The origin of tattoos
It is uncertain exactly how long it has been customary for people to get tattoos, but the available clues show us that this is an ancient practice. There is direct evidence of tattoos as far back as 6,000 years, but there are also many clues that suggest the practice is considerably older than this.
Based on tools that have been found it is believed that getting tattoos already might have been common as far back as 10,000 – 50,000 years ago. To date the oldest well-preserved tattooed skin was found on the Isman Ötzi, who lived over 5,000 years ago, and was preserved in ice until he was discovered in the Alps in 1991.
Why did people get tattoos?
Ötzi the ice-man is actually not believed to have received his tattoos for decorative purposes. The placement of the tattoos leads researchers to believe that he most likely received the tattoos for therapeutic reasons. The tattoos might have been an early version of acupuncture.
In Egypt getting tattoos was common among women. Tattoos were seen as erotic and decorative, but they also had a different function. They were, as in the case of Ötzi the ice-man, also used for medical reasons. Tattoos were seen as something that could increase fertility, and it was also believed that tattoos could cure uterine infections. Later, tattoos also became popular with men in Egypt. Nubian men are believed to have started with tattoos around the year 400 BC.
In China tattoos were for “bad boys”. Many criminals got tattoos. In addition to this criminals were punished with face tattoos to warn others. Tattoos in China may not have been exclusively for the criminals though. There are also stories of folk heroes covered with tattoos.
The word tattoo itself is believed to originate from Samoa. Tattoos have been an important part of Samoan culture for over two thousand years. Traditional tattoos on Samoa are performed by hand, and neither the process nor the motives have changed significantly over time. On Samoa tattoo ceremonies are a way to celebrate when a new chief is appointed. The ceremonies are also very painful, and the tattoos are therefore considered a sign of endurance and a show of strength and determination. For those who could not complete the process, the unfinished tattoo is considered a sign of weakness and shame.
Around the Mediterranean, in Greek, Roman and Persian cultures, tattoos were used as a form of punishment or as a mark of shame. Criminals and slaves were often tattooed. The same was true of prisoners of war. Gladiators and Christian forced laborers were also tattooed for a period as a sign that they were public property.
For the Romans, tattoos were not just a sign of shame. It also became common for soldiers and blacksmiths to get tattoos. This could be because many of the tribes the Roman legions camen into contact with saw tattoos as a source of pride. This included, among others, the Thracians, Scythians, Dacians, Gauls, Picts, Celts and British who all proudly displayed their tattoos. Some of these tribes were also eventually incorporated into the Roman legions, which certainly must have helped make tattoos more popular in the Roman legions.
On the American continents, indigenous tribes often tattooed themselves with spiritual tattoos to mark changes and important moments in life. For cultures in North America, it is believed that people got tattoos for religious reasons, and that warriors got tattoos for strength, and to snare the souls of their enemies on the battlefield. In the Mayan culture it is believed that tattoos around the mouth could mean that the person was very good at talking.
In the 19th century one started seeing people getting tattoos as a form of entertainment. Some examples of this are John O’Reilly, the famous boxer, and the famous tattooed lady Emma de Burgh who traveled around Europe with her husband where they earned their living by showing off their tattoos.
In the 1900s, people started getting tattoos for a variety of purposes. It first became common in certain groups such as among sailors and circus artists. One of the reasons sailors often got tattoos was that it made it easier to identify them if they fell overboard and drowned. Some sailors also got tattoos as souvenirs from the various ports they visited.
Women also began to tattoo for cosmetic reasons during around the same time. It became more common to tattoo lip-lines and eyebrows to save money on makeup. The women usually kept this secret since tattoos during this time period still generally was viewed as something criminals and other outcasts would do.
During the latter half of the 20th century tattoos were still relatively taboo, but it became common among various subcultures where men displayed their masculinity by getting tattoos. New styles of colorful tattoos began to become available, making it easier for people to express themselves with ink. World War II brought a new wave of motifs for people who wanted to show their patriotism. The war in Vietnam gradually put a damper on the patriotic war tattoos, and it became more popular to express political opinions through varying symbols of peace.
Around the turn of the millennium tattoos were already generally tolerated in most societies, and people began to increasingly express their feelings and show their personality through increasingly creative and unique tattoos.
How people got their tattoos
In different cultures around the world, tattoos were performed with varying types of tools. Ash was commonly used as a dye in combination with sugar dissolved in water, oil or breastmilk. In Egypt, bronze tattoo needles were used, while cactus needles were used early on for tattoos in America.
On Samoa ritual tattoos are still often performed with the same tools, handmade from turtle shells and pig teeth, and with the same technique which has been passed down from father to son over the last two thousand years. Elsewhere in the world there is little doubt that the equipment used for tattoos has been revolutionized just as much as the culture around tattoos.
The electric tattoo machine has more or less completely taken over, and it has also evolved much seen since the first version it was patented by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891. The introduction of the electric tattoo machine is also considered a contributing factor in the growing popularity of tattoos as it became less painful to tattoo with the new machines.
Another revolution that has taken place in the field of tattoo equipment is in the types of inks used. The traditional soot and mineral based colors have now mostly been replaced. The new types of ink are based on organic pigments in combination with modern fillers and other binding agents and preservatives.
Revolutionary developments in medicine and hygiene has also played an important role in the popularity of tattoos. In the early days tattoos could be a risky affair. There were often high chances of getting infections that at times could be life-threatening. The development of drugs such as antibiotics, as well as better general knowledge of equipment disinfection and how to prevent infections has led to tattoos becoming a relatively safe practice.
Tattoos as a form of expression
Since the dawn of time tattoos have in many cultures been related to belonging. In western cultures, the role of tattoos has undergone major changes over the last 50 years. Tattoos are now a form of expression used by people in many parts of society to express their feelings and showcase their personality and individualism.
A form of expression that for many in the past was associated with shame and humiliation is now well on its way to reclaiming its rightful place as a proud, respected and valued artform.