The History Of Tattoos
Amazing Tattoos

The History of Tattoos


Tattooing has been a nearly ubiquitous human practice. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, wore facial tattoos. Tattooing was widespread among Polynesian peoples, and in the Philippines, Borneo, Africa, North America, South America, Mesoamerica, Japan, and China.

According to Robert Graves in his book The Greek Myths, tattooing was common amongst certain religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean world, which probably contributed to the prohibition of tattooing in Leviticus 19:28 in the Old Testament.

Tattooing in prehistoric times

Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. “Ötzi the Iceman”, dated circa 3300 BC, exhibits therapeutic tattoos (small parallel dashes along lumbar and on the legs). Tarim Basin (West China, Xinjiang) revealed several tattooed mummies of a European physical type. Still relatively unknown (the only current publications in Western languages are those of J P. Mallory and V H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies, London, 2000), some of them could date from the end of the 2nd millennium before our era. Three tattooed mummies (c. 300 BC) were extracted from the permafrost of Altaï in second half of the 20th century (the Man of Payzyrk, during the 1940s; one female mummy and one male in Ukok plateau, during the 1990s). Their tattooing involved animal designs carried out in a curvilinear style. The Man of Pazyryk was also tattooed with dots lined up along the spinal column (lumbar region) and around the right ankle.

Tattooing in ancient Judaism

Some Christians, Jews and Muslims believe Leviticus 19:28 prohibits believers from getting tattoos: Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. A more literal translation of Leviticus is: Do not cut your bodies for the dead nor put marks upon you. The practice proscribed by Leviticus may or may not be tattooing directly (though it is certainly some form of bodily modification).

An ancient practice in the Middle East involved people cutting themselves and rubbing in ash during a period of mourning after an individual had died. It was a sign of respect for the dead and a symbol of reverence and a sense of the profound loss for the newly departed; and it is surmised that the ash that was rubbed into the self-inflicted wounds came from the actual funeral pyres that were used to cremate bodies. In essence, people were literally carrying with them a reminder of the recently deceased in the form of tattoos created by ash being rubbed into shallow wounds cut or slashed into the body, usually the forearms. One reading of Leviticus is to apply it only narrowly to this specific practice contemporary with the book’s writing.

Tattooing in Chinese literature

Tattooing is also been featured prominently in one of the Four Classic Novels in Chinese literature, Water Margin, in which at least two of the 108 characters, Shi Jun and Yan Qing, are described as having tattoos covering nearly the whole of their bodies. In addition, Chinese legend has it that the mother of Yue Fei, the most famous general of the Song Dynasty, tattooed the words (pinyin: jin zhong bao guo) on his back with her sewing needle before he left to join the army, reminding him to “repay his country with pure loyalty”.

The Water Margin had a major influence on tattooing in Japan.

Reintroduction in Europe

Between 1766 and 1779, Captain James Cook made three voyages to the South Pacific, the last trip ending with Cook’s death in Hawaii in February, 1779. When Cook and his men returned home to Europe from their voyages to Polynesia, the salons of Paris and London were soon abuzz with tales of the ‘tattooed savages’ that Cook and his men had seen on their travels and discovered in previously unknown lands. Crew members of those voyages returned with more than just fabulous tales of what they had seen, many of the sailors returned with tattoos.

Cook’s Science Officer and Expedition Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks returned to England with a tattoo. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy and had acquired his position with Cook by putting up what was at the time the princely sum of some ten thousand pounds in the expedition. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Tahitian chief, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. Many of Cook’s men, ordinary seamen and sailors, came back with tattoos, a tradition that would soon become associated with men of the sea in the public’s mind and the press of the day. In the process sailors and seamen re-introduced the practice of tattooing in Europe and it spread rapidly to seaports around the globe.

It was in Tahiti aboard the Endeavour in July of 1769, that Cook first noted his observations about the indigenous body modification and is the first recorded use of the word tattoo. In the Ship’s Log Cook recorded this entry : “Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.”

Cook went on to write, “This method of Tattowing I shall now describe…As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes.”

The English Royal Court must have been fascinated with the Tahitian chief’s tattoos because King George V himself got inked with the ‘Cross of Jerusalem’ when he traveled to the Middle East in 1862. On a trip to Japan he also received a dragon on the forearm, from the needles of an acclaimed Japanese tattoo master. George’s sons, The Duke of Clarence and The Duke of York were also tattooed in Japan while serving in the British Admiralty, solidifying what would become a family tradition.

Taking their sartorial lead from the British Court, where King Edward VII followed King George V’s lead in getting tattooed; King Frederik IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexandar of Yugoslavia and even Czar Nicholas of Russia, all sported tattoos, many of them elaborate and ornate renditions of the Royal Coat of Arms or the Royal Family Crest. King Alfonso of modern Spain also has a tattoo.

The tattooing craze spread to upper classes all over Europe in the nineteenth century, but particularly in England where it was estimated in Harmsworth Magazine in 1898 that as many as one in five members of the gentry were tattooed. There, it was not uncommon for members of the social elite to gather in the drawing rooms and libraries of the great country estate homes after dinner and partially disrobe in order to show off their tattoos. Aside from Prince Albert’s Prince Albert, there are persistent rumours that Queen Victoria had a small tattoo in an undisclosed ‘intimate’ location. Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, not only had a tattoo of a snake around her wrist, which she covered when the need arose with a specially crafted diamond bracelet, but had her nipples pierced as well. Carrying on the family tradition, Winston Churchill was himself tattooed.

The electric tattoo machine

The modern electric tattoo machine is fundamentally the same machine invented by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891, which was based on an electric engraving pen invented by Thomas Edison.

Negative associations

Some employers, especially in professional fields, still look down on tattoos or regard them as contributing to an unprofessional appearance. Tattoos can therefore impair a wearer’s career prospects, particularly when inked on places not typically covered by clothing, such as hands or neck.

In some cultures, tattoos still have negative associations, despite their increasing popularity and are generally associated with criminality in the public’s mind; therefore those who choose to be tattooed in such countries usually keep their tattoos covered for fear of reprisal. For example, many businesses such as gyms, hot springs and recreational facilities in Japan still ban people with visible tattoos. Tattoos, particularly full traditional body suits, are still popularly associated with the yakuza (mafia) in Japan.

At least according to popular belief, most triad members in Hong Kong have a tattoo of a black dragon on the left bicep and one of a white tiger on the right; in fact, many people in Hong Kong use “left a black dragon, right a white tiger” as a euphemism for a triad member. It is widely believed that one of the initiation rites in becoming a triad member is silently withstanding the pain of receiving a large tattoo in one sitting, usually performed in the traditional “hand-poked” style.

In the USA many prisoners and criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation. This cultural use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity of tattoos in the general population, so older people may still make a criminal association in their minds. At the same time, members of the US military have an equally established and longstanding history of tattooing to indicate military units, battles, etc., and this association is also widespread among older Americans.

Popular and youth culture

Tattoos are more popular now than at any time. Current estimates suggest one in seven or over 39 million people in North America have at least one tattoo.

A recent Harris Poll finds that 16% of all adults in the United States have at least one tattoo. The highest incidence of tattoos was found among the gay, lesbian and bisexual population (31%) and among Americans ages 25 to 29 years (36%) and 30 to 39 years (28%). Regionally, people living in the West (20%) are more likely to have tattoos.

Democrats are more likely to have tattoos (18%) than Republicans (14%) and Independents (12%) while equal percentages of males (16%) and females (15%) have tattoos.

This survey was conducted online between July 14 and 20, 2003 by Harris Interactive(R) among a nationwide sample of 2,215 adults.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Tattoo”.