The History of Tattoos


Although tattoos are generally associated in our time as symbols of modern renegade culture, this artwork actually traces its origins back thousands of years. The practice of tattooing an individual varied between cultures but often were representations of either a specific person or object or contrarily symbolic in meaning.

 The first traces of confirmed evidence we find for the “first tattoo in history” trace their origins back more than 5000 years ago. Finds such as Otzi the Iceman, a tattooed mummy discovered in the Alps, as well as early Egyptian mummies, both from around 3000BCE. We can however be sure that tattooing did not originate in a certain culture only to subsequently be popularized far and wide. This is because separate and distinct cultures existed thousands of kilometers from one another and having no contact with each other also independently developed this unique artwork.

Perhaps it’s simply human nature to try and represent the world around us as well as our thoughts and ideas so that others might read them. We however probably didn’t anticipate that those messages would be passed down to people thousands of years after we have already died.

Tattoos in the Americas

The history of tattooing on the North and South American continents traces its origins back nearly as far as finds in Egypt with recent carbon dating revealing that tattooing has been a tradition in the North American continent amongst peoples such as Iroquois of the St. Lawrence for at least 4000 years.

Further south, upon arriving in Central America, Spanish explorers discovered Indigenous tribes already covered in the mysterious ink substance as well as evidence being discovered of prolific tattoo usage amongst pre-Incan Andean civilizations as far back as at least the 10th century CE.

All of these tattoos were however not merely for show but were a process that highlighted a person’s cultural connections to their family, society, and surroundings. Whether it was to honour the deer that come every season and provide food, your tribal leader’s courageous leadership or worshipping the sun god, tattoos found their way throughout the continent thousands of years before Europeans ever reached their shores.

Tattoos of the Far East

The first evidence of tattooing in East Asia comes from around 2000BCE in the Tarim Basin of far western China in what is now Xinjiang from Indo-European peoples migrating west. Another wave of tattoo fever came from the south when tattooing first appeared amongst the Austronesian peoples around 1500BCE. Since the Austronesian were boat-fairing sailors, they quickly spread the tradition across the various archipelagos of Southeast Asia and Polynesia.

It was from these people that tattooing came to Eastern Asia yet from the onset, they were looked at with distrust. In China, tattooing was regarded as a barbarian practice of the people of Southern China with them even being vilified and associated with bandits and gangsters even until the modern day.

Across the sea, Japanese tattoos also started to emerge with Chinese texts describing the tattoos as early as the 4th century CE. They were often used in ancient times for spiritual and ritualistic purposes as a way to connect with the spirits of nature as per the native Japanese religion of Shintoism. However, as time went on, tattoos became increasingly viewed negatively to mark manual labourers, prostitutes and criminals and were made illegal in 1868 for being “barbaric and lacking respectability”. It was only legalized again by occupational forces in 1948.

Tattoos in Africa

Although tattoos are commonly known to have been in use for thousands of years in Egypt, what many fail to learn is that it is possible that the art of tattooing came to Egypt through Nubia. Nubia was an ancient desert kingdom sitting on the banks of the Nile River bordering Egypt to its south in modern day Southern Egypt and Sudan. Tattoos weren’t however restricted to the lower class as in Eastern Asia but were instead a sign of privilege and prestige.

It is possible that tattooing evolved as an accessory to ritual of mummifying the dead in order to aid and accompany the person in the land of the dead. What is interesting however is that no evidence has been found of tattooing on men but only for women.

Another place in which tattoos became very widespread was the Maghreb (i.e. The north-western part of Africa in what is now modern-day Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) with the native Berber peoples adapting intricate tattoo designs symbolizing their culture and traditions which were once widespread in the peoples of pre-Islamic North Africa but have been slowing dying out.

Tattoos in Europe

The first written evidence we find of tattoos actually comes from the British Isles when the Romans under Julius Caesar first launched an expedition to the island in the 1st century BCE, they noticed the widespread usage of body tattoos throughout the native Briton peoples.

The practice eventually did make its way to Greece and Rome in which women used the tattoos as exotic beauty marks whilst in the latter, criminals and slaves were branded with tattoos so as to be easily recognizable. Whilst spreading north, tattoos were also picked up by and embraced by both the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse. These tattoos tended to have vivid pictures of events with Anglo-Saxon kings dating back to the 5th century CE detailing important moments in an individual’s life or otherwise symbolic meaning tied to tribe, family, or faith.

More recently, tattoos were brought back to Europe in the 1700 and 1800s by British and French sailors returning from missions from the South Pacific with tattoo designs they had picked up from the local islanders. These are types of tattoos that eventually morphed into the kind we use every day.

Stigmatization, Legalization and Adoption

With the reputation of being a way of branding criminals, prostitutes and more in both Europe and East Asia, general public opinion remained opposed to the practice for hundreds of years. However, with increased openness and culture intermixing, tattoos were culturally rebranded by Cliff Raven and Ed Hardy, two US tattooers with art degrees starting from the 1960s and 1970s into something fashionable and as a way of expressing yourself to the world at large.

Strangely enough, as popular as tattoos in Ireland are now, there is in fact no evidence of tattooing on the island until the recent cultural rebranding of tattoos in the 1960s and 1970s with the previously staunchly Catholic nation viewing it as sinful.

Nowadays, tattoos are a form of self expression and beauty and no longer held back by our views of the past as being something for the “lower class”. Tattoos can signify our places of origin, spirit animals or our one, true love. Whether you want to take yourself back to your roots with a black history tattoo, remember a loved one or give thanks to the one you have now, tattoos give you that channel to express yourself.

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