The History Channel aired an episode of The Works that I called the best overall tattoo documentary ever produced for television. Apparently, quality shows on tattoos are becoming a norm across the board, with a few exceptions such as MSNBC’s Hooked: Tattoos Head to Toe which aimed for the old standard of shock. The History Channel again has opted to go the route of quality with their latest offering: a 2-hour special called Ancient Ink.
Ancient Ink takes us on a journey around the world to review different styles and cultures of the tattoo world. The show’s host, Craig Reynolds, is at the same time on a journey to add to his own tattoo work. The fact that Reynolds is getting tattoos during his travels further legitimizes the respectful approach the show takes in showing the audience the world of tattoos. Where some previous shows have had hosts who are basically outsiders who cringe at the tattoos or other body modifications being performed, this show has a host eager to go under the needles in New Zealand, Hawaii, Japan and California. This combined with the in-depth historical look at each tattoo method and culture proves to be a formula for a great show that provides something for both the curious viewer and the hardcore tattooed person.
The show tries to find a good transition from one world location to another, allowing the show to flow on in a natural way rather than being broken into separate segments with hard endings. Craig Reynolds starts off by visiting the Maori people of New Zealand, a logical starting point for a historical look at tattoos. The in-depth look at the history, methods, style and meanings of the tattoos goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen before on television. Where many shows will quickly review the same exact historic points, we get a look into deeper history in this show – with the origins and near demise of the style of Maori tattoos all covered in the course of the host’s journey to an actual tribe, where we see the ritual side and get explanations of the meanings of Maori and the moko tattoos.
We then transition to Hawaii through the linking of the two cultures with Polynesian influences. The show gives us a very detailed overview of the instruments and methods used in Hawaiian tattoos before Reynolds adds his second piece of work obtained during the show.
Then it’s off to Tulane University in Louisiana to look at ancient remains of tattooed mummies. Again, many shows have mentioned ancient tattoos, but here we get a longer look at them and discuss why these ancient people might have been tattooed.
One of the more interesting segments of an overall interesting show came next, as Reynolds traveled to Santa Barbara, California to learn about sewed-in tattoos. This was something that I do not recall ever seeing on any previous tattoo special, so learning about this method of tattooing was intriguing to me. The show allows us to witness a modern application of a tattoo using this style.
Japan is a required stop for any tattoo show that covers to some extent the history of tattoos. Of course, Japan means Yakuza full body suits and the stigma that still follows tattoos in that country. However, again Ancient Ink explores the history to a greater extent – where other shows mention the ties to Yakuza gang culture, this show explains how tattoos came to be a part of that culture. We also see the preserved tattooed skins and learn that they have been, and might still be, sold on the black market. Again, Reynolds sits down for a tattoo, this time from the legendary Hiroyoshi III.
Then the criminal side of tattoos takes Reynolds to Phoenix, Arizona and a visit to a prison. The show gives us a look at a prison-made tattoo gun and a contraband search of the prisoner’s cells. We also see some amazing prison tattoo work that looks like it could have been done at a top studio rather than in a jail cell. Meanings and consequences of certain prison tattoos are also reviewed during this portion of the show.
Tattoo removal is then covered as a means for ex-cons to erase their artwork and move on with life. This is the one area where the show didn’t really go beyond what other shows have given us in terms of explaining how removal works.
Reynolds then travels to North Carolina to visit the Tattoo Archive and Texas to talk to Lizardman Erik Sprague. Both of these segments almost seem like afterthoughts given how thorough other segments of the show have been. We do learn about Thomas Edison’s contribution to tattooing and get a little bit of insight into Sprague and the world of sideshows, but these segments definitely weren’t as extensive as the rest of the show.
The last extensive piece covers military tattoo history as Reynolds visits southern California. He talks to both artists and military personnel getting work done to learn the significance of tattoos within the military.
Then, it’s off to Hollywood and what amounts to a quick review of the future of tattooing. Reynolds visits Skin Candy to learn about UV ink and talks to Luna Cobra about eyeball tattooing.
For anyone interested in tattoos, this show definitely qualifies as recommended viewing. Many tattoo shows are happy to skim the surface of all of this content and then either take us on a visit to a tattoo expo or have people show off their own tattoo work. This show is different and, given its 2-hour time frame, can be more detailed than those other shows. Ancient Ink provides a history lesson and in-depth exploration of tattoos that any fan of the art would enjoy viewing.