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History Of Tattoos


The history of tattoos is incredibly widespread and enormously varied.  There is evidence of tattooing dating back several thousand years, based on the discovery of several tattooed mummies and frozen bodies.  Motivations for tattoos throughout history range from medicinal applications to magical protection to simple decoration.  In this regard, tattooing serves the same purpose today.  Here is a brief history of tattoos from around the world and throughout time.


 There are several historical references to tattooing in ancient chinese literature.  The practice appears to have been relatively prevalent.  A famous general of the Song Dynasty was purportedly tattooed by his mother before he left for war.  In other instances, the tattooing appears to have been much more extensive.  Several literary characters are described as being covered in tattoos, from head to toe.

Chen Tianjiao is an experimental artist in Beijing who has has visited many outstanding tattoo artists during his roaming around China. His face has been tattooed with the same pattern engraved on the tripods of Shang Dynasty four thousand years ago.

From southern China, the practice of tattooing spread to other nations.  According to manuscripts penned by Marco Polo, people traveled to China from northern India in order to be “painted with the needle.”  Evidently, there were many skilled and talented tattoo artists in the cities of China and they  were widely renowned for their craft.  The practice quickly spread along the Silk Route.


Japan has a long history of tattooing, but not all of this history is accepting or positive.  Initially, tattoos were spiritual, decorative, or both.  Historians believe the Japanese and other native groups were tattooed as far back as the Paleolithic period.  This general acceptance and appreciation for tattoos did not last.

Sign prohibiting tattoos in a Sento, a public bathhouse

After 1600, only less respectable members of society were tattooed, like poor laborers and prostitutes.  Tattoos came to be associated with a lower status and were not desirable.  In response to this change in attitude, criminals were punished with a simple arm tattoo, a black band for each crime, starting in 1700.  It clearly denoted their past crimes and visibly isolated them from society.

Interestingly, this new method of punishment affected elderly warriors who still sported the full body tattoos traditionally associated with the Samurai.  When tattooing was finally outlawed, officially deeming it indecent, these warriors were forced out of acceptable society along with criminals.  By necessity, they turned to a life of crime, too.

Statues depicting the traditional tattoos of the Yakuza

In modern Japanese culture, tattoos, particularly the full body suits of the Samurai, are analogous with the Yakuza, a Japanese mafia-like group that once controlled the government.  Because of this association, and continued fear of the Yakuza, those with large or noticeable tattoos are actually banned from certain places, like bathhouses and gymnasiums.


Although some tribes in the Philippines believed tattoos have magical properties, most tribes used them as visible markers of status.  The more tattoos a filipino had, the more powerful they were within their community.  The tattoos were typically geometric patterns.  With each accomplishment, like success in battle, the tribesman was rewarded with additional tattoos.  Therefore, the most successful people had the most extensive tattoo work.

Traditionally tattooed Filipino warrior


 Many places in Polynesia have long standing traditions of tattooing.  Samoa, Hawaii, and New Zealand are a few such examples.  The Maori of New Zealand are well-known for their geometric moko tattoo designs.  For the Maori, moko tattoos are individualistic.  A person's moko design tells their story, from family ancestry to important life events.  For this reason, no two moko designs are identical and the designs become representative of the person.  In fact, one Maori visiting England actually used his facial tattoos as his signature.  He could draw the intricate design flawlessly, without referring to a mirror.

Maori man by William Hodges, 1771 Maori chiefs, 1910


Before the spread of christianity, many norther European cultures had traditions of tattooing.  The Celts, Picts, Germanic, and Scandinavian tribes were all tattooed.  Unlike other cultures that tattooed with ash or black dyes, these tribes sported blue designs, possibly derived from woad, a flowering plant, or copper.

In Greek and Roman culture, scholars believe that tattooing was reserved for criminals, gladiators, and slaves, although there is some evidence of ceremonial dot and dash tattoos on priestesses.  After the advent of christianity, tattooing became less common due to laws in Leviticus prohibiting it.

Illustration of a Pict warrior, the tattooed lines would have been blue

Constantine actually banned facial tattooing, making it illegal.  He believed that humans, and faces in particular, were created in God's likeness.  Tattooing the face was, in his opinion, an affront to God and an insult to His creation.  Because of this, tattoos fell out of favor until their reintroduction during the Age of Exploration.

Beginning in the 1500s, explorers began to bring tattooed natives back to England.  On these expeditions, captains and sailors would often acquire tattoos from the locals.  From this, the tradition of nautical tattoos and the association of sailors and seamen with tattoos was born.  While tattooing was spreading from port to port, it was also introduced into high society.

One explorer returned with a Polynesian man named Omai. Omai quickly became popular at the court of King George V, partly due to his tattoos and partly due to his longevity. Other natives typically died shortly after arriving in England, sometimes within a matter of weeks. Omai lived and actually returned to the Polynesian islands, where he served as an interpreter for the British. King George himself received a tattoo during a trip to the Middle East. Later, in Japan, he received a second. Soon, kings from Romania, Yugoslavia, Russia, Denmark, and Germany were also tattooed, following his example. The rest of the aristocracy was not far behind.

Sailor being tattooed aboard his ship, 1899

The popularity of tattoos continued to spread during the following century.  Reportedly, as many as one fifth of British nobility was tattooed by the 1890s.  Interestingly, both Winston Churchill and his mother had tattoos.  He possessed an anchor on his forearm, a traditional symbol and location for sailors, while she had a serpent around her wrist.  She hid her tattoo under a custom bracelet when necessary.


Naval captain with extensive tattoo work, 1943


From these cultural beginnings, tattooing has experienced rises and falls in popularity and acceptability.  Although stigmas still remain in modern society, particularly with facial work, tattoos are far more common now than half a century before.  Tattoos are linked with some remarkable innovations, such as tattooing for medical reasons, as well as some of the worst times in history, like the identification tattoos of the Nazi concentration camps.  Although tattooing is still associated with criminal or deviant behavior, the current acceptance of body modification continues to spread.  Tattoos have been around for thousands of years and will likely continue for thousands more.




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