Tattoo a history

Welcome to our section on the history of tattooing, here we have collected items we believe to be of interest and explanations on how tattoos have got to where they are today, you maybe be surprised how many times it’s opinions, styles and motivations have changed over the years. Tattoos have graced the human body since time immemorial.

History of the word Tattoo

The actual word Tattoo will probably always be debated. Some say the word ‘tattoo’ is derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’, meaning to mark. Also the similar word ‘tattaw’ first used in 1769 in accounts of Captain Cook’s first voyage on his observations Tahitian natives. Captain Cook can be accredited with bringing tribal style tattoos for the first time to our shores, most of his crew were amazed by the solid black artwork from places they visited, so different from anything we had seen before and so had them done on themselves. In Polynesia ‘ta’ means to strike, and England tattoo was used to describe the beating of military drums. As both the words mark the action of striking or beating, over the years they might, and most likely have been rolled into one.

History of the Tattoo machine

Many people can be thanked for today’s design, but we will start with Thomas Edison, one of Americas greatest inventors. In 1876 He fashioned a device to puncture holes in paper or cloth, called ‘The Electric Pen’ for the purpose of duplication. Samuel O’Reilly later saw the potential of the device for putting ink into the skin, in 1891 he filed the patent, and it became the first official Tattoo Machine. Later he devised the ink and tube components as a reservoir for the ink, the design has not changed much. Now we will have a look through time at the culture of tattoos and how it has evolved from the dawn of time to the present day.

Prehistoric 10,000 BC- 4000 BC

Although today the only early conclusive evidence of a tattooed body is 5300 years old, there is evidence to suggest we have been creating them for over 12000 years. In Chatelperron, France, bowls with black and red pigment traces and sharpened pieces of flint were found, with similar finds in Scandinavia and Portugal. This coupled with prehistoric paintings of people with lines on their faces and bodies suggest that these people were tattooed. Although circumstantial, little more evidence is needed. We have always used tattoos to symbolise wealth and status, protect us from evil and disease, cure ailments and get closer to our gods. Otzi the Iceman is the proud owner of the world’s oldest recorded tattoo at 5200 years old. Discovered on Otztal Alps in Europe, by a couple of lucky German backpackers he has over 50 tattoos consisting of parallel and intersecting lines. Bizarrely believed to be an early pain killer, many of the Tattoos were over arthritic joints, his lower back, back knee and ankle, All these places showed signs of serious wear and tear. They were most likely incisions created so medicinal herbs could be tattooed into the skin. These places would be hidden by clothing, proving they were not for show. This dramatically changes through history, as we will see the Scythians, who appear in Russia in the 8th/7th Century BC all appear to of had their tattoos for show.

Bronze/Iron Age 3000 BC – 400 AD

Many of the tribes of the Scythian culture such as the Dacians, Thracians, Illyrians and Pazyryk all tattooed themselves. Their cultures were centred on horses, which made their cultures powerful and gave them the ability to see more of the world than most at that time, and it is possible they spread the art of tattooing further. Tattoos were very much a status symbol amongst them and were only available to certain people. Using Wood ash as their colorants of choice, they favoured Siberian style animal artwork. One Pazyryk chieftain was found to have a full body suit. As well as many animals covering his body, there were circles placed along his spine, again as we found with Otzi seemingly for a more therapeutic reason. He was found with a young maiden that also had many intricate tattoos, one large piece was of a horned creatures becoming flowers. They had tattoos so similar they are assumed to be by the same artist. Much is still kept secret about this couple as their ownership is argued over by the local regional governments. Another interesting find was of two warriors, a male and a female, Their Tattoos were so amazingly intricate and beautiful, Europe has only recently been able to match the quality of the work. Their arms, legs and shoulders were covered in fantastical animal motifs.

Ancient Egyptians

In Egypt tattoos were equally common, but revered and known examples were used in ritualistic purposes. For example the Priestess Amunet who lived around 2160BC -1994BC was discovered at Thebes. She displayed several lines and dots tattooed in various places, perfectly aligned with geometric patterns. These were restricted to women only. Unfortunately this was often covered up or ignored by archaeologists due to the social stigma at the time of the discoveries. Today however, we know that there have been Tattooed bodies recovered dating as early as the XI dynasty.

