An In-Depth Look at the History of Tattooing

Happy female with tattooed right arm laughs joyfully. history of tattooing

These days, it seems like everywhere we look, we see tattoos. In the United States alone, almost half of the adult population has a tattoo.

Although some old-timers may scoff at tattoos as a new fad, the history of tattooing is long and rich. From ancient warriors to colonial Englishmen, all kinds of people have gotten tattoos over the centuries.

Want to learn more about the role of tattoos throughout history? There is a lot to take in. Keep reading to learn about this fascinating topic.

Ancient History

Although tattoos are often seen as a modern invention, their history stretches back into early human civilization.

Otzi the Iceman, a mummified body found in the Alps, provides clear evidence of tattooing within ancient cultures. The body was covered in over 60 tattoos, demonstrating the importance of tattoos in ancient cultures.

In many cultures, tattoos were part of a coming-of-age ritual. The tattooing process was painful and when someone could stand up to the pain, they demonstrated strength and courage.

Some tattoos had religious significance. Ancient people have been found with the symbols of gods and saints represented on their bodies. Cross tattoos were popular as far back as Ancient Rome and they continue to be a popular choice today.

Traditional Tattooing Methods

Traditional tattooing methods vary quite a bit from modern techniques. Different cultures have different traditional methods, but one of the most widely used is a technique used by Austronesian peoples.

Traditional tattooing equipment could be made of anything from obsidian points and bones to thorns and even turtle shells. Without modern sanitation techniques, there was an added risk of infection.

Pigment might come from a range of sources. Some ancient people were said to use powdered charcoal or tattoo ink made from soot. Unlike modern tattoo ink, some of these substances come with a high risk of causing health issues or skin irritation.

Sometimes, the infections caused by these unusual needles and inks were considered part of the process. The additional pain added to the extreme nature of the ritual.

Western Spread

As the world began to open up to travel, people from Western nations were introduced to the tattooing culture with some deciding to try the practice for themselves.

Sailors returning from distant lands would often emerge with tattoos. Their body art demonstrated the adventures they had gone on and the new cultures they experienced.

You’ve probably heard the stereotype about sailors covering their arms with tattoos. Today, the image of an inked-up sailor, perhaps wearing an anchor tattoo or the word “Mom” scrawled across their arm, is something of a cliche. But seafarers were some of the first people in the Western world to commonly display tattoos.

During this time, body art was subject to many superstitions. Some people believed that tattoos could make people immune to poison or award other special abilities.

The practice wasn’t simply limited to low-class sailors either. Even English aristocrats like Joseph Banks got in on the fun. The famed naturalist got inked in Tahiti while voyaging on Endeavour with the famous Captain Cook.

In the 19th century, tattooing became extremely popular in the upper classes. The tradition first spread in private boarding schools like Eton, where young men would tattoo their skin as an act of rebellion and to show their toughness.

Austronesian People

Austronesian people have a strong link with tattoo culture. This group of people lived or still live in modern-day countries including:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Taiwan
  • Indonesia

Although these groups of people often lived thousands of miles apart and had very different cultures, almost all of them used tattoos. Often, they were applied as part of a coming-of-age ritual.

The Maori people of New Zealand commonly used face tattoos. These tattoos are known as Tā moko and they were applied to both men and women to show adulthood and high status. These tattoos were considered to make individuals more attractive to the opposite sex.

This tradition persists among Maori people in the modern era. Nanaia Mahuta became the first member of Parliament in New Zealand to appear with facial tattoos, and she later rose to the status of foreign minister.

History of Tattooing in the Military

Tattoos have strong ties to military cultures around the world. Many ancient cultures had tattooed warriors. Tattoos may have represented status in military formations, and they could be perceived as positive or negative.

Ancient Greek and Roman armies used tattoos very commonly. However, they were applied to slaves and mercenaries to prevent them from deserting.

Many tribal warriors during this period also had tattoos. The Picts, a group of people living in Scotland, covered their bodies in elaborate tattoo designs. They even fought naked, all the better to show off their body art.

That means that when the Picts clashed with Roman armies, there is a high likelihood that both sides would have been tattooed! The two armies’ different attitudes to their body art are a good reminder of the wildly different perceptions of tattoos throughout history.

Combining the tradition of military and religious tattoos were the crusaders. These warriors adorned their bodies with tattoos to represent the pilgrimages and battles they had experienced.

The tradition of military tattoos continues today. Many service people, from Fort Worth to France, like to get tattoos showing the insignia of their unit. This is often considered a good way to show commitment to comrades.

Tattoo Celebrities

In the modern era, celebrities from sportspeople to pop stars are prominently tattooed. They can help to drive the latest tattoo trends among the public. But celebrities known for their tattoos were popular in Europe and America as far back as the 17th century.

One of the best-known was Jeoly, a slave known as the Painted Prince. He was taken from his home in the Philippines and brought to be exhibited in England. People paid good money just to look at this man’s skin up close.

The slavers made up stories about his background to exploit the public interest in tattoos. Jeoly was so famous, his skin was preserved and kept on display in a museum for centuries after his death.

Tattoo Gun Invention

The modern tattoo machine was invented in 1891. This machine was a great leap forward in human technology since it represented the first practical application of the electric motor.

Some say Thomas Edison is to thank for this piece of technology! His portable copy machine was adapted for use as a tattoo gun, making the process quicker and easier.

Although tattooing was still a painful process, the speed offered by the gun meant it was far less of an ordeal. Enduring pain for a matter of hours

The tattoo gun made the tattooing process quicker and safer. It meant that anyone could now tattoo their skin, although depending on the skill of the people involved, results could vary heavily!

Modern Popularity

Tattoos became common in Western Nations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although history shows tattoos were common across the world, they still had a large stigma attached to them until fairly recently. It would have been unthinkable for the average office worker in the United States to sport a sleeve tattoo in the 1940s.

The 1970s marked a turning point in the way tattoos were seen in society. During this decade, many socially conservative attitudes eased off a little. The hippy movement helped to relax attitudes to body image and allow people to make their own choices.

Decade after decade, tattoos have become more popular and more widely accepted in the United States and other Western nations. In the modern era, getting a tattoo is no more dramatic than piercing your ears or dyeing your hair.

Become Part of the Tattoo Tradition!

As we’ve seen, the history of tattooing is long and complex. But that doesn’t mean the story is over. Tattoo artists everywhere are pushing the limits of the art form, creating new, mind-blowing tattoos every day.

Becoming a tattoo artist is a great career choice for creative souls. There is practically no limit to the things you can do with the art of tattooing. It’s also a great way to make a living since there is now such a high demand for quality tattooing services.

If you want to become part of this rich tradition, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. From tattoo drawing principles to sterile needlework, we offer a full package course. Take a course with Florida Tattoo Academy and get all the skills you need to become a standout tattoo artist.