Brief History of Tattoos – Otzi the Iceman, whose preserved body was discovered in the Alps, had the first documented tattoos.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering “when was the first tattoo?” then you might be a bit disappointed to know that no one knows for sure. However, you’ll perk right up when you hear the story of the oldest known tattoo, found on the body of Otzi the Iceman, whose preserved body covered in 61 tattoos is dated back to 3250 B.C.
Also found around his body when it was discovered in 1991 on the border between Italy and Austria included a bow, a quiver of arrows, a flint dagger, a leather pouch, and more.
Though this is the first tattoo we know of, Otzi’s tattoos are indicative of practices that predate his life and that means we will hopefully someday find evidence of tattoos from further back in the past.
Are you interested in learning more about tattoo history? Let’s take a look at tattoo evolution over the millennia!
Tattoo History: Traditional and Ancient Practices
Where do tattoos come from? There is no specific answer to this question, as tattooing appears to be one of those cultural practices that was used by a wide variety of cultures from around the world stretching potentially far back into pre-history.
It is known that tattooing has been practice around the world since at least Neolithic times. This is known from mummified preserved skin such as that of Otzi, the archaeological record, and ancient art. These latter two methods suggest that tattooing may have been practiced in Europe by the Upper Paleolithic period.
A number of other tattooed mummies have been discovered across the world at a variety of archaeological sites, including Alaska, Egypt, Greenland, and the Andes.
Because of the ancient mummified human remains that have been recovered, it is known that tattooing is a ritual and are that has been practice for many centuries.
It is believed that the Austronesian people were the group to most widely practice tattooing. The proto-Austronesian in coastal South China and Taiwan developed this technology before at least 1500 BC. This practice might have originally been associated with another aspect of the culture: headhunting.
All of the Austronesian subgroups have tattooing traditions, including Micronesians, Islander Southeast Asians, Taiwanese Aborigines, Malagasy people, and Polynesians.
In the ancient world, tattooing was also practiced by the Yoruba, the Ainu people of Japan, the Welsh and the Picts of Iron Age Britain, Native Americans, and other ethnolinguistic groups.
Humanoid figurines that have been discovered in Europe point to people practicing tattooing as long ago as 40,000 years ago. The Picts, a group of Celtic-speaking people, are thought to have been tattooed or sacrificed with war-inspired and elaborate designs. During the early 10th century, a group of pagan Scandanavian Rus merchants was described by a Muslim traveler as being heavily tattooed.
Tattooing was also used in ancient Greece and Rome. It was used during this time to penalize criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war.
The voyages made by James Cook between 1766 and 1779 also are notable moments in the history of tattoos. He and his men told tales of people who were tattooed which is thought to have boosted the popularity of tattoos in the western world.
There are tattooed mummies that have been found in China that were revealed to have the physical traits and cultural materials of Western Asia/Indo-Europe dating back between the years of 2100 and 550 BC. The practice was considered barbaric in ancient China, but tattooing remained a part of the culture of the south.
It is thought that ancient Egyptians practiced tattooing from at least as long ago as 2000 BC. The evidence for this comes in the form of iconographic evidence and tattooed human remains, though there is a lack of direct textual evidence.
Tattooing also is practiced in Coptic culture, with their tattoos typically consisting of two elements, three dots, and three lines as symbolic of the Trinity.
It is thought that people have been getting tattoos in Japan back to the Jomon or even the Paleolithic period. Done for decorative or spiritual purposes, this was a widespread practice during various periods for both native Jomon and Yamato groups. There are also texts coming from China before 300 AD that indicate that Japanese people wore tattoos.
Tattooing predates Hispanic colonization of the islands. Some believed that tattoos were a mark of accomplishments and rank, while others thought them to have magical qualities. Spanish explorers first documented Filipino tattooing, but they mistakenly thought that their tattoos had been painted on.
It is thought that prisoners and slaves during the classical era were tattooed in Persia, as it is suggested by the writing of Herodotus. The practice of tattooing then spread from Persia to ancient Greece and next to Rome.
There is a long history of tattooing among Native Americans. It was seen as a process that highlighted connections to society, family, and place while also connection with the worldview and way of knowing of indigenous people.
The origins of tattooing in North America are unknown. However, a frozen, mummified Inuit female was found in Alaska who had tattoos on her skin, serving as the oldest known physical evidence of tattooing on the continent.
Writings from a Spanish expedition in 1515 detail how prisoners from other tribes were found in Panama who had been marked using tattoos. They described the tattoos as having been made by cutting into the faces of the slaves and then filling the wounds with dampened, colored powder.
Looking for inspiration for a central American-style tattoo? Check out these Mexican tattoo designs.
Since ancient times, Yantra tattooing has been common in Thailand. Tai tribes were known to have animistic tattoos, much like other native southeast Asian cultures.
