[narrator] And the tattoos Kuniyoshi inspired were enormous, often covering the whole back depicting a single unified image.
[Horiyoshi III in Japanese] Before his work, tattoos had been a patchwork.
He made the entire body a canvas, using one motif.
[narrator] This style is now known as Japanese traditional or Irezumi.
One Irezumi work can take years to complete.
It's distinct for its bright colors and large images of myths and monsters drawn with exaggerated features and surrounded by natural elements like clouds and waves.
The Japanese government had outlawed tattooing in the 19th century, so Irezumi initially spread to people who wanted to identify themselves as dangerous.
[in Japanese] Power and fear are one and the same.
You do not fear the weak.
Weaklings don't belong in legends and myths.
[narrator] Tattoo in Japan today is legal, but still largely associated with the criminality that evolved alongside it for generations.
And the art form has become a visual symbol of the Japanese mafia, Yakuza.
In the rest of the world, Japanese traditional has grown to be a hugely popular and influential style.
And it kind of works with your contours and shapes, and so it was always intriguing and it was sort of exotic.
I think that's what people usually do, especially with tattoos, right? You sort of take something foreign and exotic and you make it a part of you.
[narrator] And that's why we still see wind, waves, and koi fish that started out on woodblock prints over a century ago.
[blues guitar] [man] We just got married recently.
Yeah, we got matching tattoos: the classic, you know, hearts, and mine says, "HER NAME" - and hers says "HIS NAME".
- [record scratches] [narrator] Hearts and banners are classic American tattoos, but originally the only people who had them were sailors.
Heaven help a sailor Gee, it's great to be a sailor On a night like this I said a night like this Well, sailors have gotten tattooed since they went to sea on ships, which goes back many centuries.
[narrator] Sailor tattoo imagery commonly included initials, nautical themes, and patriotic symbols.
Design options were laid out in sheets, called flash, and picked off the wall.
Like tribal tattoos, these marked your identity as a seaman, as well as your achievements at sea, like the swallow.
Sailors earned a swallow for every 5,000 nautical miles sailed, which, back then, was extremely difficult and dangerous.
So a sailor with one or two swallows was impressive.
And you might have seen this one: a tattoo of a rigged ship.
Originally they had to be earned by rounding Cape Horn off the southern coast of Chile.
Sailors also have a long tradition of collecting travel marks to show off the exotic places they had visited.
This is Palestine.
I was in Palestine from '37 to '39.
And I went down some patrols down Egypt.
I got that one there too.
That's when I was in Ireland in '36, that one there.
[narrator] This style of tattoo spread beyond sailors when machine tattooing was introduced in 1891, and you could get tattooed a lot faster.
That started a whole wave of innovation in the tattooing industry, especially people that were getting bodysuits done, that had ambitions of being a tattoo attraction in the circuses.
[newsreel]A sample of the marvelous freaks you'll see for the price of a small thin dime! [narrator] Electric tattoo artists turned sailors and circus performers into canvases, covering their body with intricate, wallpaper-like arrangements.
[C.
W.
Eldridge] I think the circus had a tremendous impact certainly on spreading the art of tattoo throughout the countryside.
There are many old-school tattooers that grew up in the early 1900s that credit their interest in tattooing was seeing someone in the sideshow.
It kind of brought up a whole different world to these small Midwest towns.
[narrator] The style they spread is now known as American traditional.
Icons with bold outlines, bright blocks of color and black shading.
Symbols that sailors tattooed going back centuries, like hearts, swallows, and anchors, are some of the most popular tattoos today.
So, my parents don't know about any of my tattoos.
The idea of having tattoos would, like, absolutely just mortify them, which is funny because I've always been interested in tattoos and stuff.
But I guess they never acknowledged that part of me, so I don't want to rock their world by letting them know.
[narrator] Like in Japan, criminal groups around the world have long embraced tattoo's bad reputation as a way to mark themselves as dangerous and apart from society.
Tattooing thrived in prisons, where inmates pricked themselves using makeshift materials, like guitar strings and black soot.
[reporter] This one was made out of a Walkman and used by an inmate artist to scratch out some jailhouse tattoos.
[narrator] So prison tattoos usually had thin lines and no color, which became a signature style.
