The tradition of tattooing oneself to commemorate life achievements, heal the body, expand the mind, memorialize loved ones lost, and enhance one's physical appearance is nearly as old as mankind itself and permeates just about every culture around the globe. As we've mentioned before in our Tattoos in the Mainstream and Body Piercings in the Workplace blog posts, we know the art of tattooing goes back at least 5,000 years thanks to the discovery of a mummy named Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi, who was found adorned with a variety of piercings and something like 57 carbon tattoos, is believed to have lived in the Alps' Ötz Valley during the late 4th millennium B.C. (i.e. closer to 3001 B.C. than 4000 B.C.). The dot style of his tattoos and their placements on his ankle, behind his knee and along his lower spine are reminiscent of acupuncture points and suggest that he was tattooed for healing purposes.
In the thousands of years since the pierced and tattooed Ötzi the Iceman roamed the Alps, the art of tattooing has appeared in historical accounts of numerous other ancient and modern cultures all over the world. Its prevalence in mainstream culture today is stronger and more wide-spread than ever before, now that tattooing is finally being embraced as a true art form. How did tattooing progress from its simple origins, when tattoos consisted of dots and lines hammered into the body with crude tools and dyes muddled from natural elements, to the highly-regarded art form that it is today--one that involves trained artists wielding high-tech tattoo machines and sterile, organic tattoo inks in sterile work environments to create full portraits and other stunning works of art? Tattooing has taken a long, meandering course through mankind's history, touching the lives of innumerable people from different walks of life along the way. Ötzi the Iceman gives us a rough starting point for the history of tattoos, but there's a lot more to the story.
The Origins of the Word "Tattoo"
At some point early on in the history of tattoos, people grasped for a name to define the practice. The word "tattoo" is believed to stem from one of two derivations--either from the Marquesan (Polynesian) word "tatu" meaning "to puncture" or "a mark made on the skin", or from the word "tatau" found in the Tahitian and Samoan languages, which means "to mark something". "Tatu" may have originally started out as just "ta", the Polynesian word for "striking something", which makes perfect sense once you know that tribal cultures roughly hammered ink-filled holes into the skin to create tattoos.
The English word "tattoo", originally defined simply as "pigment design in skin", first appeared in 1769 in the writings of Captain James Cook. Cook was a captain in the Royal Navy who was also an explorer, navigator and cartographer. He traveled the world by ship, making the first detailed maps of Newfoundland and later voyaging to the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii, where he came in contact with many indigenous peoples. His phonetic interpretation of the words "tatu" and "tatau" that he heard tribal people use to describe the permanent markings they proudly wore resulted in him spelling the word as "tattoo" when he described these markings in his writings. The name stuck and has remained unchanged in the English language ever since.
Today the word "tattoo" has multiple meanings beyond those relating to creating permanent designs in the skin. In regard to the art form, though, Dictionary.com defines "tattoo(s)" as "[t]he act or practice of marking the skin with indelible patterns, pictures, legends, etc., by making punctures in it and inserting pigments."
A Cultural Progression of Tattoos Through Time
It's difficult to create a timeline that shows exactly when each culture first incorporated tattooing into their rituals and adornments, in large part because the art spread so quickly between cultures. The other issue is that, while every culture seems to have at least some historical relics that depict or records that mention tattoos, the records weren't necessarily created when the trend first appeared in each culture.
To create a rough timeline of the spread of tattoos across cultures over the past 5,000 years, we scoured the internet to find as many key dates as we could and put together the following outline of when tattoos are believed to have come into vogue in different cultures and what purposes they served for the people of those cultures. Read on for a fairly thorough education on the evolution of tattoos through time. (Note the use of ~ before any date below means that the date is an approximation.)
~3001 B.C. - Our friend Ötzi the Iceman and likely many other members of his Bronze Age tribe sported the first tattoos on record to date. The dotted tattoos found on Ötzi are believed to have been used primarily for healing purposes.
~3000 B.C. - The Japanese placed clay figurines with painted or engraved facial tattoos in their departed's tombs. The markings are believed to have had religious or magical significance, and the figurines themselves represented still-living individuals who would symbolically accompany the dead to the afterlife. These figurines are the earliest evidence of tattoos in Japan.
2160-1994 B.C. - Ancient Egyptian Priestess of the goddess Hathor, Amunet, lived sometime between 2160 and 1994 B.C. Her mummified body was found to have groupings of tattoos in the forms of dots and dashes that created abstract geometrical patterns. It was common exclusively for women like Amunet who engaged in ritualistic practices to have such tattoos; no one else outside of the female religious community would have been allowed to have tattoos at that time.