Brahmin priests or Buddhist monks give the Sak Yant traditional tattoo, which usually depict Hindu gods and use one of two scripts that were used during the time of the classical civilizations.
There have been artifacts found in the Solomon Islands that date back 3000 years and are thought to have potentially been used for tattooing humans. Researchers have even gone so far as to duplicate these obsidian pieces and test out whether they would more likely be used for tattooing or for working hides.
Burial mounds on the Ukok plateau revealed tattooed mummies dating all the way back to 500 B.C. Their designs often depicted animals and were designed in a curvilinear style.
The tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, in Samoa is a tradition that has been unbroken for at least two thousand years. The techniques and the tools have hardly changed during this time, and tattoo artists learn the craft from their fathers over a series of years.
Tattoo evolution doesn’t end there, though. While Western tattooing stretches all the way back to ancient Greece, the reasoning behind getting tattoos has changed tremendously.
There is a long history of tattooing in Europe that comes long before the voyages of James Cook to the South Pacific. These included tattoos among pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, tradesmen, and sailors. Tattooing also occurred on Europeans who lived in the New World among Native Americans.
Before the 1860s
A German immigrant named Martin Hildebrandt was the first documented professional tattooer in the U.S. Arriving in Boston in the 1840s, he tattooed both Confederate and Union soldiers at the time of the Civil War. By the late 1880s, tattooing had become a mark of wealth as it was both an expensive and a painful process.
The first electric tattoo machine was patented in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly, which was invented by modifying the electric pen invented by Thomas Edison.
In the late 19th century, tattoos on women emerged in the world of the circus. However, the sideshow industry started to slow around the 1920s.
The Tattoo Renaissance
With the invention of the electric tattoo machine, tattooing has gotten steadily more popular. By 1936, one out of every ten Americans had at least one tattoo. Several artists influenced tattoos in the late 1950s, including Cliff Raven, Lyle Tuttle, and Don Ed Hardy.
Tattooing has become truly mainstream in Western fashion since the 1970s. They can be found on people across economic classes, sexes, and ages from later adolescence to older Americans.
In recent decades, there has been a serious tattoo evolution in the way that society sees them. Once seen as a form of rebellion and deviance, tattoos are now widely viewed as a form of self-expression that is societally acceptable.
In the later part of the 20th century, people who wore tattoos were often members of countercultural movements until it became gradually more accepted by people even in the most mainstream of cultures. Tattooers have transformed into tattoo artists, with people with a fine arts background entering the tattoo profession and working alongside more traditional tattooists during the 1980s.
Tattoos have become more popular in a lot of different parts of the world, including North America, South America, Europe, and Japan. There have also been many advancements in tattoo pigments as well as the equipment. This means that higher-quality tattoos are more accessible for more people.
Tattoos burst onto the pop culture scene during the 2000s, as popular celebrities wore them and a number of TV shows were inspired based around the art of tattooing.
There are a lot of different reasons that people get tattoos these days, with somewhere between 15 and 38% of Americans having some kind of long-term body art.
Tattoo Statistics: How Common Are Tattoos Today?
There are more than 20,000 tattoo parlors in the United States, and the growing trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Some studies find that out of people who have tattoos, 70% of them have at least two tattoos, and 20% of them have more than five tattoos.
Increasingly common among the younger generations, 36% of Americans between 18 and 29 have gotten at least one tattoo if not more. The percentage is significantly less when you look to Americans between the ages of 50 and 64, with only 11% of them having tattoos.
In an amazing pivot away from the western cultural association of tattoos as belonging to rebels, 30% of all of the college graduates in the U.S. also have ink. Interestingly, people who have tattoos reported in a survey that they made them feel sexy (31%), that it made them feel or look rebellious (29%), and that it made them seem intelligent (5%).
The popularity of tattoo styles changes in the same way that fashion trends do. Some popular styles include:
- Traditional style: Known for bright colors, bold lines, and iconic designs like anchors, roses, and the heads of beautiful women
- Realism: Basically like a black and white photograph tattooed on your arm
- Watercolor: Just what it sounds like, these tattoos look watery and pastelly
- Tribal style: This style of tattoo is inspired by the history of indigenous body art from around the world
- New school: Actually not that new, this style became popular in the 80s and 90s
- Neo-traditional style: Features some of the core principles of traditional style with a modern twist
Are you looking for cool tattoo ideas? Check out these bold Egyptian tattoos.
Tattoos: An Ancient Human Practice Still Going Strong
While the reasoning and motivation behind tattooing has evolved over time, humans don’t appear to have lost interest in creating permanent art on their bodies in this way. Used for such a wide variety of purposes throughout history, from a way to display weath and status to a way to punish slaves and prisoners, tattoo history is a truly fascinating topic that deserves to be explored with more depth.
Are you looking for more tattoo ideas? Check out these stylish face tattoo ideas.