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The History of Tattoos

Discover the apparition of tattoos and their evolution through different cultures.

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tattooing tools
Ancient tattooing tool versus current tattooing device.

What are tattoos and where do they originate from?

A tattoo is a form of body modification where a design is made by inserting ink, dyes and pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment.

The art of making tattoos is tattooing. The word “tattoo” or “tattow”, in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Samoan word “tatau”, meaning “to strike”.

The oldest discovery of tattooed human skin

Tattooing has been practiced across the globe since at least the Neolithic times, as evidenced by mummified preserved skin, ancient art and the archaeological record. The oldest discovery of tattooed human skin to date is found on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, dating to between 3370 and 3100 BC.

Other tattooed mummies have been recovered from at least 49 archaeological sites including locations in Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines and the Andes. These include Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor from ancient Egypt (around 2134–1991 BC), multiple mummies from Siberia including the Pazyryk culture of Russia and from several cultures throughout pre-Columbian South America.

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Tattoo categories explained

The most remarkable moments in the history of tattoos

3300 BC

Ötzi the Iceman dies in the Austrian Alps, where his frozen body is discovered by hikers in 1991 CE, making him the world's oldest mummy. His 57 tattoos, straight lines and small crosses, are believed to be therapeutic, possibly used to treat osteoarthritis.

2800 BC

Tattoo history clearly shows that Egyptians were regularly inked. In addition to inventing writing, surgery, and beekeeping, they also popularize tattooing as an art form, which spreads from Greece to China.

1000 BC

The art of henna tattooing began to spread. Henna is a small flowering shrub that has many uses. The fragrant flowers are used to create perfume, and the leaves are dried and then turned into a fine powder that’s used for dying clothes, hair and temporarily dying the skin — hence henna tattooing. The plant has even been known to treat skin conditions.

400 BC

Tattoos are still used for decoration and are believed to hold some magical significance for the pazyryk culture (Siberia). In 1948 several mummies found from this era are sporting tattoos of animals, including griffins and monsters. These tattoos also may have reflected the individual’s status in the society.

306 BC

The first Christian emperor, Constantine, banned the practice of tattooing the faces of convicts, gladiators and soldiers.

300 BC

Following World War II, tattoos were outlawed by the Emperor of Japan in an effort to improve Japan’s image in the west. The modern association between Japanese traditional tattoos and the criminal element is said to have led to the adoption of tattoos by the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. This has also served to promote the “cool” aesthetic of Japanese traditional tattoos.

297 BC

An actual written record of tattooing is made in Japan.

1700’s

French soldiers returning from the South Pacific sport tattoos. Middle-class Japanese cover themselves in full-body tattoos when a law is passed that only royals can wear ornate clothing.

1790

Captain James Cook returns from a voyage to the South Pacific with a unique souvenir: a tattooed Polynesian named Omai. He also manages to introduce the word “tattoo” into our Western lexicon, from the Tahitian word “tatau”.

1846

The first permanent tattoo shop opened in New York City. They proudly tattooed both Confederate and Union Soldiers.

1861

Tattooing receives published medical attention when the French surgeon, Maurice Berchon, publishes a study on the medical complications associated with it. Tattooing is banned within the French Army.

1862

Royalty gets tattooed when the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, has a Jerusalem cross placed on his arm.

1891

American Samuel O'Reilly borrows Thomas Edison's electric pen design to patent a nearly identical machine which tattoos. O'Reilly was a New York tattoo artist, who patented the first electric tattoo machine on December 8, 1891. It has a basic design: moving coils, a tube, and a needle bar. The same technology is used today, evidence that some things really never change.

1961

Hepatitis B reminds the world of what Maurice Berchon knew – tattooing has its pitfalls. Tattoo parlors are banned in New York City due to the outbreak.

1991

The Q-Switched Neodymium-YAG laser was made known for tattoo removal; this is the most popular and effective form of removal.

2005

Popular culture helps tattoos become more popular in the West than at any time in recorded history, with more than 39 million North Americans sporting one. It all comes back to Austrian Ötzi and his 57 tattoos. It might've taken almost 6,000 years, but tattooing and the West are in love again.

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Moko tattoos by Māori, New Zealand

Tā moko is the permanent marking of the face and body as traditionally practised by Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Moko tattoos were facial designs worn to indicate lineage, social position and status within the tribe. The tattoo art was a sacred marker of identity among the Maori and also referred to as a vehicle for storing one’s tapu, or spiritual being, in the afterlife. Tattoo artists were considered sacred.

Many if not most high-ranking persons received moko, and those who went without them were seen as persons of lower social status. Receiving moko constituted an important milestone between childhood and adulthood, and was accompanied by many rituals. Apart from signalling status and rank, another reason for the practice in traditional times was to make a person more attractive to the opposite sex. Women usually wore moko on their lips (kauwae) and chins.

Yakuza, The Modern Japanese Mafia

The Government of Meiji Japan, formed in 1868, banned the art of tattooing altogether, viewing it as barbaric and lacking respectability. This subsequently created a subculture of criminals and outcasts.

These people had no place in “decent society” and were frowned upon. They could not simply integrate into mainstream society because of their obvious visible tattoos, forcing many of them into criminal activities which ultimately formed the roots for the modern Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, with which tattoos have become almost synonymous in Japan.

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Many yakuza have full-body tattoos, known as irezumi in Japan. During the US occupation after WWII, this law was removed, but tattoos are now considered part and parcel of being a yakuza and nothing else, leading tattoos to becoming a big taboo in Japan.

The yakuza are notorious for their strict codes of conduct and their organized territory-nature. They have a large presence in the Japanese media and operate internationally with an estimated 102,000 members.

The Tattoo Renaissance

Tattooing spread among the upper classes all over Europe in the 19th century. King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, all sported tattoos and King Alfonso XIII of modern Spain also had a tattoo.

Now, the practice is fashionable and no longer for a marginalised class. Tattoos have historically been regarded as ‘uncivilised’. By the end of the 20th Century many stigmas of the tattoo culture had been dismissed and since 1970s, the practice has become more acceptable and accessible for people of all trades and levels of society.

Tattoos have become a mainstream part of global fashion, common among both sexes, to all economic classes, and to age groups from the later teen years to middle age, they have taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. “Tattoo Renaissance” refers to a period marked by technological, artistic and social change.

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Based on my survey which I have done in the summer of 2018...

Tattoos shouldn’t be a criteria to judge people, so even if a person has them or not, they should be judged based on their skills, ambition and working abilities.
It really depends on the specific person or organisation, but I interact with a lot of people who would definitely see tattoos as a sign of rebellion and/or foolishness and people who have them would be thought of accordingly.
I think the stigma is largely in professional circles. I have not seen any stigma socially, but it seems common to regard people with a lot of visible tattoos as less professional or not fitting into an office environment.
Tattoos are another form of self expression. Just like we choose our style in clothing to convey our personality and interests, tattoos seek the same goal, perhaps even more so as they are permanently embedded in the skin.
People have a 100% right to decorate their bodies and there isn’t a field of work where tattoos can actual get in a way of performing labor.