Although tattoos were once seen as something only criminals and rogues would sport, these amazing works of art have a long and diverse history that spans multiple continents and centuries. Each piece, whether it is an elaborate custom work or a simple flash, comes with a long history that traces all the way back to the dawn of humanity. If you've ever wondered about the history of tattooing, read on to discover how artists have evolved from rudimentary marks designed to protect against pain to the elaborate images we see today.
Tattoos have been a part of human history for thousands of years. The oldest known tattoos were found on the mummified body of a man known as Otzi the Iceman, who lived around 3300 BCE. His body was found near what is now the Austria-Italy border. Tattooed Egyptian mummies have been found from the dynastic period, which was between 3150 BCE and 332 BCE. Archaeologists believe that tattoos were in use long before then. Many cave paintings, figurines and other artifacts show figures that appear to be tattooed.
While each culture has its own unique designs and practices, tattoos are found in many cultures around the world. Polynesian cultures have a long, rich history of intricate tattooing, and the modern word "tattoo" may have originated from the Samoan word "tatau." Evidence of ancient tattoos have also been found in what are now Japan, India, Siberia, Chile, Peru, the United States, and Canada. Roman records also describe tattoos among the people of Western Europe and the British Isles, and they even named one tribe the Picts in part due to their elaborate tattoos. However, there is some debate over whether the Picts were just painting themselves instead of marking themselves with permanent tattoos.
Many historic tattoos were intended to heal or protect the wearers. Otzi the Iceman's tattoos line up with areas of his skeleton that show arthritic changes or other damage, leading archaeologists to believe they may have been intended as pain relief. Egyptian tattoos are mostly found on women and appear to be related to fertility and safety during childbirth. Others are religious symbols and amulets, which may have been intended as protection from evil spirits or other dangers.
Other cultures used tattoos to indicate wealth, nobility or status. Religious leaders were tattooed with the symbols of their faith in many cultures around the world. The Japanese used to use tattoos to indicate their family affiliation and social rank. Roman records also describe the ancient Scythians as wearing elaborate tattoos of animals if they were of noble birth. The Maori people of New Zealand are known for their elaborate facial tattoos, but they are more than just decoration. Each tattoo is unique and describes the wearer's family, status and accomplishments.
Not all cultures considered tattoos a good thing. The ancient Greeks and Romans used tattoos to mark criminals and slaves, making tattoos a shameful thing. Romans did eventually also begin to tattoo soldiers, which removed some of the stigmas. Tattoos were also considered barbaric by most people in ancient China, although there is some evidence that people in the southern regions practiced it regularly.
Ancient peoples did not have the tools and ink that modern artists use, so tattooing was often a slow and painful process. The exact tools used varied, but many cultures used a simple pointed stick, stone knife or thick metal needle to break the skin and insert the dye. Soot was the most common ingredient in ancient tattoo inks, although some also used plants and metals, such as copper, to add color.
Tattooing had become somewhat rare in Europe by the 16th century, although it still was used for some things, such as commemorating a pilgrimage to a holy site. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European explorers began to encounter peoples who still practiced it, and many of them got tattoos themselves. Tattooing was too expensive for most people to get, however, so it was associated mostly with sailors and criminals or with the very wealthy. Several monarchs had tattoos, including King Edward VII, King George V, and Tsar Nicholas II. They were also popular among people who had served in the military.
While getting a tattoo still hurts, historical tattoo methods were often very slow and painful. This began to change in 1891 when a New York tattoo artist named Samuel O'Reilly invented the first electric tattoo gun. This made it easier for artists to work quickly while still being precise and detailed, and the small needles and quick incisions made it less painful for the person being tattooed.
Although tattoos were still fairly popular among wealthy people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they weren't often shown in polite company. As a result, heavily tattooed people became common sights in circuses and freak shows, where crowds would come to marvel at their elaborate artwork. Tattooed women were particularly popular attractions. They often made up shocking histories of how they supposedly got their tattoos, such as being captured and forced to get them. In reality, most just liked the look of tattoos and chose to get them.
Tattooing as an art form took off during the late 1950s when it became popular among counterculture icons. This trend continued through the 1960s and 1970s, and tattoos steadily gained in mainstream popularity. During this time, many indigenous peoples also began getting their traditional tattoos again after being largely forced to stop the practice by colonists. Modern tattoo artists often use influences from multiple cultures to develop a unique personal style. Some tattoo art has even been displayed in galleries and museums in recognition of their unique artistry.