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Tattoos: The Complete Evolutionary History

Tattoos: The Complete Evolutionary History
24 Dec, 2021

Tattoos: The Complete Evolutionary History

A Brief Historical Look At Early Tattoos

If you have a tattoo, you are part of an 8,000-year-old tradition. Otzi the Iceman who died around 3250 BC and was found a frozen mommy in the Otxal Alps holds the record for the oldest body art. When historians studied his body, they found that he had over 61 tattoos, most of them along his spine, behind his knee, and around his ankle. Experts believe these tattoos were created with soot or fireplace ash.

Mommies from the ancient worlds of Egypt with evidence of ink attest to the universe that the history of tattoos stretches back to at least 8000 years. Between dots, lines, and other shapes, the purposes and meanings of those tattoos are not well known but make it clear that we definitely have some commonalities with our ancient ancestors.

Tattoos don’t have one historical origin point we know of. The word is an Anglophonic modification of “tatao” or “tatau”, a Polynesian word used in Tahiti meaning “to tap or mark something”. The word was brought to Egland by captain James Cook after he landed there in 1769 and encountered heavily tattooed men and women.


Practices Of Ancient Tattooing

Tattoos might seem as if they have no history since we tend to think of them as something that has been invented in the modern era but that’s not the case as many tattoos date back from ancient traditions and cultures.



In India, tattoos have been used as a sign of jewelry to beautify the body or to uglify it. In some Indian tribes, where stealing women was a common occurrence, young girls were tattooed to make them unappealing to the rival tribes of the neighboring districts. The tattoo process involved a painful procedure and the tattooed area was often infected. Tattoos also helped in indicating marital status, establishing tribal identity in the region, and enabling recognition after tribal conflictions and death. The Indian government banned those practices in the 1970s.

In Southern India, permanent tattoos were very common as a sign of strength and courage because of the pain associated with the tattooing process. Women of the tribe of Orissa inked themselves to ensure they recognize each other in the afterlife, once they enter the spirit world. Today Henna tattoos, which are very popular in the Indian culture, replace ink tattoos and are used as a beauty enhancer.



Historically, tattoos in China have always been a stigmatized practice associated with criminal acts. If you committed a serious crime, your face would be tattooed and you’d be sent into exile, and even if you make it back, people would still identify you as a criminal and you will not be trusted. Tattoos are then used to punish prisoners. Nowadays, tattoos have gained popularity with the Hong Kong gangsters.


Ancient Egypt

Despite the lack of evidence, experts believe tattooing was primarily a procedure for women in ancient Egypt. This is due to the presence of hardly any tattoos on ancient Egyptian male bodies. Some experts have suggested that the tattoos were used for medical practices to soothe pain during pregnancies. This view is supported, for instance, by the fact that small figures of the god who was regarded as the protector of women in labor have been found on the top of the mummies’ thighs and abdomens.


Ancient Greek And Rome

Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans used tattooing in the cruelest sense of the word. Slaves were tattooed to make them easily identifiable if they tried to escape. Tattoos were regarded as a mark of shame and punishment.


Tattoos In The Dawn Of The 20th Century

At the dawn of the 20th century, tattoos were popular among those societies considered unsavory - sailors, circus freaks, etc. Sailors used tattoos as a way to document their travels, popularizing marine tattoos like anchors. There was such a taboo against tattoos that people paid to see circus freaks displaying them at sideshows.

As the world enters World War II, tattoos enjoyed a huge patriotic boom. Navy and Army men who went to war often got patriotic tattoos to commemorate their group. Women back home also started getting tattoos to show their support for the war effort. Then the Nazis added a whole other terrible level to tattooing. In concentration camps, the Nazis forcibly inked identifications numbers on the prisoners.

Tattoos were uncommon because they were done with the stick-and-poke method and did hurt a lot. However, things changed with the invention of the coil and the tube machine, and getting a tattoo became less painful. Tattoos were no longer just for freaks.  More people began to see them as a beautiful art form. Sailor Jerry’s tattoos proliferated during this time. Simple, two-dimensional, colorful designs like a heart drawn around the word Mom, hula girls, pinup girls, and palm trees dominated.

After the year 1960, it was also women who were getting into the tattoo trend. The peace and love signs were popular and reflected the rebellious spirit of women to serve causes such as “no war”, “gay power”, and “black power”. Tattoos were also embraced as a good alternative to regular makeup, as makeup was so expensive that many women would get their eyebrow and lip lining done but also to transform their mastectomy scars into works of art.


Tattoos Since 2000

In the 2000s, tattoos finally broke into the mainstream. Thanks to reality TV shows, tattoos are encouraged as a form of self-expression. It was during this time that stigmas against tattoos went down, encouraging more and more people to get inked all over the place. The disreputable tattoo shop ceased to exist. Sanitation had improved greatly, and it was perfectly safe to get a tattoo. In response to workplace policies that relaxed regarding visible tattoos, more and more people got tattooed. It was evident that those who had tattoos were just as professional and regular as anyone else. Many different styles emerged as well, including watercolor tattoos that brought new depths of color to tattoos and created beautiful delicate designs for many people's skins.


The Future Of Tattoos: What’s Next?

3D? Invisible? Glow-in-the-dark? Functional tattoos as bio-sensors and digital data-transmitters? Ink that can conduct electricity? The future of tattoos has a lot of promises to offer and super-powered tattoos are coming sooner than we think.

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