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:



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.


Cultures Around The World

 Ancient Egypt

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.


 North America

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!


History of tattoos

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.