Histori of Tattoos
a brief history of tattoos
the word tattoo is said to has two major derivations- from
the polynesian word ‘ta’ which means striking something
and the tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’.
the history of tattoo began over 5000 years ago and is as
diverse as the people who wear them.
tattoos are created by inserting colored materials beneath
the skins surface. the first tattoos probably were created
by accident. someone had a small wound, and rubbed it
with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire.
once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed
despite the social sciences' growing fascination with tattooing,
and the immense popularity of tattoos themselves,
the practice has not left much of a historical record.
in 1991, a five thousand year old tattooed man ‘ötzi the ice man’
made the headlines of newspapers all over the world when
his frozen body was discovered on a mountain between
austria and italy.
this is the best preserved corpse of that period ever found.
the skin bears 57 tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee,
six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys and
numerous parallel lines on the ankles.
the position of the tattoo marks suggests that they were probably
applied for therapeutic reasons (treatment of arthritis).
in 1948, 120 miles north of the border between russia and
china, russian archeologist sergei rudenko began excavating
a group of tombs, or kurgans, in the high altai mountains of
western and southern siberia. mummies were found that date
from around 2400 years ago.
the tattoos on their bodies represent a variety of animals.
the griffins and monsters are thought to have a magical
significance but some elements are believed to be purely
decorative. altogether the tattoos are believed to reflect the
status of the individual.
written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to
egyptian tattoo have virtually been ignored by earlier egyptologists
influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium.
today however, we know that there have been bodies recovered
dating to as early XI dynasty exhibiting the art form of tattoo.
in 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains
of amunet, a priestess of the goddess hathor, at thebes who
lived some time between 2160 BC and 1994 BC.
this female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed
about her body - grouping dots and/or dashes were aligned into
abstract geometric patterns. this art form was restricted
to women only, and usually these women were associated
with ritualistic practice.
the egyptians spread the practice of tattooing throughout the world.
the pyramid-building third and fourth dynasties of egypt
developed international nations with crete, greece, persia,
and arabia. by 2,000 BC the art of tattooing had stretched out all the
way to southeast asia .
the ainu (western asian nomads) then brought it with them
as they moved to japan.
the earliest evidence of tattooing in japan is found in the form
of clay figurines which have faces painted or engraved to
represent tattoo marks. the oldest figurines of this kind have
been recovered from tombs dated 3,000 BC or older, and many
other such figurines have been found in tombs dating from the
second and third millennia BC.
these figurines served as stand-ins for living individuals who
symbolically accompanied the dead on their journey into the
unknown, and it is believed that the tattoo marks had religious
or magical significance.
the first written record of japanese tattooing is found in a
chinese dynastic history compiled in 297 AD.
the japanese were interested in the art mostly for its decorative
attributes, as opposed to magical ones. the horis - the japanese
tattoo artists - were the undisputed masters. their use of colors,
perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole
new angle. the classic japanese tattoo, is a full body suit.
from southern china the practice spread along the silk route.
in pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance.
polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and
skillful tattooing of the ancient world.
polynesian peoples, believe that a person's mana, their spiritual
power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo.
the vast majority of what we know today about these ancient
arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual
ceremonies. elaborate geometrical designs which were often
added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the
individual until they covered the entire body.
in samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘tatau’, by hand,
has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their
assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order.
the tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at
the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part
of their ascendance to a leadership role.
the permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever
celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions.
the first europeans who set foot on samoan soil were members
of a 1787 french expedition. they got a closer look at the natives
and reported that ‘the men have their thighs painted or tattooed
in such a way that one would think them clothed,
although they are almost naked’. the mythological origins of
samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history
of tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of
new zealand, and later disseminated into various international
subcultures from auckland to the netherlands.
the hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art,
known as ‘kakau’. it served them not only for ornamentation
and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being.
intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms,
graced men's arms, legs, torso and face.
women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists
and sometimes on their tongue.
the arrival of western missionaries forced this unique art form
into decline as tattooing has been discouraged or forbidden by
most christian churches throughout history.
the maori of new zealand had created one of the most impressive
cultures of all polynesia. their tattoo, called ‘moko’, reflected their
refined artistry - using their woodcarving skills to carve skin.
the full-face moko was a mark of distinction, which communicated
their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. it recalled their
wearer's exploits in war and other great events of their life.
borneo is one of the few places in the world where traditional
tribal tattooing is still practiced today just as it has been for
thousands of years. until recently many of the inland tribes had
little contact with the outside world.
as a result, they have preserved many aspects of their traditional
way of life, including tattooing.
borneo designs have gone all around the world to form the
basis of what the western people call ‘tribal’.
india / thailand
hanuman in india was a popular symbol of strength on
arms and legs. the mythical monk is still today one of the
most popular creations in thailand and myanmar.
they are put on the human body by monks who incorporate
magical powers to the design while tattooing.
women are excluded because monks are not allowed to be
touched by them and because thais believe women do not
need the extra boost as they are already strong enough on
in africa, where people have dark skin, it is difficult to make
coloured tattoos as we know them.
but they want to be tattooed anyway, so they have developed
another technique - they make scarifications (this is not really
tattooing, but it is related to tattooing). made by lifting the skin a little,
and making a cut with a knife or some other sharp thing
special sands or ashes were rubbed in to make raised scars
in patterns on the body, it can be felt like braille lettering...
these patterns often follow local traditions.
ancient greece and rome
the greeks learnt tattooing from the persians.
their woman were fascinated by the idea of tattoos as
exotic beauty marks.
the romans adopted tattooing from the greeks.
roman writers such as virgil, seneca, and galenus reported that
many slaves and criminals were tattooed.
