8.000 Years History of Tattoos

Most people have thought about getting a tattoo but only some are brave enough to go through with it. There are many different reasons behind getting a tattoo. It might be very meaningful, group related or just appreciation of the art form.

Ainu (indigenous people of Japan and Russia) woman with mouth tattoos and live bear.

Tattoos are body modifications that last forever, at least until recently with laser tattoo removal, so you must think hard about what you get inked. The ideas are endless and each tattoo will be different, nevertheless some ideas and styles gain more popularity than others. Let’s take a look at the 8.000 years history of tattoos and what they have meant to people through time.

A tattoo on the right arm of a Scythian chieftain whose mummy was discovered at Pazyryk, Russia. The tattoo was made between about 200 and 400 BC.

The oldest evidence of tattoos are from mummified bodies, figures with tattoos and tools that were probably used for the art. Mummies like this have been recovered from archaeological sites all over the world including locations in Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines and the Andes.

Honoring their tradition, Samoan tattoo artists made this tool from sharpened boar’s teeth fastened together with a portion of the turtle shell and to a wooden handle.

Since indications of tattoos have been found all over the world a single origin of tattoos can not be alleged. But we do know where the word tattoo comes from. In the Western world to begin with it was referred to tattoos as “scarring”, “painting” or “staining. When the explorer Captain James Cook came to the Polynesian island of Tahiti and-he and his crew encountered heavily tattooed men and women. Cook’s crew picked up the Polynesian word tatau, that means “to write”, and got themselves some permanent ink. This art form became popular back home in England but was looked down on although behind closed doors a lot of people had tattoos. It is even claimed that Queen Victoria had a tiger fighting a python tattooed on her body.

Identification of inmates in Nazi concentration camps was performed with numbers on clothing and later tattooed on the skin.

Different cultures have had many different reasons to wear tattoos. Looking through history many examples of people being tattooed unwillingly become apparent. Romans and Greeks tattooed slaves and mercenaries to discourage escape and desertion. The most famous usage of tattoos that falls into this category are the marks made on Jewish and other prisoners during the Holocaust. These tattoos were typically on the prisoner’s hands and chests in order to identify stripped corpses. In Japan criminals were tattooed to distinct them as far back as the 7th century. This has been around in many places but maybe not to the best interest of these societies. Since it has proven that the criminals start to embrace these tattoos as signs of loyalty to clans, gangs and a legitimate lifestyle like the famous Yakuza in Japan. The Christian Crusaders are said to have gotten large crosses tattooed. The reason of the tattoos was that if they died in battle they could be identified as Christians and get appropriate burial. Tattoos have also been a representation of status in society, for example in Maori culture you were considered a coward if you had unfinished tattoos. Other cultures used tattoos to display people’s professions.

The tattoo machine Samuel O’Reilly got patented.

The tattoo machine was invented in 1891. It was Samuel O’Reilly that discovered that Edison’s electric pen could be modified and used to introduce ink into the skin. This brings us to the modern world of tattooing. In the civilized world tattoos have been disdained for a long time. We have even experienced tattoo restrictions through the years and in Korea today for example, you have to be a licensed doctor to make tattoos. It were mostly marginalized groups that had tattoos in the early 20th century but sailors used to have them to mark their corpses if they died at sea. This sailor practice caught on to the navy and then to militaries. After the second World War, many young men were drafted into military service all around the world and plenty of them came home from service with tattoos. This brought tattoos further into the society however the majority of people with tattoos were still socially excluded groups. Tattoo culture in prisons is very famous and there have been made many interesting documentaries about them, the most famous being in Russia and the US. These tattoos are often affiliated with gangs and the crime history of inmates.

Lyle Tuttle is a well known American tattoo artist has been tattooing since 1949.

Tattoos have also been used to hide scars, birth defects and even needle marks from drug using in present times. It isn’t until recently that tattoos have become just a thing of beauty and they are even still frowned upon. But the times are changing and the tattoo industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the US with an annual revenue of 2.3 billion dollars. Today 21% of Americans have tattoos and 37% of 18 to 39 year olds have tattoos.

“My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” – Johnny Depp

At the end the day tattoos have always been about expressing of who you are and who you want to appear to be. But with such a long history what are you going to get? But remember, think before you ink!


Here are some historic people you didn’t know had tattoos:

Theodore Roosevelt: Had tattoos of his family crests allegedly on his chest.

Tsar Nicholas II: Got a tattoo of a dragon on his arm while traveling to Japan.

George Orwell: Tattooed his knuckles with blue dots.

Winston Churchill: Had an anchor tattooed on his forearm.

Andrew Jackson: The 7th president of the US had a large tomahawk tattooed on his inner thigh.

Thomas Edison: He helped inventing the tattoo machine so it’s only fitting that he had five dots tattooed on his forearm.


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