The History of Tattoos cover

The History of Tattoos


Tattooing is the art of adorning or decorating the body by cutting or piercing and inserting ink into the wounds to leave permanent marks. Although many may think it is a modern phenomenon because of the upsurge of tattooing in recent times, it has in reality been around since the beginning of mankind. Tattooing is an ancient art that has been practiced by a wide variety of cultures and at various times during the history of mankind. It has gone in and out of style over and over again. The reasons for tattooing are not always just for self-decoration, but may serve others purposes depending upon the culture and era in which it is used.
This NoteStream covers some of the reasons for and the symbolism behind tattoos, as well as the history, from ancient times, through the Pacific Cultures and into today's world.

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The History of Tattoos

Since Ancient Times

Tattooing is the art of adorning or decorating the body by cutting or piercing and inserting ink into the wounds to leave permanent marks.

Although many may think it is a modern phenomenon because of the upsurge of tattooing in recent times, it has in reality been around since the beginning of mankind. Nobody really knows for how long, but it is believed to have been used back in the Neolithic era.

A body preserved in the ice of the Alps between Austria and Italy was found to have extensive tattooing. This person was estimated to have lived 3,000 years before Christ, and the markings on him may be the result of some kind of medical practice, like acupuncture. Another mummy with tattoos and estimated at 6,000 B.C. was discovered in South America.

Ötzi the Iceman

Ötzi the Iceman

The mummy was found in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, hence the nickname "Ötzi", near the Similaun mountain and Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy.

Many Purposes

Tattooing is an ancient art that has been practiced by a wide variety of cultures and at various times during the history of mankind.

It has gone in and out of style over and over again. The reasons for tattooing are not always just for self-decoration, but may serve others purposes depending upon the culture and era in which it is used.

In the Altai Mountains on the Central Asian steppe the body of a Scythian chieftain was found in a burial mound with detailed tattooing on arms and legs. There is evidence of tattooing on many of the mummies unearthed from ancient Egyptian tombs. The conjecture is that it was used for medicinal and therapeutic purposes.


The ancient Chinese seemed to be split on the idea of tattooing. In the north of the country the prevailing theory was that it was

a barbaric custom, but in the south they didn’t think so, though criminals, slaves and prisoners were tattooed as punishment, identification and warning.

The Italian explorer Marco Polo wrote that traders from India that crossed over into China would get tattooed by Chinese tattooists who were adept at the art. There has been a multitude of reasons and uses of tattoos throughout mankind’s history, but today’s cult of tattooing is more a case of self-expression than any practical or useful purpose.



Freehand cherry blossoms and koi fish. Design and tattoo by Joey Pang

Photo courtesy TattooTemple

(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reasons for Tattooing

The word tattoo came to the English speaking world from a Polynesian name for the practice, called ‘tatu’ or ‘tatatu’.

It arrived with the return of British sailors who were with Captain Cook on his South Pacific explorations in the 1770s. Tattooing was a normal custom of the island people of the South Pacific. His crew, including officers, had tattoos as souvenirs of their voyage. The captain described it as ‘tattowing’ and the seamen brought back the custom that had died out in the British Isles.

Native Tribes and Groups

In ancient Britain the native tribes and ethnic groups such as the Picts and Celts had used ‘woad’ or copper as pigments in their tattooing,

but with the introduction of Christianity and the withdrawal of the Roman Empire the custom faded. It is reported that some of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Great Britain were tattooed in the same fashion as their European ancestors. Julius Caesar described this tattooing of the native Britons in his book on the Gallic Wars.

In 330 AD the Emperor Constantine stopped facial tattooing on religious grounds.

Christian Influence

The Second Council of Nicaea prohibited the use of tattoos as a pagan practice that could not be tolerated by Christians.

The justification for this was found in the bible: Leviticus 19:28 ‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put marks upon yourselves’. Because of these strictures the custom slowly died out in western cultures. Another blow to the art of tattooing in Europe was the fall of the Roman Empire, which used tattooing in several practical ways. It was used to mark property such as slaves, prisoners and gladiators. Legionaries were also marked on the hand as a deterrent against desertion. The custom was revived in Britain on Cook’s return and the word ‘tatu’ was corrupted over time to tattoo.

Maori Chief

Maori Chief

A Maori chief with tattoos (moko) seen by James Cook and his crew.

