Kalos kagatos in Ancient Greece

In the Western World the history of tattoos has been troubled between ups and downs. The roots of the vision of the tattoos as a stigma go back in the ancient Greece, where the word “stigma” itself was invented.

The Greeks used the word stigma for the first time referring to the signs on the body which were associated to the unusual and depreciable aspects of people’s morality. This means that the physical aspect was strictly linked together with the moral condition of people’s soul, that is: beautiful people are also good people, while ugly/deformed/marked people are therefore bad people. It is an aesthetic ideal for which “the truth and the beautiful are naked, they are not hidden or masked with decorations and least of all they are not deformed by tattoos or indelible signs on the skin”.

Slavery in ancient Greece via Wikipedia
Slavery in ancient Greece via Wikipedia

This ideal was summarized in the Greek expression “καλὸς κἀγαθός” (read it “kalòs kagathòs”, literally “the beautiful and the good”): a person could be considered beautiful only if he or she was at the same time ethically good, and conversely. The kind of beauty which the Greek referred to was exclusively the natural and unaltered naked body.

This is why any kind of body modification was severely forbidden and tattoos became to be reserved to the social classes considered inferior: strangers, barbarians, slaves. The slaves in particular used to be marked by fire with the letter delta (δ), the first letter of the word “δοῦλος”, that is “slave”. In this way it was clear to anyone who saw it that the person wearing the delta was a slave, a criminal, a traitor or at least a marked one who needed to be avoided, especially in public places. So this is how the troubled life of tattoos began.