Tattoos: A Brief History of the Inky Arts

Sep 21, 2011 by

Tattoos: a mini intro

A History of Tattoos… the Brief Version

Tattooing your skin seems to many to be the latest thing to set yourself apart as different; super trendy and new, it’s still a wildly exotic idea to some people to go out and get inked up.

Funnily enough, though, we know for a fact that tattoos have been a part of human body modification for at least the last 5300 years.

Tattoo lines on the arm of the Tyrolean iceman, Ötzi. (Image: © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology / Eurac / Marco Samadelli / Gregor Staschitz)

…the oldest known tattooed man

We know this because  in 1991, two tourists stumbled across Ötzi the iceman in the Italian alps. Ötzi is the oldest human found so far to have tattoos; he’s been dated at around 3300 BC… that’s some old tattoos! The designs on his skin are varied, but a detailed analysis of his body and the placement of the tattoos suggest they were mainly applied for pain relief.

So, tattooing has certainly been around for a while. It’s all over the world, too- there’s been a rich tradition of tattooing in many cultures; European, Celtic, Roman, Japanese, Persian, Samoan, Chinese, the Americas and many more all show evidence of this history. When did it become popular in the western world?

Well, it pretty much kicked off with 18th century explorers bringing back art on themselves (and occasionally, the poor natives) to English society, where it soon became popular amongst sailors to bring back their own inky souvenirs.

Head and shoulders portrait of a Māori man, with full facial moko. | Source: Alexander Turnbull Library

That’s also where we get the word ‘tattoo’ from; from the Polynesian word “tatau” and the Tahitian word ‘Tatu’.

…tattooing in the modern world

Tattooing enjoyed a low profile in Victorian society; we don’t have a great deal of information about it, apart from the popularity it held amongst sailors. Then in 1892 Samuel O’Reilly reinvented Thomas Edison’s engraving machine (the ‘electric pen’), and tattooing as we know it today was born.

Popularity amongst circus performers in the late 19th and early 20th century helped to spread tattoos in the modern western world, and artists like Sailor Jerry, and later on Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle and Mike Malone bought tattooing into the mainstream.

It has taken a while for tattoos to become accepted art form again, because for a long while they were associated

A woman showing images tattooed or painted on her upper body, 1907. From the National Archives.

with criminals and illegal activity. Gang members and prisoners in jail have been tattooed and branded, either by the authorities or each other for hundreds of years. If you consider that tattooing was illegal in many states of America until recently (Oklahoma was the last to fold, in 2006), it’s not so hard to imagine why many of the older generation still think of tattoos as unsavoury.

Luckily, with shows like LA Ink showing the world that tattoos aren’t necessarily a standard of poor moral character, and with well-known celebrities getting inked up everyday, tattoos are experiencing a world-wide comeback into popular culture. Yay!

Keep an eye out for the next article I’ll be posting, where I’ll guide you through what it’s like to get a tattoo done, from the idea, to the studio, to the tattooist, to the actual tattoo.




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