Artist: Sydney Parkinson, 1745-1771. Parkinson was the artist on Captain Cook's 1st voyage to New Zealand in 1769

Public Domain

Naval Tradition

It was a trend that struck the imaginations of both the lower and upper classes during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

On the whole the middle classes didn’t indulge in the fashion, but many of the nobility did, including princes and kings. The sailors started a tradition for mariners all over the world, and were one of the reasons that tattooing was shunned by respectable people. Mariners had a bad reputation and so respectable people looked down on them and wouldn’t indulge in anything so vulgar. It started a British naval tradition that spread to all navies and countries. These naval tattoos slowly took on certain meanings that were followed for many years by successive generations of sailors, both in the Royal Navy and the merchant marine.


Today’s body artwork is mostly a form of decoration, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t have tattoos that have significance to them.

Many people have tattoos that commemorate certain times or eras in their lives. They may be a testament to an achievement or a statement of triumph over bad times. Anything that has had a great impact on a person can now be expressed through tattooing, and many use them as reminders of what they have lived through. Portrait tattoos have become very fashionable. These are often used for lost loved ones, or to show thanks and admiration towards someone close.

In other older societies the markings can tell a story of that person’s life. For instance, the British naval tattoos were able to show the experience of a sailor

In The Navy

In The Navy

Public Domain

Hidden Meanings

One tattoo of a swallow meant that the man had sailed 5,000 nautical miles and a second meant 10,000. The swallow itself also had significance.

Sailors were a superstitious lot and swallows were known to always return to their nest, so they symbolized a safe arrival home. It is no wonder mariners were drawn to this symbol when faced with the might of the great oceans. Many sailors would have a swallow tattooed when they reached their destination port and another when they arrived back.

An anchor meant that the sailor had crossed the Atlantic. A fully rigged sailing ship was a sign that the mariner had rounded Cape Horn. The tattoo for crossing the equator was a turtle. Dragon tattoos meant that the bearer had been to China.

Good Luck

Both pigs and rooster tattoos were used as a form of prayer and protection.

Like the majority of sailors, both animals couldn’t swim, and the mariners hoped that God would look favorably upon them, and save them from drowning. In this way tattoos were used as good luck charms, talismans and amulets. They are believed to ward off evil spirits and give the wearer spiritual protection.

They can also identify the person as someone who belongs to a certain group. This can be either a religious sect or a street gang. Street gang members especially like to use tattoos to advertise their allegiance. Biker gangs have their own sets of tattoos that symbolize certain aspects within their membership. In the east, holy men or ‘sadus’ seeking enlightenment have religious or spiritual tattoos. Many have ‘Om’, the Sanskrit word for God tattooed on their bodies to show their religious devotion.

The Pacific Cultures

Although different societies have used tattooing for different reasons, the real heartland of this art is in the South Pacific islands.

There the wearing of tattoos is a fundamental part of the culture that hasn’t changed much, even with the import of western civilization and religion. In Tonga, however, the art has been practically stamped out by the Christian missionaries sent there.

Polynesia is also known as Oceania which comprises a huge area in the Pacific Ocean. Its northern extreme is Hawaii and its south-western end is New Zealand, with Easter Island as its eastern edge. Within this area there are more than a 1,000 islands, supporting a diverse group of native peoples. Although all are Polynesians they call themselves by different names: the Maori of New Zealand, Cook Islanders, Tongans, Niueans, Marquesans, Hawaiians, Tahitians and Samoans.

Map of Oceania

Map of Oceania

Public Domain

Apprentice to Master

All have a history of using tattoos within their societies. Before Christianity, they all believed tattooing was taught to humans

by the God of Creation’s children; so it had a divine significance.

The old Polynesian tattooists were masters of their trade and accorded great respect within society. Many lived in the households of their patrons while the tattooing process was taking place. A long apprenticeship was needed to become a master and the knowledge was usually passed down from father to son.

Rank and Status

Tattoos gave others information about the rank or status of the bearer; many different levels of experience could be read on their bodies.

Tattoos also showed the ‘mana’, the inner spiritual life force or soul of the wearer. Some were for strength, others for spiritual protection and power. Some were magical and guarded against evil, others were to invoke luck. Each tattoo had meaning and every new one had to fit with the others.

It was often the masters who decided when to add to the designs, what to put in, and how to position them. They knew the meanings of the symbols and motifs could create a meaningful story about the person. Most of the designs used were from the natural world: the animals of land and sea, each of which had its own spiritual properties. They were placed within the motifs to show all the character and strengths of the person.

A Marriageable Girl

A Marriageable Girl

Tattooing of a Koita (New Guinea) girl who has reached a marriageable age. The decoration is begun when she is about five years old,

and is added to year by year as she gets older. The V-shaped marks on the chest, with certain others, are done last, and are an indication that the girl is marriageable.

