The History Of Tattoos
There are few art forms that have been around for as long as tattooing – in fact, some anthropologists claim that the history of tattoos may date back as long as 15,000 years! Certainly, we know that many of the ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, used tattooing techniques.
It is believed that tattoos were first started by accident. A cut or small wound may have been rubbed by a hand that was dirty with soot, leaving behind a permanent mark...
There are mentions of tattooing in the Bible, indicating that it was practiced among the ancient peoples of the Middle East as well. However, the remarkable thing about the history of tattoos is how widespread this tradition was. Apparently, decorating the body in this permanent way is an almost universal impulse spread over a lot of different cultures.
Throughout history, tattoos have been used as:
- Signs of status and place in society.
- Magical amulets against evil.
- Reminders of a religious belief.
- Adornments for the sake of beauty.
It's hard to say when exactly the art of tattooing started because tattoo history is not well recorded or known. Around 2000 BCE tattooing had a cultural significance in places as diverse as China, Crete and Arabia.
- 3,300 BC - Tattoos were possibly used to treat arthritis, as well as for ornamentation. A corpse dating from this era (the bronze age) was discovered in 1991. “Otzi the ice man” bore 58 tattoos, including a cross on the inside of his left knee, 6 straight lines above the kidneys and several parallel lines on his ankles. It’s impossible to believe that the one tattooed man in the culture would be so perfectly preserved. Scientists agree that the entire society was probably into tattoos.
In the picture below you can see one of Otzi's tattoos. It was done by cutting the skin and rubbing charcoal in the incisions.
- 3,000 BC – Japanese clay figurines depict people with painted faces or other tattoos.
- 2800 BC – Tattoo history clearly shows that Egyptians were regularly inked. They spread the art form from ancient Greece into China.
- 1100 BC – Writings from the Kurdish Arab travel writer Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, describe a meeting with Vikings. He described them as being rude, disgusting, and “covered with pictures”.
- 400 BC – Tattoos are still used for decoration and are believed to hold some magical significance for the pazyryk culture (Siberia). In 1948 several mummies found from this era are sporting tattoos of animals, including griffins and monsters. These tattoos also may have reflected the individual’s status in the society.
- 297 AD – An actual written record of tattooing is made in Japan.
- 1700’s – A law is passed in Japan saying that only royalty can wear ornate clothing. The middle class let their opinions be known by clothing themselves in full-body tattoos (to this day, a full-body tattoo is known as a Japanese Suit.)
- 1700’s – French soldiers returning from the South Pacific sport tattoos.
- 1846 – The first permanent tattoo shop opened in New York City. No discrimination here, they proudly tattooed both Confederate and Union Soldiers.
- 1861 – Tattooing receives published medical attention when the French surgeon, Maurice Berchon, publishes a study on the medical complications associated with it. Tattooing is banned within the French Army.
- 1862 – Royalty gets tattooed when the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, has a Jerusalem cross placed on his arm.
- 1862 – A new fad is set as many British aristocrats follow in his footsteps and get tattooed.
- 1891 – The electric tattooing machine was invented by Samuel O’Reilly. The same technology is used today, evidence that some things really never change.
- 1961 – Hepatitis B reminds the world of what Maurice Berchon knew – tattooing has its pitfalls. Tattoo parlors are banned in New York City due to the outbreak.
- 1997 – Tattoo parlors find their way back to New York City. Sailors everywhere rejoice.
Cultures Around The World
Mummies of women have been found with dots distributed over their bellies and around the tops of the thighs. It is likely that these were done with the intent of protecting the unborn child, both in the womb and during the birth.
Tattoos play a major role in Polynesian culture. What is known of their tattoo history has been handed down from one generation to the next through legends, songs and ceremonies. Polynesian tattoo art is thought to be the most detailed in the world, created by the most talented and skilled artists.
Tattooing was enjoyed for the sake of tattooing, much like modern day society. While there were some magical attributes to it, it was done largely for decoration. The Japanese artists were considered masters because they could work wonders with colors and creative patterns, think about the Japanese suit.
Tattooing is nothing new to the New World. Native Americans have a long history of tattoo art. Outstanding warriors used the tattoos to clearly show their status. Women were tattooed to show their married status and group identity.
Borneo now plays an important role in the history of tattoos. Many tribes in this part of Indonesia have had very limited contact with the modern world, and so the old ways of tattooing are still used. The tattoo art of Borneo has set the standard for what people today call a "tribal" tattoo.
And, while we may not be accustomed to thinking of Europeans in terms of ‘tribes’, it was not too long ago when the people of Europe were just that – think of the Britons, the Normans, the Goths, the Celts – and yes, most of these people practiced tattooing as well! However, following the Dark Ages in Europe, the people organized themselves into nations and tattooing became an all-but-forgotten art, only to be rediscovered during the course of eighteenth-century exploration.
Tattoos and Criminality
The marking of criminals with tattoos is a concept that we could call the ‘dark side’ of tattoo history – the fact that body tattooing has been used, in certain times in history, to indicate an inferior status. This is relatively unusual and in most cultures, tattoo art is a symbol of status or accomplishment.
The 'New' Tattoo Art
In the early 1700s, the history of tattoos took a new twist. Captain Cook visited the South Pacific Islands and brought back with him an intricately tattooed young girl named Onai. Instantly, tattoo designs became a hit, and many members of the nobility obtained discreet, private tattoo art. For a brief time, tattooing – then a costly, lengthy procedure – became a status symbol.
This all changed with the introduction of the first electric tattoo needle in 1891. Suddenly, everyone who wanted a tattoo could have one, and the result was that it came to be considered vulgar. This is, after all, a fairly typical human reaction – when something is hard to get, we tend to want it more!
A woman is having her social security number tattooed
After that, tattoo art went underground, so to speak. A facility in New York’s Chatham Square brought the practice to the modern American public, but tattooing was considered somewhat disreputable until it made a dramatic comeback a few decades ago. As tattoo designs and safety techniques improved, and several prominent celebrities began to sport tattoos, they became desirable once again.
Towards the end of the 1800s criminals in America and even normal citizens were tattooed with a code for identification purposes.
There are currently more than 39 million Americans sporting tattoos. In the mid-twentieth century, tattoos were for criminals, “bad boys”, and sailors. People went to the circus to see the “Tattooed man” working in the sideshow. Today, tattoos are worn by CEO’s as well as sailors, good girls and bad boys alike. Once thought of as a way to show you were tough, they’re now more accepted, appreciated and enjoyed.