Before the advent of modern technology and the invention of the first modern electric tattoo machine in 1892 it must be remembered that all tattooing, in both traditional and modern cultures, was all done by hand. Traditional tattooing done using hand implements was often a long and time consuming process and one that was usually expensive. Whether you paid the tattoo artist in dollars, pounds sterling or pigs and rattan mats, the more you were tattooed, the greater the sum of your body art, the greater the symbol of personal wealth.
Among traditional cultures like the Maori of New Zealand, tattoos often told specific genealogical information about an individual. A man or a woman’s tattoo could not only identify their paternal and maternal lineage, but because Maori ‘ta moko’ was an ongoing practice, it also often revealed an individual’s political, social and military rank.
Among the Iban Headhunters of Borneo, tremendous status was accrued to a man by the numbers of heads he had collected. This record was carefully documented by tattoos on the hands. Other Iban tattoos told the story of a man’s accomplishments through his life and a heavily tattooed individual had greater rank and status within the community. Indeed, it was important for the Iban to become heavily tattooed because they believed that tattoos illuminated their way in the darkness of the Spirit World of the Afterlife.
Early Roman historical references often noted that members of the “barbarian” nobility classes often displayed tattoos that signified their rank and family crests.
And unlike modern Western tattooing where the choice to get tattooed is the sole purview of the individual and the decision of which tattoo to get is purely a matter of personal taste, tattoos that denote individual rank within a larger community are almost always an act that requires the consensus of the decision-making apparatus or executive of that community. Tattoos of rank are badges of honour and status handed out by groups of grateful and approving peers.