The History of Tattoos - Origins - Black N Gold Legacy
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The History of Tattoos – Origins

Header image for tattoo history blog

The History of Tattoos – Origins

Welcome to the first in our series of articles on the history of tattooing. We’ve got a lot of interesting stuff planned for this series, including some deep dives into the history and evolution of specific tattoo styles such as Japanese, traditional, tribal and ornamental.

For the first one though, we figured we’d head way back to the beginning, to try and figure out where it all started, and how tattooing originated over the millennia. After all, if you want to truly get to grips with something, you need to have an understanding of where it came from in the first place, right?

After we’ve laid down this solid foundation of inky knowledge, we’ll move on to the more specific bits. In the meantime, strap in and get ready to educate yourself.

Tattoos are as popular now as they’ve ever been, but have you ever wondered where it all started?

These days tattoos are predominantly decorative, we get them because we like them, simple as that. But for thousands of years they were used for a whole host of other reasons.

From being amulets, status symbols, declarations of love (ok, they still get used as this sometimes) to branding and punishment, the adornment of human skin is no new trend.

It’s difficult to know where to start with the history of tattoos, as they didn’t originate in any one place. They evolved from a bunch of different cultures and societies simultaneously to slowly become what we see today.

So, for the sake of keeping things streamlined, we’ll start off with the oldest evidence we know of, then look at how tattooing developed in prominent cultures around the world.

So, without further ado, meet Otzi, the ice man.

Illustration of prince jeoly
Tattooed wrist of Otzi the Iceman

The First Tattoos

Back in September 1991, way up in the Ötztal Alps, two German tourists discovered the well-preserved mummy of Otzi, a man who lived in the region 5400 years ago. There’s a lot of interesting things about this guy, but what we’re most interested in is the fact that he had tattoos.

This is the oldest existing proof of the practice of tattooing, before Otzi was discovered the oldest we had was from ancient China, but that was only a mere 3000 years ago. The iceman tops that by a long shot.

Otzi had a total of 61 tattoos (good going even by today’s standards), which were predominantly situated across his legs. They’re mostly lines and crosses, with the pigment being made from fireplace ash. It’s believed that they were done as a form of therapy, as a lot of the markings correspond with places on his body where trauma or physical degeneration were also found.

Side note: Tattooing could potentially be even older than Otzi, we just don’t have any solid proof of it. Tools have been found that could have been used as early tattoo implements, and these range as far back as 50,000 years ago. We can’t say for sure what they were used for though, so with no direct evidence, Otzi holds the record… for now.  

So, that’s the oldest tattoo, but it doesn’t explain where or why the practice started. Like we mentioned earlier, tattooing originated everywhere, so let’s take a look at some of the more prominent histories and try to get a rounded picture of the story of tattooing.

Ready? Good, let’s go.

China

Mummies with tattoos have been found in the East that date back to around the 5th century BC, so that’s a good two and half thousand years. No Otzi, but a pretty long time all the same.

Unfortunately for the tattooed inhabitants of the ancient orient, marked skin didn’t normally mean anything good. Tattoos were often used to brand slaves and prisoners, in the same way that a farmer might brand cattle. Tattoos were seen as barbaric and uncivilized, which is why they’d be used on people seen as “lower” in society.

That being said, there were pockets of Southern China where this wasn’t the case. In fact, according to the famed explorer Marco Polo, people would flock to Quanzhou to get inked. He wrote:

“Many come hither from Upper India to have their bodies painted with the needle in the way we have elsewhere described, there being many adepts at this craft in the city”.

So there it is, Quanzhou had one of the first trendy tattoo scenes in the world, with people travelling from afar to get pieces from their favourite artists. Pretty neat, right?

An traditional chinese back tattoo

Greece and Rome

There are written records of tattoos dating back to the 5th century BC in this region, so just as early as China. It seems the ancient Mediterraneans had a similar view of tattooing too, as it was frequently used on the outcasts of society, a punishment for criminals, slaves and prisoners of war.

Whilst decorative tattoos did exist within these cultures, they were looked down on by the society as a whole. So overall, not a great time for tattoos.

However, there’s also evidence of soldiers right through ancient Rome bearing tattoos, in much the same way as sailors in the 20th century were known for their body art.

Black and white photo of a victorian man with a coat of arms chest tattoo

Great Britain

It might come as a surprise to find that Brits have been getting tattooed since the 17th century, so a good 400 years of inking to date.

The first to go under the needle were pilgrims who would go on voyages to the holy land, and then get a tattoo to commemorate they experience. So kind of like when you go on holiday and get some regrettable scratcher in a shady studio at 2am because you want to remember this night forever, but a bit more serious.

