Written on Our Skin: A Brief History of Tattoos

At its heart, tattooing is simply the art of making marks on our skin, either permanently or not. It can represent something as meaningful as religious beliefs, ancestry, or status, but it can also be a way to celebrate your individuality and artistic taste.

Tattoos have been around since 4th century BCE. The earliest example that has ever been found was on Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified man found near Bolzano, Italy. Carbon dating shows that Ötzi was alive around 3300 BCE. When he was excavated, archaeologists found that his skin was covered in tattoos.

Ever since the discovery of Ötzi, people have been interested in piecing together the history of tattoos. Here are a few notable events and key details about the history of tattooing.

Tattoos for healing

When Ötzi was unearthed, he carried evidence of 61 unique tattoos on his body. Later radiological examination showed that these tattoos corresponded to places on his body where joints or bones had already weakened. This led to the speculation that Ötzi’s tattoos were a form of medicine, marked on those areas to help heal his pain.

While other, older tattoos are now considered to be purely cosmetic, the second-oldest purpose is widely considered to be medicinal. Anthropologist Lars Krutak recently published a paper where he revealed that 80% of the tattoos found on Ötzi correspond with areas now known to be classical Chinese acupuncture points.

Alexander Kuzovlev

Tattoos for ownership

In ancient China, tattoos were thought to be shameful, so criminals’ faces were often marked with the Chinese character for “prisoner.” A similar mark was also used on slaves, to signify their ownership.

This practice of using tattoos to tell a story continued throughout China’s history. Marco Polo wrote about seeing criminals whose entire faces were covered in a tattooed record of their crime.

The practice of using tattoos to convey a message spread to nearby Japan, where prostitutes and manual laborers used tattoos to signify their profession even into the 19th century.

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Tattoos for protection

Another ancient culture that practiced the art of tattooing were the Egyptians. We are able to see evidence of this because of their elaborate mummification practices, which have left us with quite a number of excellently preserved bodies.

One of the most interesting things that archaeologists realized when studying the mummies was that almost all that bared tattoos were female. Tattooing was often done to protect the women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Micael Faccio

Tattoos in Ancient Rome

When the Romans arrived in Britain, they found a great many of the native tribes on the island using tattoos to express themselves – one of the groups they named the Picti, which translates as “the painted people.”

Even some Romans believed in tattooing at the time. Roman tattoos were traditionally a way for them to express their devotion to their patron god. When Constantine became the Emperor in 306 A.D, he outlawed the practice of tattooing in deference to his new Christian faith, which prohibits any disfigurement of the body.

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Traditional tattoos of Samoa

Some of the first tattooed people seen by Europeans may have been the Samoans, when the Dutch arrived in 1722 – even though they didn’t realize it at the time. When three ships of Dutch sailors arrived in Samoa in the 18th century, they thought that the islanders were all wearing tight pants with designs on them.

They didn’t realize that these tight pants were actually tiny intricate tattoos covering their legs. These tattoos, called tataus in the Samoan language, are executed by tattoo artists who have studied the craft for years, usually training under their father.

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Traditional tattoos of Thailand

Although their designs are very different, the traditional tattooing practice of Thailand is similar to that of Samoa because of their continued use of traditional tools. In Samoa, traditional tataus are given using a tool made of a sharpened boar tooth and turtle shell inlaid in a wooden handle.

In Thailand, traditional tattoos are executed by monks, who use a bamboo handled needle to set the ink into the skin, while blessing it with Buddhist prayers. Sak Yant tattoo ink often contains charcoal, snake venom, and sometimes human remains. The process of receiving a traditional tattoo in both of these countries is still very solemn, with tattoo masters training for years in order to execute the necessary ceremonies.

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Tattoos for good luck

After sailors left Polynesia, they took with them the idea of tattooing as a good-luck charm. People started mimicking some of the designs that they saw, while others adopted the principle ideas but made designs of their own.

Soon, men with dangerous or unstable professions – like miners and sailors – were tattooing amulets onto themselves as a way of invoking protection over the elements. We still have some of these symbols in use today. Images like the anchor, and the mining lamp are key pieces in any tattoo artist’s flash.

Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs

Resurgence in traditional tattooing patterns

In some places in the world, traditional tattooing practices died off because of colonial suppression. In New Zealand, the Ta Moko tattoos, which were traditional among the Maori people, were largely abandoned because European invaders had a particular interest in collecting tattooed heads.

Now, many Maoris are reclaiming the tattooing practice and are choosing to etch these tattoos into their faces again as a way to honor their ancestors and their heritage. In New Zealand today, a committee called Te Uhi a Mataora links the living practitioners of Ta Moko.

Sydney Parkinson

Modern stigma against tattoos

There are plenty of tattoo fans around the globe, but their freedom to flaunt their tattoos everywhere has been hard-won. There are still many places in the world which frown on tattoos for either religious or political reasons.

In Japan, tattoos have been associated with the gangsters of the Yakuza for so long that many places, like public pools and resorts, outlaw tattoos. It is also considered ill-advised to flaunt a tattoo openly in a place like a synagogue or Jewish cemetery anywhere in the world, as Jewish law prohibits making permanent marks on the body.

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Non-permanent tattoos

If you’re a fan of tattoos, but aren’t sure what kind of design you’d be interested in long-term, you’re in luck. Now more than ever, it’s easier to get a temporary tattoo. One of the most common forms of temporary tattooing is henna.

Traditionally practiced all over the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Southeast Asia, henna is a paste made of leaves from the henna tree which temporarily stains the skin a range of colors, from black to dark orange. It is commonly painted on the palms and soles of the feet during celebrations, such as weddings.

Ruslan Merzliakov / Shutterstock

Invention of modern tattooing

The first electric tattoo machine was patented in 1891, which allowed people to create much more uniform lines and designs. Over the next decades, tattoos became an integral part of American fringe culture. Circuses in the 1920s employed people whose only claim to fame was that they were covered in tattoos. These people earned their living as part of the circus sideshow.

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Modern tattooing etiquette

Tattooing has a long and storied history, which is part of the reason why there can be so much unspoken etiquette surrounding getting a tattoo of your own. Getting a tattoo is a life-changing decision. Although there are ways of removing tattoos now, they are time-consuming, painful, and expensive. It’s best to cultivate a good relationship with your tattoo artist first so they can help you decide what tattoo will best suit you.

Show up knowing what you want, don’t drink any alcohol in the 48 hours before your tattoo, and make sure to tip well! These basic tips will lead you on the path to success.

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Tattoos without ink

And finally, while technically scarification isn’t a tattoo, we would be remiss not to include a brief history on scarification and how it relates to tattooing. Scarification is the art of making specific scars on the body, using burns, brands, or cuts.

It has been practiced for many years, with some cultures using it as a coming-of-age ceremony in order to toughen and strengthen young adults. In some regional African tribes, a traditional scarification pattern is used to denote tribal membership.

Cory Doctorow