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The History of Tattoos

Humans have been getting tattoos for thousands of years. They have been used as an indicator of our social rank, occupation, and even our life experiences. In some cases, tattoos were used for medical reasons, such as early pain relief. They have also been used simply to decorate the body, especially now.

Despite the overwhelming fascination with tattooing, the history of tattoos hasn’t really been that popular of a topic. We all want them, but not many know where they originated or how they entered mainstream culture. The word “tattoo” itself is said to come from two origins – the Tahitian word “tatau” which means, “to mark something” and the other from the Polynesian word “ta” which means striking something. Tattoos are believed to have begun thousands of years ago and unfortunately, the history is as varied as the people who have them.

People believe that the first tattoo cultures may have existed before Ancient Greek and Romans, possibly beginning in Europe before the last Great Ice Age, 5,000 years ago. In 1867, bowls with traces of black and red pigments along with sharpened flint instruments were found in France. These items were also found in caves in Portugal and Scandinavia. Based on the size and shape of the tools, it has been suggested that they were used for tattooing.

These works of art, sometimes elaborate, sometimes plain, have served as status symbols, declarations of love, religious beliefs, and even forms of punishment. History is what sets the future in motion, and in the tattoo world, it’s no different.

Tattoos in the Bronze Age

Back in 1991, a 5,000-year-old frozen body was discovered on a mountain between Austria and Italy. They called the body ‘Otiz the Ice Man’ and to this day is the best-preserved corpse of that period ever found. Otiz’s skin bears 57 tattoos, a cross on the left knee, six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys, and numerous parallel lines on the ankles.

Close examinations revealed that Otiz’s tattooed skin tissue contained carbon particles. Anthropologists believe that a traditional healer made incisions with a heated metal instrument and put medicinal herbs in the wounds to treat Otzi’s rheumatic pains, thus creating a tattoo.

Tattoos of Ancient Cultures

In 1948, Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko began excavating tombs in the Altai Mountains, which contained mummies that are around 2,400 years old. The mummies had a variety of tattoos that are said to represent various indigenous and mythological animals. This includes griffins and monsters that were thought to have magical significance. When looking at the tattoos as a whole piece, they were believed to reflect the status of the individual bearing them.

Tattoos pertaining to the Egyptian period have been dated back to as early as the Xi era. In 1891, archaeologists found mummified remains of Amunet, a priestess goddess, who displayed several lines and dots tattooed on her body that were aligned into abstract geometric patterns. This art form is believed to be restricted to females who were often associated with some kind of ritualistic practice.

Greeks and Romans Tattoos

The Roma tattoo culture was developed based on the Greeks and is a pattern similar to many aspects of Roman culture. Despite the widespread decorative tattoos in other cultures, the Greeks found that barbaric. However, they did begin a form of tattooing that was introduced to them by the Persians.

Herodotus informs us that Persians marked their slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war by tattooing letters onto their foreheads. The assumption is that Greeks adopted this practice from the Persians because they also tattooed their slaves’ faces. This was a way to make it impossible for a runaway to go unnoticed. In his dialogue on Greek law, Plato refers to the marking of desecrators caught plundering treasure from the temples.

Writers such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed. Tattooing specific groups made monitoring their movements easier. A legal inscription from Ephesus indicates that during the early Roman Empire all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words ‘tax paid.’ Greeks and Romans also used tattooing as punishment. Early in the fourth century, Constantine banned tattooing on the face. He believed that the human face was a representation of the image of god and should not be disfigured or defiled.

Tattoos in the Celtic Culture

The Celts were tribal people who moved across Western Europe in times around 1200 and 700 B.C., reaching the British Isles around 400 B.C. Most of what has survived from their culture is in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Celtic culture has had a long history of body art and was done with woad, which left a blue design on the skin. Spirals were very common, whether they were single, doubled, or tripled.

The most recognized form of Celtic art is knotwork. This design is formed with a complex braid, weaving across each other. These symbolize the connection of all life. Step or key patterns, like labyrinth designs, are seen both in simple borders and full complex mazes. Similar to the way labyrinths are walked, these designs are symbolic of various paths that life’s journey can take.

Circus Tattoos

The relevance of tattooing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was due to circus. When traveling carnivals were prevalent, tattooing prospered. For nearly 100 years, all major circus acts hired individuals who were completely covered in tattoos. Some of these tattooed men and women were exhibited in ‘slideshows’ while others performed in traditional circus acts like juggling or sword swallowing.

21st Century Tattoos

In the 21st century, tattoos have seen a resurgence in popularity. For many young Americans, tattoos have taken on a different meaning than previous generations. It has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression. Demographic statistics on tattoos reveal that 40% of 18-34-year-olds have one tattoo or more, with 36% of those aged between 35 and 54 having at least one tattoo. In the last place are those over 55 years old, with only 16% of them having at least one tattoo.

Western tattooing has become a practice that crossed social boundaries from ‘low’ to ‘high’ class along with reshaping the power dynamics regarding gender. The clientele has changed from sailors, bikers, and gang members to the middle and upper class. There was also a shift in iconography from the badge-like images based on repetitive pre-made designs to customized full-body tattoos. Tattooers transformed into “Tattoo Artists” that consisted of men and women with fine art backgrounds along with older, traditional tattooists.

Updated on January 16, 2023
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