Ancient Britons

We do not know much about the meaning of British tattoos but according to Roman eye witness accounts the Picts and Scots of Caledonia who regularly terrorized the garrisons posted along Hadrian’s Wall had a practice where some choose to fight naked without armour to display their fearlessness and so made it possible for the Romans to observe most had extensive animal, plant and organic style patterns covering g their bodies which were taken to be tattoos. In the “De Bello Gallico”, Caesar gives explanation writing: “…All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, a plant which produces a dark blue pigment.” In 200 AD, Herod of Antioch wrote: “the Britons incise on their bodies coloured pictures of animals, of which they are very proud ” In 700 AD St. Isadore of Seville makes reference that: “The Scots derive their name in their own tongue from their painted bodies, because they are marked with various designs by being pricked with iron needles with ink on them and the Picts (The word originates from ‘Priteni,’ a Brythonic word meaning ‘people of the signs,’) are also thus named because of the absurd marks produced on their bodies by craftsmen with tiny needles and juice extracted from local grasses.” Archaeologists have been divided ever since by these written accounts whether they refer to the practice of tattooing or painting woad onto the skin. However all agree the most likely meaning for the practice would be to donate rank, group affiliation and occupation. Charles Thomas, in his book in Celtic Art of 1986 writes: “All Britons dye their bodies with a pigment extracted from a plant , Isatis Tintoria, which produces a blue colour and gives the wearer a more terrifying appearance in battle. In Scotland tattooing may have been a pre-Brythonic, pre-Iron Age inheritance”.

The Romans

Of course this is where it started to go downhill for Tattoos. They were greatly favoured and well used, but this is also the first time in history that Tattoos were used not for decoration or health but as punishment, or marking of a criminal, essentially to be branded like this was a life sentence. Luckily for the criminals and Slaves Emperor Constantine banned facial tattooing in 325AD, reasoning we were mutilating the image of God. So a new attitude was born, the need to remove tattoos. Concoctions to remove the tattoos were often lethal, which shows how desperate people were to have them gone. Roman soldiers would be tattooed on their right wrist and left forearm to signify the rank, legion to which they were affiliated, and date of enlistment. This mark had to be earned though, through gruelling testing to make sure they were the right stuff. This created a sense of unity, as well as a handy administration tool for keeping record. Tattoos had also been used to smuggle messages. Histiaeus of Miletus, who was being held prisoner by King Darius of Susa in 5th Century BC. Tattooed a slave’s head with a message the slave believed would cure his failing eyesight. once the hair had sufficiently grown back he was sent across enemy lines to his Son in Law, once shaved a message revealed instructions to start a rebellion. Genius! 6th Century Roman doctor Aetius was good enough to document the Roman technique for tattooing, which included first washing the area in leek juice which contains known antiseptic properties. Aetius even noted the formula for the tattoo pigment used, a combination of Egyptian pine wood, corroded bronze, gall and vitriol with more leek juice. The design was pricked into the skin with pointed needles until blood was drawn and then ink rubbed on.


Ahmad ibn Fadlan was a 10th century Arabian traveller famed for accounts of those travels. A substantial amount of his text is dedicated to the people he called the Rus which are possibly the best written accounts of the Vikings and their customs and appearance. The Rus appear as traders who set up shop on the river banks nearby the BolÄŸar camp. They are described as having bodies tall as palm-trees, with fair hair and ruddy skin. They are tattooed from “fingernails to neck” with dark blue or dark green “tree patterns” and other “figures” and referring to the designs he calls them “trees”, but it is most likely that he is really describing the knotwork patterns that were so common in northern art at the time.


In the following Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD) tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol. Until the Edo period (1600 BC 1868 AD) the role of tattoos in Japanese society fluctuated. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos some featuring designs that would be completed only when lovers’ hands were joined also came and went. It was in the Edo period; however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form it is known as today. The popular Chinese novel Suikoden, a tale of rebel courage and manly bravery illustrated with lavish woodblock prints showing men in heroic scenes, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ferocious tigers and religious images. The novel was an immediate success, and demand for the type of tattoos seen in its illustrations was simultaneous. Woodblock artists began tattooing. They used many of the same tools for imprinting designs in human flesh as they did to create their woodblock prints, including chisels, gouges and, most importantly, unique ink known as Nara ink, or Nara black, the ink that famously turns blue-green under the skin. There is academic debate over who wore these elaborate tattoos. Some scholars say that it was the lower classes that wore and flaunted such tattoos. Others claim that wealthy merchants, barred by law from flaunting their wealth, wore expensive irezumi under their clothes. It is known for certain that irezumi became associated with firemen, dashing figures of bravery and roguish sex-appeal who wore them as a form of spiritual protection (and, no doubt, for their beauty as well).