The first recorded use of the word “tattoo” to describe permanent skin markings was by the explorer Captain James Cook in 1796. Well, he actually wrote “Tattow”, but we think that’s close enough to count. Upon returning from an expedition to Tahiti he wrote;

“Both sexes paint their bodies, Tattow, as it is called in their language. This is done by inlaying the colour of black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.”

Many crew members from Cook’s journeys would come back sporting tattoos of their own, and therefore the practice was quickly reintroduced to Europe. Due to the transient nature of sailors this soon spread from port to port, and so the advent of modern tattooing began.

It’s also worth noting that by the late 1800s tattooing had reached the upper classes, with as many as 1 in 5 members of the gentry showing off some kind of body art, even members of the royal family. These pieces were often such things as a royal family crest or coat of arms, all depicted very intricately, of course.

Japan

Back in the day (and by “the day” we mean 3000 years ago), Japan had a much more liberal approach to tattooing than the rest of the world.

During this period body art was widespread amongst both the Japanese and the native Ainu people, with Chinese texts detailing how tattoos were used to indicate the differences in the social standing of individuals. These texts also describe Japanese males of all ages, ranging from young boys to old men, using tattoos to decorate both their bodies and their faces.

However, this liberalism didn’t last forever, and by 1603 tattoos were only being practiced amongst the Ukiyo (floating world) subculture, as well as being used to permanently mark criminals and prisoners. Yet again some bright spark decided that tattoos = bad, a theme we see a lot of when looking at the history of the art.

By 1868 tattooing was banned by the government who saw it as barbaric, showing a lack of respectability and having no place in a “decent society”.

This pushed all those people who were already tattooed underground, as they had no place in a society that shunned them and turned them into outcasts. These people ultimately resorted to crime to survive, and so the early roots of Japanese organised crime, known as the Yakuza, began to form.

Old photo of a japanese man with large back tattoo
Photo of a man with traditional samoan tattoos

Samoa

For thousands of years tattooing played a very important role in the Samoan culture, and this influence has rippled out into the wider world. In fact, the English word “tattoo” is most likely derived from the Samoan “Tatau”. An interesting little titbit for you there.

Samoan tattooing has always been done by hand, using tools made from boar’s teeth and turtle shells. These tools, along with the techniques to use them, would be passed down through families for generations.

Ceremonies would be held to mark a young chief’s ascension to a higher role within the tribe and the process itself would take many weeks to perform, often at great risk to the person being tattooed due to a high risk of infection. No autoclaves back then after all.

The markings represented not only a dedication to the Samoan culture, but also celebrated the endurance and will of the recipient. The process is notoriously painful, to complete a tattoo was a sign of great honour, but to be unable to withstand the pain would leave a person with the unfinished piece, a constant reminder to themselves and everyone else of their shame.

New Zealand

An article talking about historical tattooing practices wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the famous Maori facial markings known as Ta Moko.

First observed in 1769 by the previously mentioned Captain James Cook (that guy really got around), he had this to say of them;

“The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.”

In Maori culture tattoo artists, known as Tohunga-ta-moko, were considered to be “tapu”, a concept marking them as sacred and governed by spiritual restrictions.

Moko represented a significant transition between childhood and adulthood and was accompanied by a complex series of rites and rituals. Not having these markings was seen to denote a lower social standing within the society. So for once, tattoos = good.

They weren’t just about social position though, and much like today were used as a way to make the wearer more attractive to the opposite sex.

Traditionally the moko was worn across the entire face of males, and the lips, chin and nostrils of women. However, they would also extend to other parts of the body at times, from entire back pieces to the calves, stomach and neck.

Ta moko are different from many other forms of tattooing in that instead of puncturing the skin with a needle, it was literally carved with a chisel. This meant that after healing, the surface of the skin would be grooved and textured, unlike the smooth results of tattooing with a needle. Definitive proof that bold really will hold.

Illustration of traditional maori face tattoos

The history and origins of tattooing are long, complicated and varied, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now. It’s a story that can’t be told all in one go, as the roots of permanently marking our skin have spread far and wide across the world, creating a rich tapestry of culture, art, spiritualism and identity.

From signifying prisoners and slaves to high powered chiefs and royalty, tattoos and their perception have been a part of the human story for thousands of years, and in many ways, it feels like we’re just getting started.

A common theme throughout the world of tattooing is unity. They may sometimes separate us from society, but they create their own society, inviting us to become part of something bigger than ourselves, a part of this rich and vibrant history, a part of the family.

Keep an eye out for our future posts, where we’ll take some deep dives into the history and development of specific styles of tattoo art.

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