History of Tattoos

Written by: Jason White

Tattoos have been a part of human culture since ancient times. But tattoos weren’t always permanent, and they didn’t start out as an expression of someone’s individuality or style.

In fact, the word tattoo actually comes from the Tahitian word “tatau” which means “to mark something”. That makes sense when you think about how it got its name – because, in those days, people used to get tattoos by using things like sharpened sticks and pieces of bone dipped into soot or ash that would leave behind a black powdery residue on their skin. The designs were often tribal symbols representing family lineage and social status – but over time, other meanings became associated with them too: protection against evil spirits, identification for sailors who had lost their papers, and simply as a means of self-expression.

First Tattoos Ever

Tattooing has been practiced for thousands of years by many cultures around the world. The most ancient tattoos date back to the Eneolithic period. Otzi (Ötzi) is an ice mummy that was discovered in September 1991. Otzi had a lot of tattoos – 61, all in the form of lines and crosses. Instead of using a needle, they were made by making thin incisions into which soot was then rubbed. The tattoos were made on the chest, lower back, wrist, knee, calves, and ankles, that is, in those places that are usually covered by clothing. So, researchers have hypothesized that they were made therapeutically. Subsequently, researchers also noted that the tattoos were located close to acupuncture points.

While the tattoos discovered on Otzi may be evidence of humanity’s first-ever body modifications, other eras and periods throughout history have revealed a long and illustrious history of tattooing. There is evidence from more than 49 different locations around the world where tattooed mummies and remains have been discovered.

To date, there is evidence of tattoos in ancient Egypt from as early as 5,000 years ago. In 2018, scientists identified tattoos on mummies from ancient Egypt. One of the important discoveries of this study was that tattoos were found not only on women’s bodies (previously it was thought that only women in Egypt had tattoos) but also on men’s bodies. Although it is accepted that in ancient times only the simplest drawings on the bodies were made, in addition, more complex forms and drawings, such as rams or bulls, were also found.

Markings on other ancient Egyptian mummies show that they were tattooed all over their bodies with what seems to be markings for medical purposes (by Daniel Fouquet’s research). The marks could be used by doctors to determine where injuries or illnesses occurred by keeping track of what area was tattooed and what happened to that area.

The Ainu people in Japan were one of the first documented cultures to practice tattooing. They created tattoos by hand using sharpened sticks or animal bones to pierce the skin and absorb ink under the skin. Ainu men were usually covered head to toe in tattoos, which served as identification. The ancient Greeks and Romans used tattoos as a form of punishment for criminals, who were often marked with the letters “FUG” on their foreheads in order to be banned from society.

During the Middle Ages and throughout most of the 20th century, people who were unable to read would get tattoos as a way for them to identify their faith and where they stood in society. They often had religious symbols such as crucifixes or were marked with phrases like “For my brothers” as a sign that they belonged to a specific group.


A significant contribution to the art of tattooing was made by the Japanese. Particularly in Japan, American sailors had spotted Japanese tattoos in the mid-19th century. Many workers walked around with exposed body parts, and as a result, the tattoos were clearly visible. The drawings impressed the Americans. This is how Japanese tattoos spread beyond the borders of Japan. Where, in turn, later in 1872 introduced a ban on tattoos, which lasted until 1948. After the resumption of the tattoo tradition in Japan, it came to be considered an attribute of the Yakuza and became associated mainly with the mafia.


Tattooing was introduced to the United States when sailors would return home with tattoos they had gotten while at sea. Americans, inspired by Japanese tattooing, began to spread the phenomenon in America. American tattoo artists even entered into correspondence with the Japanese, exchanging techniques and ideas. So gradually America formed its own style, which today has the name of Old School. These are tattoos with a bright clear outline and colored fillings. After all, the trend of using colored pigments in tattooing spread from Japan; before that, all over the world except Japan, tattoos were mostly black and white. At first, they began to use red, blue, green, and yellow (by the way, typical colors for Old School Tattooing). But later, in the 20th century, the palette was constantly expanding.

In 1891, the American Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine that replaced all kinds of homemade tools and devices. The new machine worked at a high speed for its time. It made several punctures per second, which thrilled the artist and inventor. The first customers did not have to wait long. The public was delighted with the drawings made by the master, and O’Reilly’s patented invention began to spread among tattoo artists and began to gain popularity.

O’Reilly’s cause was continued by other tattoo artists even after his death. Percy Waters was the first who put the business on stream and created many models of tattoo machines.

Tattoos then became associated with bikers and gang members in prison, who were marked by their peers to ensure protection or indicate gang affiliation. But it wasn’t until World War I that tattoos became popularized as markers of individuality and style.

Tattoos were considered fashionable in the 1920s, but this changed during the Great Depression when people who had them were accused of not wanting to work. Professional athletes like boxers and wrestlers used tattoos for identification purposes because there weren’t uniform requirements until recently – now they are against some sports associations’ rules. Tattoos became popular with average citizens again after World War II, when soldiers began returning home with tattoos they had received in the army and navy. People who had them were considered to be brave and patriotic.

Even though tattooing became more popular during this time, it still carried a lot of stigmas: people who had tattoos were considered to be rebellious.


Only in the early 50s did tattooing say goodbye to the grim patina of its historical legacy. The burst of youth culture of the 50s and 60s spawned a new generation of tattoo artists whose creative ambitions and experiments elevated the tattoo to the status of art. They widely borrowed traditional images from other cultures – the Far East, Polynesia, the American Indians. This gave rise to rich trends and styles. The search for new means of expression and a new view of personal freedom was characteristic of that time. The first tattoo convention was held in Bristol (UK) in 1950. Since then, the tattoo movement has advanced so far that at least five local conventions are held each month around the world.

Final Words

Today tattoos have become one of the most popular methods of self-expression in America and all over the world. The symbols and designs used for tattoos today are just as varied as they’ve ever been – depending on your personal interests, you can get any kind of tattoo that reflects who you are as a person.

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