Middle/Medieval Ages 476 AD -1485

After the banning by the Emperor Constantine tattoos continued to be popular. Christians would still adorn their bodies with symbols and the cross. It was common for slaves to obtain a crucifix back piece to save themselves a whipping, they believed that no good Christian would beat the symbol of Christ for fear of reprisals, no matter how cruel they may otherwise be. Further In AD 787, a council of churches meeting in Calcuth, Northumberland, renounced all forms of tattooing and sealed the fate of the practice in the eyes of the Christian church once and for all (although, not to be beaten so easily it continued anyway). King Harold, said to be the last English king died in 1066 at the hands of William the Conqueror, he was only identified by the tattoo he had of his wife’s name Edith on his arm and England written over his heart. Later in 1096, at the time of the crusades all Christians tattooed themselves as identification, so should they die they were more likely to get a appropriate burial. Richard I the Lionheart had many tattoos recording his journey during the 3rd Crusade. Many more followed in his footsteps on pilgrimages to get identical tattoos from the same tattoo artist in France.

17th Century
Nautical Tattoos

Sailors revived the art and practice of tattooing when they visited the islands of Polynesia in the South Pacific and other lands in Southeast Asia. Captain Cook in his famous explorations to Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand was the first to record the tattooing of the indigenous people in 1786. When the sailors returned to Europe with tattoos that were essentially exotic souvenirs of their travels and adventures, European audiences were fascinated. Life at sea was hard and only the toughest men survived. Sailors, being at the mercy of the elements, and the very capriciousness of Mother Nature, they were a very superstitious lot. It did not take long for them to build up an extraordinarily elaborate set of tattoo symbols that spoke a language all of their own. Tattoos were used to tell the story of where a sailor had travelled, if he had been around the Cape Horn or crossed the Equator, if he had visited the Orient. Many of the tattoos were also amulets and talismans of protection to keep them from drowning or other such accidents. From tattooing the words on their knuckles, to numerous tattoo designs and symbols like the Nautical Star that was meant to keep them safe and guide them safely back to their home port. Many sailors used to tattoo images of their full-rigged ships on their bodies, often taking up large spaces on their chest, backs and arms to pay respects to their homes upon the waves. Often despite their often raucous and rowdy lifestyle, many sailors would have religious images and icons tattooed upon their backs, sometimes even full Psalms or the Lord’s Prayer. Part of this was to remind themselves to be virtuous, but it was also believed that you were less likely to be as severely flogged if you got twenty lashes across your back for misbehaving. Of course many sailors at sea often thought of their families and the girls they had left behind in port, whether it was one port or two ports or even more! Mermaids and pin-up girls, hearts and the names of loved ones were always popular with sailors because of this.

South America

In the 17th century, Spanish and French explorers started to record some of the Native American tattooing. According to the records, the tattoos were of both religious and magical images. Tattoos symbolized many different things to the natives. They could symbolize adulthood, spirit guides for the afterlife, a type of skill, and how honrable they were. To celebrate a child’s steps into adulthood, the natives have ceremonies where the child was tattooed to symbolize that he was now a grown man. The natives would tattoo people with spirits or other magical and religious images on their bodies because they believe the deceased needed spirits to guide them to their afterlife for safety and happiness. The natives would also tattoo different warriors for their accomplishments in wars and their rank within their military establishments. Men and women that had certain skills were tattooed as well. “If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased.” Many Native American tribes used tattooing for therapeutic reasons as well. For example, “the tribes would tattoo temples and foreheads to relieve the headaches,” or “tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness.” Finally, tattoos have always symbolized different clans and societies. That is no different in South America. Different tribes would tattoo themselves to separate them from other tribes.


19th/20th Centuries
Reintroduction in the Western world

King George V had himself inked with the ‘Cross of Jerusalem’ when he travelled to the Middle East in 1892. During a visit to Japan he also received a dragon on the forearm from the needles of Hori Chiyo, an acclaimed tattoo master. George’s sons, the Dukes of Clarence and York were also tattooed in Japan while serving in the British Admiralty, solidifying what would become a family tradition. Taking their sartorial lead from the British Court, where Edward VII followed George V’s lead in getting tattooed; King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, all sported tattoos, many of them elaborate and ornate renditions of the Royal Coat of Arms or the Royal Family Crest. King Alfonso XIII of modern Spain also had a tattoo. Tattooing spread among the upper classes all over Europe in the 19th century, but particularly in Britain where it was estimated in Harmsworth Magazine in 1898 that as many as one in five members of the gentry were tattooed. There, it was not uncommon for members of the social elite to gather in the drawing rooms and libraries of the great country estate homes after dinner and partially disrobe in order to show off their tattoos. Aside from her consort Prince Albert, there are persistent rumours that Queen Victoria had a small tattoo in an undisclosed ‘intimate’ location; Denmark’s King Frederick was filmed showing his tattoos taken as a young sailor. Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had a tattoo of a snake around her wrist, which she covered when the need arose with a specially crafted diamond bracelet. Carrying on the family tradition, Winston Churchill had an anchor tattooed on his forearm.

