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A brief history of tattoos

Ian Chaddock

BY Ian Chaddock

31st Mar 2023 Life

A brief history of tattoos

From ancient civilisations to modern celebrities and athletes, tattoos have always been a part of life and history, as people decorate their skin with art

Love them or hate them, tattoos have been a part of life for centuries, with people choosing to use body art as a way to express themselves as far back as we can imagine. And over its long history, tattooing has gone from freak shows to fashionable, and evolved from simplistic or symbolic to stunning and assorted styles.

While it may be unsurprising that some artistic civilisations and tribes embraced the striking and beautiful look of tattoos, it may surprise you just how far back the origins of tattooing go…

Ötzi the Iceman’s tattoos

A brief history of tattoos—Otzi the Iceman tattoos, the oldest tattoos ever found
Some of Ötzi the Iceman's tattoos. Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis

Amazingly, the first documented case of a tattooed person is on the mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman, dating back to around 3,300BC. Found in a glacier of the Alps (near the border of modern day Italy and Austria) in 1991, Ötzi had over 60 small lines etched into his skin, that suggest that tattooing dates back to the Bronze Age and maybe even the Neolithic Age.

They appear to be from powdered charcoal and some experts believe they could be the result of an early pain-reducing medical treatment.

Ancient tattooing in Africa and elsewhere

From the ancient Egyptians to tribes in the rest of the continent, people in Africa have been getting tattooed for thousands of years. Originally it was thought that only ancient Egyptian women were tattooed, but the 2018 discovery of tattoos showing horned bulls and sheep on the skin of a mummified male are believed to be the earliest discovered figurative tattoos and date back to almost 3,000BC. Tribal tattoos in Africa could be used to depict everything from marital status, power and class to beauty, age and distinguishing friend from foe.

"Tattoos showing bulls and sheep on a mummified Egyptian male are the earliest discovered figurative tattoos, dating back to 3,000BC"

Outside of Africa, tribal tattoos date back centuries all over the world with indigenous people, such as Native Americans, New Zealand’s Māori people, Filippinos and Pacific Islanders, including Samoans and Tahitians. The word tattoo itself originates from the Tahitian word “tatau”, meaning to mark. The word “tattaw” was first used in writing in the published account of Captain Cook’s first voyage. The Celts (from Ireland, Wales and Scotland) also have a long history of body art, with Celtic crosses, knots and spirals recognisable designs.

Japanese tattoos

Japanese body suit tattoo
Traditional Japanese body suit tattoo. Credit: ​​Hori Kasiwa, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Japan also has a long history of thousands of years of tattooing, for both spiritual and decorative reasons. While in more recent history, tattooing has become a subculture in Japan and discouraged (and even banned in the 19th century) by Japanese governments. It became associated with the Yakuza criminal gangs, including beautiful (and often colourful), full-body pieces, concealed under clothing.

Despite this, traditional Japanese tattooing, with its distinctive waves, dragons and coy carp, is still one of the most popular styles of tattoo worldwide to this day. The artwork is even more impressive when you consider it is traditionally (although much less in modern times) created by hand, using only a bamboo tool with needle tip, rather than a tattoo machine. This style is known as "tebori" (literally "hand-carved").

Sailors and circus performers

In 19th and 20th century in Britain, tattoos were most popular among service members of the Royal Navy, while in the US at the turn of the century, heavily tattooed women turned gender norms on their heads, appearing in sideshows as popular “tattooed ladies”.

"New York tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, changing the tattooing world forever"

New York tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, changing the tattooing world forever. The famous tattoo artist Norman Collins—better known as “Sailor Jerry”—settling in Hawaii and tattooing US Navy servicemen before and after the Second World War. His distinctive designs (including bottles of booze, dice, anchors, Hawaiian pin-up girls, eagles and swallows) are iconic and hugely influenced the Western traditional tattoo style. You probably also know that there is now popular spiced rum named after Sailor Jerry, too. 

First professional female tattooist in the UK

The first professional British tattoo artist Jessie Knight tattooing a client
Jessie Knight at work tattooing a client. Credit: Neil Hopkin-Thomas

Welsh woman Jessie Knight made history in the early 20th century as the pioneering first professional female tattoo artist in the UK. At the age of just 18 in 1921, she took over her father’s tattoo studio in the port of Barry, South Wales when he went to sea as a sailor.

The tattoo industry may have been a man’s world then but Jessie, a “former horseback stunt woman and a sharpshooter” not only held her own but came second place in the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England competition in 1955. As reported by the BBC recently, her collection of tattoo machines and designs are now on display at the National Museum of Wales.

Celebrities, musicians and athletes

Footballer Lionel Messi and his full-sleeve arm tattooArgentinian footballer Lionel Messi has an arm tattoo. Credit: Кирилл Венедиктов, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

In the last 50 years, tattoos have become increasingly more mainstream and fashionable in Western societies. There has been an increase in styles and tastes, from the enduring popularity of Western traditional and tribal tattoos to the rise in detailed, portrait work and even the evolution of abstract styles. Black and grey tattoos and brightly coloured work are both popular.

Some of the biggest celebrities in the world are now heavily tattooed, from music artists like Post Malone, Ed Sheeran and Miley Cyrus to (current and former) athletes like Lionel Messi, David Beckham and LeBron James. The rise of tattoo reality shows also saw the emergence of tattoo artist celebrities—the best-known being Kat Von D.

Changed attitudes in business

It's not just in entertainment and sports that tattoos are now prevalent, but attitudes have changed in employment too. Corporations now accept people with visible tattoos at senior levels and any stigma has been greatly reduced from days when tattoos were associated with a criminal underworld in the Western world.

"Corporations now accept people with visible tattoos at senior levels and any stigma in the business world has been greatly reduced"

Is it now rarer for someone to have no tattoos than have tattoos? Either way, the recent explosion of tattoo popularity is only one of the peaks in a long history of over 5,000 years of humanity’s fascination with body art.

Banner photo: Tattooed Māori warriors in New Zealand. Credit: Uwe Moser

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