It's believed that the Egyptians who built the pyramids during the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties were responsible for spreading the practice of tattooing throughout the world. They were heavily engaged with countries like Greece, Persia and Arabia, where the locals admired their tattoos and adopted the tradition. By 2,000 B.C., even the people of Southeast Asia had seen tattoos and been inspired to adopt the art form. Some say that it was Western Asian Nomads called the Ainu who then carried the practice to Japan, but that doesn't sync up with the tattooed figurines found in Japan that date back to 3000 B.C. unless the Japanese were strictly decorating figurines at that time and not tattooing themselves.
~2000 B.C. - Tattooed mummies believed to have lived sometime around 2,000 B.C. were discovered in Xinjiang, Western China, and at Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau. The "Tarim Mummies" found in Xinjiang appear to be of Western Asian/European heritage, while the Pazyryk mummies were of Russian descent, showing that tattoos were not uncommon among Europeans and Asians alike around 2,000 B.C., if not earlier.
1200-400 B.C. - The Celts who eventually landed and took root in Ireland, Scotland and Wales were originally tribal people who moved across western Europe until they eventually reached the British Isles around 400 B.C. Body art was a huge part of the Celtic culture. In particular, they were fond of using woad to create blue permanent body paintings. The most common patterns they utilized were spirals, complex knot work or braided designs that symbolized the connection of all life, and labyrinth-like step or key patterns ranging from simple borders to complicated mazes that symbolized the many paths that our lives can take.
~385 B.C. - Tattooed Russian mummies were discovered by archaeologist Sergei Rudenko just north of the Russian/Chinese border, inside of tombs in the Siberian mountains called "kurgans". They are believed to have been part of the Pazyryk culture in their lifetimes, and their tattoos are thought to signify each person's status among their tribe. Aside from being an indicator of social status, the animals, monsters and mythical creatures that adorned their bodies were likely intended to be primarily decorative, although some of the images may have had magical significance to them, too.
~300 B.C. - Although the Greeks were first exposed to the art of tattooing around 2,000 B.C. after seeing Egyptian tattoos, the earliest physical proof of tattoos in Greece comes in the form of a tattooed mummy that was extracted from the permafrost of Argos. The mummy dates back to 300 B.C., more than 1,000 years after the Greeks first saw tattooed Egyptians. It's believed that the Greeks actually learned the art of tattooing from the Persians, who would have learned it from the Egyptians, and that tattooing didn't become a popular practice in Greece until years after the tattooed Egyptians and Greeks first met.
~100-1 B.C. - During this period, Greek women became absolutely fascinated with tattoos, considering them exotic beauty marks. The Romans adopted tattooing from the Greeks around this time, too, as recorded by Roman writers like Virgil and Seneca whose writings discussed the way slaves and criminals were tattooed. According to Ephesus, slaves exported to Asia had the words "Tax Paid" tattooed on them during the time of the early Roman Empire, and it was common for tattoos to be used as a form of punishment for both Roman and Greek criminals, physically disfiguring them and marking them for what they were.
54 B.C. - We know that the Picts, a tribal people who lived in what's now Scotland, were tattooed with war-inspired designs thanks to Julius Caesar's descriptions of their tattoos in Book V of his Gallic Wars, which was written around 54 B.C. That doesn't mean the Picts weren't tattooing themselves long before Caesar wrote about it, though. Since the Celts were decorating themselves with permanent body paint hundreds of years earlier and ended up in the same areas of the British Isles as the Picts, there's a very good chance the Picts' adoption of tattooing occurred much earlier than 54 B.C.
Late B.C./Early A.D. (Biblical Times) - There's a passage in the Bible that has governed Christianity's feelings on tattoos for thousands of years. Leviticus 19:28 says, "Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you." The Jewish faith has also long supported this Old Testament rule, so between the two groups, tattoos were not popular in the Middle East during Biblical times and well beyond. In fact, tattooed Jews cannot be buried in orthodox Jewish cemeteries to this day, because they believe that tattoos defile the body, which should be treated like a temple.
Interestingly, a Biblical scholar by the name of M. W. Thomson suggests that Moses was one Biblical figure who favored tattoos, introducing them to his people as a way to commemorate the Jews' deliverance from slavery in Egypt and safe passage through the Red Sea. There doesn't seem to be any physical proof of this, but it's an interesting theory, especially since tattoos were so frowned upon by most people in the Middle East at that time.
~15 A.D. - Tattooing first became popular among Polynesian cultures in the South Pacific roughly 2,000 years ago, and it's a tradition that survives to this day. The Polynesians were known for creating some of the most intricate, skillfully-designed tattoos in the ancient world, and their tattoos have always had great spiritual meaning to them. They believe that a person's life force is visible through their tattoos. They call that spiritual power that emanates from tattoos a person's "mana".
In Samoa, the art of tattooing by hand has survived for more than 2,000 years. The art is typically passed from father to son, with sons spending years working as apprentices to their fathers and spending long periods of time practicing tapping designs into sand or barkcloth.