Today, around the world

If we have a look at the world today and the cultures that still practice ritual tattooing we will see the intense beliefs and the important role tattoos play in those societies.


Many cultures regard tattoos as protective amulets, and such magical applications are closely linked to religious beliefs. Ainu women in Japan, for instance, tattoo themselves with images of their Goddess, which is able to repel evil spirits and thus protect from disease. Aborigines in Australia believe tattoos on their arms allow them to dodge boomerangs. It is a method which allows not only the display of beliefs and religion but also a mythical empowering of the wearer. In Burma the process of tattooing mixed with ritual prayer has kept the Buddhist Snake charmers protected from snake bites for centuries. Weekly ceremonies are conducted when black ink with cobra venom is mixed for tattoos on the upper body and viper venom for the lower body. No member has ever been killed by a snake and soldiers in Burma tattoo their thighs to be invulnerable in war. Cambodian men cover themselves in tattoos to make themselves impervious to harm, even from bullets, which is doubtful scientifically but makes sense when you look at it purely for the psychological benefits.


In some regions like the South East Asia and South Pacific, tattooing is done for health purposes as well. Health tattoos are common in Tibet, where people tattoo their bodies with sacred mantras, mantra wheels and mantra flags. The Tibetans believe that tattoos help the tattoo wearer to achieve inner as well as outer balance and harmony. It is interesting to note that the Tibetans also tattoo on certain acupuncture points and mix certain medicinal herbs in the dyes, to acquire certain medical effects. Another common practice in tattooing for health purposes is having tattoos of gods on the distressed person so that the person recovers by that particular deity’s blessings. In India tattooing for health purposes is very popular since the earliest records. We often see the tattoo of lord Hanuman and Shiva tattooed on the bodies of a number of persons. Another interesting example of tattooing for health purposes and well being is of Ainu women tattooing themselves to look like goddesses so that the evil forces of disease would mistake them for goddesses and run away.


Tattoos allow instant identification of the person who displays them buy another group or by their own peers. This has been used by warrior peoples and tribes since the beginning of time however this reason for tattooing more than any other has been adopted in the 21st century by the criminal underworld and examples can be found practically in every country from the Yakuza in Japan (who secretly hide their tattoos away) to the South American Diablo gangs (who display them openly on their faces). In Russia criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too for example Stars worn on the knees signifies that the owner will kneel before no man, or no one, and Stars worn on the shoulders Signifies that the owner is a man of discipline, status, and tradition. Men will also receive stars when promoted.


In many parts of the world people also take the recourse of tattooing to preserve their culture and religious beliefs. Such tattooing rituals are performed by Maori girls, who tattoo their lips and chin. The Hawaiians are prominent among peoples who have specific tattoo Gods. Like Native American spirit guides, the ‘aumakua can take the form of animals, inanimate objects or even natural phenomena, like lightning and thunder. Many Hawaiians adorn themselves with special tattoos honouring their ‘aumakua. A tattooed row of dots around the ankle, for example, is considered a charm against sharks thanks to an ancient story in which a woman swimming in the ocean was bitten by a shark, her ‘aumakua sent a physical shock through the shark when the woman cried out, the shark let go, saying “I will not make that mistake again, for I see the marks on your ankle.” In Hawaii, the images of the tattoo Gods are kept in the places of tattoo priests. Each tattoo session begins with a prayer to the tattoo Gods that the operation might not cause harm, that the wounds might heal soon and that the designs might be handsome. Like most of the Pacific Islands, Samoa also has a rich tattoo tradition. “In ancient Samoa, tattooing played an important role in both religious ritual and warfare,” writes Gilbert. “The tattoo artist held a hereditary and privileged position. He customarily tattooed young men in groups of six to eight, during a ceremony attended by friends and relatives who participated in special prayers and celebrations associated with the tattooing ritual.”


From reading about the history of the cultures that practiced tattooing, to the cultures and people who still practice it today; one thing is apparent. That is it has a deep felt meaning to the individual who has the tattoo. In the 21st century the world no longer needs to be explored as it did in the 17th century when the European sailors returned with exotic tattoos never seen before, with the invention of the internet we are able to choose from a truly global choice of designs and styles however we as individuals should choose a design that is important to ourselves not for something as fleeting as fashion or celebrity worship.