Tattoos showed up as significant markers in gang and biker culture, criminal underworlds, and for a long time, that's where tattoo stayed.
[woman] I think it might appear like, "Wow, there's this crazy boom and there's so many people getting tattooed," which is true, most people getting tattooed ever.
But I think that's been, you know, many factors laid on top of each other.
[narrator] In the 1970s, tattoo's image began to shift.
Tattoos appeared in glossy photo spreads in influential American magazines, like Life, which, in 1972, declared that the ancient art of tattooing had come back into fashion.
Tattoo shops expanded from sailor flash and started offering custom work, letting people invent their own tattoos.
Getting tattooed didn't mark you as one kind of person anymore, and that brought in new kinds of clients.
[Stephanie Tamez] A lot of women are getting tattooed, and that's, you know, half the population on the planet.
So I think the advent of them sort of wanting to empower their own bodies and gravitating to the artwork as well, just made that whole other group of people getting tattoos.
It's been a building block, and certainly one of the most profound things that has launched it all is by visually seeing it.
[narrator] And tattoos' visibility exploded in 1981.
MTV came.
[TV announcer] Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.
- [hard rock music] - [C.
W.
Eldridge] That was amazing.
I mean, I can remember when MTV came on the TV.
I was, like, blown away by this.
I mean, I would sit there with a little notepad and make a little check mark on the notepad every time there was a tattooed person shown on MTV.
And, man, at the end of an hour, there was 40, 50 marks on it.
That had an unbelievable impact, I believe, on the idea of who was tattooed.
["Welcome to the Jungle" playing] [music continues on cellphone] I remember this video very well.
Welcome to the jungle So what do I think of that? Right there, that says That sums it up.
I mean, right? Like, that was the epitome of cool at that time.
And to see the tattoos and then he's wearing a, like, tattoo shirt.
That's just fucking rad.
Like, how great is that? That just pulls everything together.
[narrator] People started collecting and mixing global tattoo traditions in totally new and personal ways.
And they began incorporating the fine-line black-and-grey style that originated in prisons, adding lettering and realism to tattoo's vocabulary.
So, this is Adam Levine.
He gets tattooed by a friend of mine.
These are cherry blossoms and wind bars.
And then he's got a traditional American tattoo with "Mom" in the middle.
Then he's got some lettering.
It's a fun combination of all these aesthetics kind of coming together.
This is an example of a lot of different styles.
There's some classic iconography in it.
It's very personal.
That's the difference, right? Between the American and a lot of Japanese, right? Japanese sort of take on these one central themes and then they build these universal, like, elements as their background, like basic wind, water, fire [in Japanese] American traditional has a strong memory-related element.
Vastly different from Japan, who uses mythology to tell a story.
American traditional is you kind of collect it all, and this is just another version of that.
And the common denominator is that they are all in black and grey.
[narrator] Every style of tattoo in the world is now at our fingertips.
Since the introduction of Instagram, the number of tattooed Americans has nearly doubled, and tattoo artists are innovating and expanding what tattoo can be.
But as the number of people getting tattoos has soared, so has the number of people regretting them.
Joe says he wants the tattoo parlor to pay him 2,200 bucks.
That's how much he says it would cost to have the word removed with laser surgery.
[narrator] Tattoo removal is now a multi-billion-dollar global industry and growing, with India, Japan, and the United States leading the pack.
I got the tattoo in prison because I felt that I would be respected a lot more or the opposite gang may see it and, you know, fear it.
It was basically like respect in a gang, you know, lifestyle.
I definitely want to remove it rather than cover it up.
[narrator] But the majority of people with tattoos don't want them removed.
And studies have shown that getting a tattoo can boost self-image.
People have reported a significant Improvement in self-esteem and that their tattoos make them feel better about their bodies, describing it as an act of self-creation.
[C.
W.
Eldridge] It is part of the initiation, if you will, of getting a tattoo is being willing to face the pain.
There's a commitment that you make to wear that image.
That's part of what the magic of tattoo is.
It gives me agency over my body.
It allows me to own it.
It's just like carrying a few messages.
It's sharing a bit of information about you that you might not even say out loud.
Everybody wants to be the most expressive person that they can be, and tattoos are, like, such a great marker of that.
I love tattoos.
I think that tattoos are super great and such a wonderful expression of, like, just human life.