Different Societies

Within the cultures of the different islands there are variations in designs and symbols, like one common language that is differentiated by regional accents.

Nowadays the old traditional art of tattooing has mainly been replaced by the machine. The traditional method used a kind of head that was attached to a long handle. The head held the needles which were to be used, something like a modern ratchet set we use today in mechanics. The needles were fitted into the head and could be changed when necessary. The needles themselves were made out of various materials such as turtle shell, bones of birds, split bamboo or even the teeth of sharks.

The Traditional Process

The dye was normally made from burnt candlenuts and then mixed with other liquids such as sugar cane oil, candlenut oil and coconut water or milk.

The head was tapped by a heavier instrument to make the punctures and then the ink was rubbed into the skin. On finishing, the area was washed with seawater to speed healing. The first tattooing was taken as a rite of passage, and all had a sacred component to them. To ensure that there wasn’t any spiritual contamination the person receiving the artwork had to follow a ritual that included cleansing, fasting and abstinence from sexual relations. The Samoans claimed that they learned the art from the Fijians who assured them it was only women that got tattoos, not the men, but somewhere down the line the message got garbled because in Samoa it is mainly a male prerogative.

Difficult to Perform

Women do get tattooed and they have their own separate designs, these tattoos are mainly concentrated on the hands and thighs.

The styles for women are much more open than those of men. In the past a girl would pass into puberty at twelve years old and receive her first on her right hand.

One of the most difficult types of tattoo to perform is the Maori moko head tattoos. For the ancient Maori’s the head was the most sacred part of the body. Their head tattoos consisted of cutting lines that conformed to the shape and contours of the face and cranium. The wounds were kept open to ensure thicker lines. Head tattoos showed a man’s real worth because of the pain endured in getting them. These tattoos fascinated the early settlers and travelers to New Zealand so much that Maori warriors beheaded each other to trade the heads for other goods.

Tamati Waka Nene

Tamati Waka Nene

Head and shoulders portrait of Tamati Waka Nene, (? 1780-1871), Maori chief, Hokianga, Northland, New Zealand Circa 1860

Public Domain

Today’s World

Tattoos have become fashionable once again, at least in the western world. Pop stars, athletes and personalities of all kinds now proudly

show off their latest addition for the entire world to see. The stigma that the practice has been under for decades has lifted. Once again tattooing is serving a social purpose, mainly self-expression, but there are also other types of tattooing that have to be recognized too. One is what doctors call traumatic tattooing, which isn’t an act of will, but marks left on the body by accidents. They are also called natural tattoos. Simple examples of this are the stains left by accidentally puncturing the skin with a pen or pencil.

Another source of unwilling tattooing is asphalt burns from traffic accidents. In the past there were gunpowder stains from muskets and coal dust that ground into miners wounds.

Medical or Cosmetic Tattoos

Identification tattoos aren’t considered ethical, and aren’t used in the penal systems. The last mass use of this kind of tattooing

was in Nazi concentration camps and blood typing of Waffen S.S. soldiers during WW2. Today it is mainly used for animal identification instead of branding, but tattoos can help identify badly burned or mutilated corpses.

Other types are medical or cosmetic tattooing. The covering up of scar tissue sometimes can be achieved by tattooing. More and more women are using it as a form of permanent makeup. Eyebrows, lips, eyeliners and lipstick can all be tattooed in place. The color of moles and other blemishes can be reduced using tattooing. One of the main cosmetic uses is the tattooing of nipples on breasts that have been reconstructed after mastectomies. Tattooing, whether professional or amateur, is full of symbolism.

David Beckham

David Beckham

Photo Courtesy Flickr user Personeelsnet

(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Modern Technology

The art of body decoration has taken great strides over the last couple of decades. Not only has the technology improved

with better and faster machines, but there have been breakthroughs with the making of the pigments. In the past ink tended to fade fairly rapidly, but now the inks hold their color for much longer, and there is a greater range of colors to choose from.

The most significant factor in the renaissance of tattooing is the general acceptance of it as a valid art form. It is no longer seen as a sordid backstreet practice that only anti-social elements and sailors indulge in.


The art of tattooing has become respectable again. There are TV reality shows filmed in tattoo studios and competitions

for artists to compete for substantial prizes. Tattooing has become a recognized art in itself and the tattooist an artist in his or her own right. Although women did have tattoos in the past it branded them as a certain type of person. That simply isn’t the case anymore. Women’s morals aren’t questioned just because they have a tattoo.

This is a positive step as it shows greater tolerance and has also opened up the profession to many talented female artists.