Tea is the common name given to the Camellia sinensis plant. Leaves of the tea plant are harvested and dried to make green tea, or fermented and then dried to make black tea, also known as ceylon tea. The earliest records of tea drinking date back to 10BC in China.
A Tea Tattoo or Tea for Two?
Tea is a very popular drink, so much so that trade routes have been created to transport tea leaves across the world and wars have been fought over it. In the 16th century, tea was introduced from Asia to Europe and it became an instant success. Tea became popular so quickly in Europe that upper class ladies felt obliged to serve it at gatherings, even though they often didn’t know what to do with it.
This excerpt from Bill Bryson’sAt Home describes how some people first approached the newly discovered plant; “Not everyone got the hang of tea immediately. The poet Robert Southey related the story of a lady in the country who received a pound of tea as a gift from a city friend when it was still a novelty. Uncertain how to engage with it, she boiled it up in a pot, spread the leaves on toast with butter and salt, and served it to her friends, who nibbled it gamely and declared it interesting but not quite to their taste.”
When the majority of Europeans had figured out how to make and serve tea, it became something of an art. A daily ritual of tea drinking in the afternoon became known as “tea time”. During the centuries that followed, more famous phrases surrounding tea arose, such as tea for two and a cuppa tea (cup of tea). Tea for Two has its origins in a song created in 1925 by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar. The song was later reintroduced in a movie in 1950 called Tea for Two which starred Doris Day.
Even though tea drinking originated in the East, it has become an important part of Western culture. People will invite each other around for a cuppa tea and a chat, and tea is customarily served with cake at special occasions such as birthdays. Tea is not just a comforting drink, it has been recommended as an alternative to coffee because of its health benefits.
The Meaning of Tea Tattoos
Tattoos of teapots and teacups are a tribute to this popular drink and the emotional connections that the tattoo owner has with tea. Some people choose tea tattoos as a way to honor a parent or grandparent who is a tea lover. A banner can be added to the tattoo with the name of the loved one or their calling name such as “mum” or “grandpa”. Other symbols of that person can be included in the tattoo design, either as part of the decoration on the tea cup, or inside a tea pot or tea cup.
Tea is often associated with cultural refinement. Tea services are often highly ornate, made from fine porcelain and decorated with precious metals such as gold or silver. Some tea sets are made of crystal or glass, and others are made from silver, copper or brass. Porcelain is more popular than metal as a material for making tea sets, as the metal tends to change the flavor of the tea. Porcelain tea cups and tea pots are the most popular type of tea equipment.
The porcelain tea sets that we associate with Victorian ladies were made in Asia to the specifications of traders from the West. The fine china sometimes was so thin in places that light could shine through it. Porcelain makers would sometimes carve into the porcelain to create portraits or flowers in the china that could be seen when the crockery was held up to the light. Some tea tattoos are chosen because of the history of tea, and the association between the drink and the upper classes of European culture.
Tea has been featured in many books and films. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice stumbles across the Mad Hatter and the March Hare and gets drawn into their eternal tea party. (See tattoos of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Ink me with Alice in Wonderland Tattoos) The singer Sting sang in his famous song An Englishmen in New York; “I don’t drink coffee; I take tea, my dear”. Sometimes a tattoo of tea is chosen because of literary associations with the beverage, or to honor an author who enjoyed or enjoys tea, such as C.S. Lewis who is quoted to have said, “You can’t get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
Tea is at the heart of British culture. The drink is served during the work day to refresh workers, and in the mornings and evenings to either relax or invigorate. Tea is given to people under stress or in shock as a comforting beverage. So even though tattoos of tea pots and tea cups can sometimes seem like just a cute or quaint tattoo design, they are often a representation of the emotional connection that the person feels with tea.
Another quote from Bill Bryson (whose observations of Britons and their tea drinking habits are highly amusing and worth a read), this time from Notes from a Small Island; “Mrs. Gubbins came in with a tray of tea things and a plate of biscuits of the sort that I believe are called teatime variety, and everyone stirred friskily to life, rubbing their hands keenly and saying, ‘Ooh, lovely.’ To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”