Samoan society has always had a very rigid structure of rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants descending from notable families based on birth order. In the past, chiefs underwent elaborate tattooing ceremonies at the onset of puberty. As PBS's Skin Stories reports:
"The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a great concern. But to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a pala'ai or coward and reviled by the clan. Those who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, wearing their mark of shame throughout their life."
Samoan women also endured the painful process of being tattooed by hand with crude tools that have changed little over time. However, the patterns tattooed on them were usually smaller than the mid-torso-to-knee-length tattoos the men endured. Women were most often tattooed on their thighs, legs or hands. Without "lima" (hand tattoos), women were not allowed to serve the narcotic drink "kava" during ceremonies, which was one of the greatest honors for Samoan women and made getting these painful tattoos worthwhile for them.
From Samoa, the art of tattooing spread to migrant communities in New Zealand, Hawaii and other South Pacific regions. The Maori of New Zealand developed their own type of tattoo, called "moko", using their woodcarving skills to carve skin in a way that showed off their refined artistry. Moko--particularly full-face moko--distinguished wearers by showing status, lineage and tribal affiliations, as well as by displaying their conquests in war and other important life events.
When the Hawaiian people adopted the tradition of tattooing, they called it "kakau". They would ornament themselves with tattoos for distinction, to decorate themselves, to protect their health, and to ensure their spiritual well-being. Men were most often adorned on their faces, torsos, arms, and legs with intricate patterns of woven reeds and other images from nature, whereas women were most often tattooed with natural designs from their wrists to their fingers and occasionally even on their tongues.
Christian missionaries first visited the South Pacific in 1817, and over time they beat the tradition of Polynesian tattooing into submission. As more missionaries flocked to save the indigenous people of Samoa, New Zealand, Hawaii, and other parts of the South Pacific, they setup schools to educate tribal children. However, they quickly put rules into place that forbade children from attending if they were tattooed. Many tribal people fought to maintain their tattooing traditions, but others opted to get an education instead. Eventually, the Christian missionaries relaxed their rules, which allowed for a tribal tattoo resurgence.
Like those from the Polynesian and Hawaiian islands, Native Americans adopted the art of tattooing roughly 2,000 years ago. They would use sharpened bone, rock and other such objects to carve tattoos into their skin, and then fill the wounds with soot or natural dyes. It was common for Native American men to get tattoos after winning wars, to permanently and proudly display their victories. Both men and women alike also got tattoos of designs that were unique to their tribes, so that anyone who saw them would know the tribes and regions from which they came.
Native Americans believed that all tattoos had spiritual meaning for those who bore them. Some believed their tattoos would even endow them with supernatural powers or strength. It was particularly common for an individual to get a tattoo of the animal whose strength they most wanted to emulate.
297 A.D. - Although the Japanese figurines from 3000 B.C. discussed above imply that tattooing was common in Japan thousands of years ago, there was no written record of tattoos in Japanese culture until 297 A.D., when a Chinese dynastic history was compiled that referenced Japanese tattooing. It discussed how the Japanese were interested in tattoos as a means of self-adornment rather than for spiritual or magical purposes, and it talked about how Japanese tattoo artists, called Horis, were absolute masters of their crafts. They used beautiful colors, creative designs and perspective that was completely new to tattooing. It was common for Japanese tattoos to be applied as full body suits--suits that much later (between 1603 and 1868) became the identifying mark of one's membership in the Japanese mafia, called the Yakuza.
306-337 A.D. - Roman Emperor Constantine both rescinded the prohibition of Christianity and banned facial tattoos during his reign. He believed that those who tattooed their faces were defiling the image of God, since the Bible states that man was made in God's image. Unfortunately, facial tattoos had been quite common among convicts, soldiers and gladiators up until that point, so Constantine's ban would have made his own honored men outcasts alongside criminals.
570-632 A.D. - The Qur'an doesn't support the concept of engraving the body, but tattooing managed to survive in the Islamic societies of North Africa as far back as the time of Prophet Mohammed, who lived between 570 and 632 A.D. Strict Muslims view tattooing as unholy, but there was a sect of Moroccan women during Mohammed's time who viewed tattooing as a legitimate practice. Tattooing also existed in parts of North Africa, like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. In sub-Saharan Africa, scarification has traditionally been practiced more commonly than tattooing among tribal people. Some Africans would get tattoos for ornamental purposes, but it was much more common for them to be used as protection from harmful spirits, to signify bravery, and to mark major life milestones.
~1000 A.D. - The oldest tattooed mummies found in South America were Inca mummies discovered in Peru. Their bodies date back to the 11th century.
