The tattoo world has been in constant evolution for thousands of years. Amongst the most ancient ones there is the one of Ötzi, the Similaun mummy, and the ones from the Ancient Egypt, like the popular eyes of Ra and other ritual symbols.

The tattoo in Europe and its colonies became a taboo for many centuries after the ancient times, and was rediscovered by the general public during the Victorian era thanks to artists such as Sutherland Macdonald, English tattoo artist from end 1800.

Before reaching the general public the sailors were the portion of the population that started tattooing their own skin. Since the Victorian time on, the art of tattooing became more and more popular up until turning into a trend completely legitimised in the 21st century.

Amongst those who get tattooed there is a common saying, which goes:

tattoos need to always be an odd number

The knowledge of the origin of such a belief is not widespread, so the historical reconstruction of what caused it is interesting.

Why do they have to be an odd number?

The superstitious use sees its origin during the trips of the European sailors heading to far away lands of the Pacific Ocean and the New World, at the time of the great colonisation. The sailors were employed in the main harbours of the capitals of all Europe and then they would end up in unknown lands thousands of km away. The journeys were all less than safe and often the crews were going missing for never to come back.

The demand for sailors who were not galley slaves, hence not chained as rowers, rose between the 18th and 19th century, and the outlook of good earnings pushed many men to embrace a life at sea. In Venice, for instance, at the end of 1700 a rower had an average income of 100 ducats straight away plus the perspective of a good monthly wage (source: Journal Online).

Reaching the distant islands of the Pacific or managing to round Cape Horn was not venture for everyone and so, to celebrate the passage through the Tierra del Fuego they used to tattoo themselves with a sailing ship, fully armed.

The tattoo was made once the venture had been accomplished, but this was not the first one that the sailor had got. He had in fact tattooed his own skin before the departure, as a good omen and another time once arrived at his destination. Once the man was back to the initial harbour, he would get his 3rd and last tattoo, to celebrate his return home.

The total number of the artworks was always 3, an odd number

During the navigation back home the sailors had then only 2 tattoos, an even number, while on their way to the destination just 1, odd number. The superstition linked to being  even is certainly a modern association, while what it mattered to the men on board was to pick up symbols for their tattoos which were representing their experience in the sea.

Furthermore, in case the trips of the men were more than one, the number of tattoos could be cyclically even (on the 2nd journey they could be 6 tattoos, on the 4th one 12 tattoos and so on).

Of those ancient sailors what is left today is just the habit of tattooing ourselves an odd number of times, thought that back then did not touch them whatsoever.

The tattoos, for many centuries seen as a taboo, became common practice thanks to travelling to Polynesia, where men were used to covering their body regularly as a propitiatory rite. The word “tattoo” itself comes from a Polynesian term.

Captain James Cook, in his “The Voyage”, diary of the trip in 1771 wrote:

“They decorate their bodies with little incisions, either by stinging their skin with little tools made out of animal bones and teeth. The incisions are covered with a dark blue or black paste obtained from the coal of a oily plant. This operation, called by the indigenous as “tattaw” leaves a permanent mark onto the skin. Generally it is applied to children from 10 years old up in different parts of their bodies”.

From the word “Tatau”, which in Polynesian means to beat or tap, it comes the modern term tattoo, symbol and artwork that, now we know very well, has always to be an odd number.

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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