The history of tattoos didn’t begin with Popeye the Sailor Man, bikers and teenagers. Tattoos have a history that most likely goes back at least 5,000 years. Throughout the millenia, tattoos have been used as symbols of royalty, bravery and rebellion and even as “scarlet letters” for prisoners of the Holocaust. This diversity of intents reflects ever changing societal attitudes toward the ancient practice of placing permanent art on human skin.
The body of a tattooed man was discovered in the ice of the Alps in 1991. Researchers have named this man from 3,300 BC “Otsi the Ice Man.” Otsi is the oldest body on record to feature a tattoo. His tattoos were created by infusing designs into his skin with charcoal. Other bodies from 2,000 years ago were also discovered in 1948. These Siberian corpses sported images of animals and creatures of myth.
The word “Tattoo” has its origins in the Polynesia and Samoa region. The “tatau” was popular in this area from 2,000 years ago until the 19th century when Christian missionaries banned the practice as a satanic art and/or as an inhumane treatment of young men. Tattoos were compulsory for young pubescent Samoan men destined for leadership roles. The traditional tattoo covered most of the body and posed a great risk of infection and death. Samoan tattoo artists made their needles out of boar teeth and attached wooden handles to them, and it often involved a painful three month process filled with ceremony. Nevertheless, refusal to accept the tattoo was a sign of cowardice and a sure path to shame.
Egypt’s tattoo history goes back even further than that of the polynesian region. Tattoo was a women’s art in 2,000 BC. According to discoveries of ancient drawings and tattooed mummies, female dancers wore simple abstract designs on their bodies during that era. In later years, they wore more sophisticated images depicting fertility goddesses. The spread of the popularity of tattoos around the world is often attributed to Egyptian traders who traveled along trade routes in Europe and Asia.
Tattoos were prominent on every continent in the world during the first two millenia AD. The Roman empire began using tattoos to brand criminals and Constantine banned their use among the general population of Rome and Europe. This is the practice that Nazi Germany emulated by marking Jews in concentration camps with numbers on their arms. Later, tattoos became popular among Roman soldiers, and doctors were trained as tattoo artists.
Tattoos became popular in Britain after Captain James Cook made his trip to Tahiti, which is about 1,500 miles from Samoa. Broken shells were the tattoo needles of choice in Tahiti. Cook made the practice popular amont sailors before British elites started wearing them. King George V sported a dragon tattoo, and King Edward VII was decorated with a Christian cross. From this point onward, the tattoo became a sign of nobility in Britain.
The history of tattoos was dramatically altered after Samual O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine and patented it in 1891. American circus freaks lined up to get their tattoos beginning in the 1920’s and earned raises as a result of their body art. Next in line were American sailors, who followed the earlier British precedent. Next came American underground subcultures and World War II veterans.
The modern history of tattoos is quickly changing. The American psyche used to think of tattooing as the art of rebels and freaks. It is still sometimes harder to get a job with visible tattoos. Attitudes are changing, however, as celebrities and people from all walks of life express themselves through this ancient art.