1100 A.D. - Although the Vikings may have been tattooing themselves for hundreds of years prior to this point, it wasn't until a group of them met with the Arab Ibn Fadlan in 1100 A.D. that Vikings were documented as "being covered in pictures". That means that tattoos were common at least among a portion of Scandinavian cultures as late as 1100 A.D., but quite likely earlier.
1254-1324 - When Marco Polo visited Quanzhou, China, during this time, he found that there were many adept tattoo artists there--so many in fact that people would travel all the way from upper India and beyond just to get tattooed by these talented Chinese artisans. The practice had likely been occurring there for hundreds if not thousands of years already, but Marco Polo's account was one of the first reporting this cluster of highly-skilled tattoo artists.
1500s - The Mayans tattooed themselves with images of their idols and believed their tattoos to be a sign of courage, as Cortez and his conquistadors discovered when they first met up with the Mayans in Mexico in 1519. The Spaniards had never heard of tattooing (which is dumbfounding, when you think about how much of the world practiced the art by that point in history) and believed it to be the work of the devil. They were horrified to find that tattooing was widely practiced by natives throughout Central America.
1644-1912 - During this time period, the Great Qing/Manchu Dynasty was in power in China. They emblazoned criminals' faces with characters like 囚 (meaning "prisoner"). Slaves were also sometimes marked to show who owned them at different points throughout Chinese history.
1700s - Tattoos became popular with the British Navy after Captain Cook brought back tattooed Polynesians from his travels. It was also common for French sailors to come back from South Pacific voyages with Polynesian tattoos at that time. The trend continued among French sailors all the way through 1861.
1851 - In 1851, 15 years after Thomas Edison invented the electric pen, an American named Sam O'Reilly created the first rotary tattoo machine by developing an ink tube and needle system that could be used with Edison's rotary-powered electric pens to tattoo people. 20 days later, across the pond, Londoner Thomas Riley patented the first single-coil tattoo machine, which was powered by a modified doorbell assembly placed in a brass box. Shortly after that, another Londoner named Alfred Charles South created the first double-coil tattoo machine. South's coil tattoo machine was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling by springs to be operable. Rotary and coil tattoo machines have steadily evolved in the years since, to the point that most high-end tattoo machines today weigh just a few ounces at most.
1861 - A French navy surgeon by the name of Maurice Berchon published a study in 1861 that explained the medical complications associated with tattooing. The study lead the French navy and army to ban tattooing among all soldiers and officers in their ranks.
1862 - The Prince of Whales, who later became King Edward VII, got a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm in 1862. By getting a tattoo before taking the throne, the Prince started a tattoo trend among British aristocracy.
1882 - King Edward VII's sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York, became the next British royals to get tattooed. They were both tattooed by Hori Chiyo, a Japanese master tattoo artist.
Late 1800s - Towards the end of the 19th century, a Japanese-style tattoo craze spread like wildfire among the American upper class, thanks to technological advances and greater exposure to other cultures. "Freaks" with full-body tattoos also became a popular side show draw at carnivals around this time.
1940s - High society's fascination with tattoos began to fade in the early 1940s, and for the next 5+ decades, Americans' perceptions of tattoos remained mostly negative. Women who had the audacity to get tattoos were believed to completely disfigure themselves in the process, and men with tattoos were considered vulgar and likely to be deviants. No one but sailors, soldiers, hard-core bikers, rockers, and freaks got tattoos during those decades. Even if you were a normal Joe with an innocent tattoo, someone likely thought you belonged to one of those unseemly groups.
2000 - Nearly 150 years after coil and rotary tattoo machines were first invented, tattooist Carson Hill created the first pneumatic tattoo machine powered by air compressors that used pressurized air to drive tattoo needles up and down. Pneumatic tattoo machines are autoclavable and very lightweight, but they have yet to gain popularity among tattoo artists the way that rotary and coil tattoo machines have.
2015 - Today, society's perception of tattoos has turned 180 degrees from where it was in the mid-20th century. Tattooing is now a highly-regarded art form. It may be permanent, wearable art embedded in the skin rather than painted on canvas or drawn on paper, but it's art all the same and widely accepted as such. Whatever your reasons for getting tattooed, whatever design(s) you have tattooed on you, you're less likely than ever before to be looked down on for your decision and more likely to get admirable comments and interested questions about what your tattoo means to you and who did it for you.
People of all walks of life get tattoos now--people of different ethnicities, genders, ages, and socioeconomic statuses. Some get stunning portraits commemorating their loved ones, others get simple designs that are deeply meaningful to them. Some get tattoos to be unique, and others simply for love of the art. Some people have one or two little tattoos while others have full sleeves or even full-body tattoos. Our favorite celebrities, friends, teachers, and even grandparents sport tattoos now, and their commonality has desensitized the previously hyper-sensitive public. Tattoos are everywhere, and after 5,000+ years, it would seem they're here to stay!