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 a punishment.
early in the fourth century, when constantine became roman emperor
and rescinded the prohibition on christianity, he also banned tattooing
on face, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators.
constantine believed that the human face was a representation of the
image of god and should not be disfigured or defiled.
were a tribal people who moved across western europe in times
around 1200 and 700 B.C. they reached the british Isles around
400 B.C. and most of what has survived from their culture is in
the areas now known as ireland, wales and scotland.
celtic culture was full of body art.
permanent body painting was done with woad, which left a blue
design on the skin. spirals are very common, and they can be single,
doubled or tripled. knotwork is probably the most recognized form
of celtic art, with lines forming complex braids which then weave
across themselves. these symbolise the connection of all life.
step or key patterns, like those found in early labyrinth designs,
are seen both in simple borders and full complex mazes.
much in the way that labyrinths are walked, these designs are
symbolic of the various paths that life’s journey can take.
central and south america
in peru, tattooed inca mummies dating to the 11th century
have been found. 16th century spanish accounts of mayan tattooing
in mexico and central americareveal tattoos to be a sign of courage.
when cortez and his conquistadors arrived on the coast of mexico
in 1519 they were horrified to discover that the natives
not only worshipped devils in the form of statues and idols,
but had somehow managed to imprint indelible images of these
idols on their skin. the spaniards, who had never heard of tattooing,
recognized it at once as the work of satan.
the sixteenth century spanish historians who chronicled the
adventures of cortez and his conquistadors reported that tattooing
was widely practiced by the natives of central america.
early jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of
tattooing among native americans.
among the chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognised
by their tattoos. among the ontario iroquoians, elaborate
tattoos reflected high status. in north-west america,
inuit women's chins were tattooed to indicate marital status
and group identity.
the first permanent tattoo shop in new york city was settled up
in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing military servicemen
from both sides of the civil war. samuel o'reilly invented the electric
tattooing machine in 1891.
during the time of the old testament, much of the pagan world
was practicing the art of tattooing as a means of deity worship.
a passage in leviticus reads:
‘ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor
print any marks upon you’. (19:28)
this has been cited as biblical authority to support the church's
position. biblical scholar m.w. thomson suggests, however, that
moses favored tattoos. moses introduced tattoos as a way to
commemorate the deliverance of the jews from slavery in egypt.
it is very likely that the vikings were tattooed.
at around year 1100 the arab ibn fadlan described a
meeting with some vikings. he thought them very rude, dirty
- and covered with pictures.
explorers returned home with tattooed polynesians
to exhibit at fairs, in lecture halls and in dime museums,
to demonstrate the height of european civilization compared
to the ‘primitive natives’.
after captain cook returned from his voyage to polynesia
tattooing became a tradition in the british navy.
by the middle of the 18th century most british ports had
at least one professional tattoo artist in residence.
in 1862, the prince of wales, later to become king edward VII,
received his first tattoo - a jerusalem cross - on his arm.
he started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when he was
tattooed before ascending to the throne.
in 1882, his sons, the duke of clarence and the duke of york
were tattooed by the japanese master tattooist, hori chiyo.
in the 18th century, many french sailors returning from voyages
in the south pacific had been tattooed.
in 1861, french naval surgeon, maurice berchon, published a study
on the medical complications of tattooing.
after this, the navy and army banned tattooing within their ranks.
stereotypical and sensationalised association of tattoo design
sailors on their ships returned home with their own tattoos...
usually of a very basic style that only uses a minimum amount
of details making the tattoos look quite two dimensional and flat.
this often gives a cartoonish feeling and typical motifs would be flowers,
hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names.
for a long time, tattooing was the preserve of sailors and...
in prison, the tattoo - professionally done and homemade-
indelibly imprint on their bodies what these men desire in their
souls: autonomy and identity.
the ultimate symbol for gang members are their gang tattoos,
getting a permanent mark is a sign of showing total commitment to
the gang. these tattoos can reveal lots of things, like,
who you are/what gang you're in/ what your beliefs are (racist etc..),
what you have done, where you have been, how many years
you have been in jail (also referred to as ‘dead time’) and even
things like how many you have killed.
known symbols include teardrops under the eye as well as spider
webs on the elbows to symbolize people killed.
the popularity of tattooing during the latter part of the nineteenth
century and the first half of the twentieth century owed much to
the circus. when circuses prospered, tattooing prospered.
for over 70 years every major circus employed several completely
tattooed people. some were exhibited in sideshows;
others performed traditional circus acts such as juggling and
as with other artistic mediums and cultural developments,
vocabulary continually evolves, reflecting the depth and potential
of body marking and of the contemporary imagination.
in recent years tattooing has emerged to the forefront of popular
consciousness. today a tattoo ‘flash’, is a folder of tattoo-artwork by
tattoo artists. styles range from the traditional and vernacular to
the sacred and innovative.