Tattoos: A Brief History

As many of our readers are likely aware, tattooing is not even a remotely new concept. The act of depositing ink into the skin in intricate designs is something that has been done for many, many years. Tattooing has been practiced across the globe since at least Neolithic times, as evidenced by mummified preserved skin, ancient art, and the archaeological record. Both ancient art and archaeological finds of possible tattoo tools suggest tattooing was practiced by the Upper Paleolithic period in Europe.

However, direct evidence for tattooing on mummified human skin extends only to the 4th millennium BC. In fact, the oldest discovery of tattooed human skin to date is found on the body of “Ötzi the Iceman,” dating to between 3370 and 3100 BC! Other tattooed mummies have been recovered from at least 49 archaeological sites including locations in Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines, and the Andes. These include Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor from ancient Egypt (ca. 2134–1991 BC), multiple mummies from Siberia including the Pazyryk culture of Russia, and from several cultures throughout pre-Columbian South America.

Use of Tattoos in History

Tattoos have always had an important role in ritual and tradition. In Borneo, women tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. Throughout history tattoos have signified membership in a clan or society.

In the west, early British used tattoos in ceremonies. The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests (a tradition still practiced today). In 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattooing, although it still thrived in Britain until the Norman Invasion of 1066, as the Normans disdained tattooing. It disappeared from Western culture from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

Tattoo Reemergence in the Western World

What kept tattooing from becoming more widespread in the West was that it was a slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture of the skin was done by hand and then the ink was applied to the puncture.

In the late 1800s, Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattooing machine based on Thomas Edison’s electric pen, which punctured paper with a needle point. The basic design (with moving coils, a tube, and a needle bar) are the components of today’s tattoo machine and have not changed much over time. Because of this invention, it allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced, and readily available tattoo—giving tattooing the ability to return to the mainstream.

Welcome to the Freak Show

By the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of towns, among the brothels and gambling rings. Heavily tattooed people traveled with circuses within the Freak Shows—“The Amazing Painted Lady” and “The Painted Man” were not unheard of within the walls of the tents.

Important Influences

In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing began to change and much of the credit can be given to Lyle Tuttle. He was a handsome, charming, and knowledgeable man who hooked the media and helped reshape the world’s opinion of tattoos. There was also a man named Norman Collins, more popularly known as “Sailor Jerry,”—his work is so engrained in society that everyone has seen or at least knows of it (although they may not necessarily attribute the images to him).

There was also Eddie Funk, known as Crazy Philadelphia Eddie and the Grandfather of Modern Tattooing. He is known for creating the first tattooing convention, as well as being the creator of the first tattoo supply company after he moved to Philadelphia.

Tattoos Today and in the Future

Today, tattoos have regained their popularity and are becoming extremely socially acceptable. Society has come around from thinking only the seediest of the underbelly would have tattoos to famous figures proudly showing them off. Our celebrities are tattooed, our political leaders, and even our militaries have changed their regulations to allow for tattoos.

The future only brings more promise for tattoos—with new technology and new discovers in how our bodies heal there is only positives on the horizon. Society is becoming more and more accepting of tattoos as an art form, giving more and more opportunities for incredible artists to join the community.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey


(Credit to Wikipedia for the partial write-up of this blog)