A Brief History of Tattooing

Tattoos have been around for a long time. Since the Neolithic era, to be exact.

Mummified, preserved skin from this time (10,000 BC) in history have been discovered to confirm that the ancient techniques of tattoos have been used frequently as body art for longer than most people would think.

There are however huge differences when comparing the history and culture of tattoos around the world.

• Some cultures used tattoos to punish people by marking them for life, other cultures used tattoos to honour one’s family and ancestors.
• Some cultures even preserved severed tattooed heads of tribe members to honour them, while also saving the preserved heads of enemies to be able to mock them.

Egyptian Tattoos

The Egyptian tattoos were mainly used by women with the purpose of indicating their status.

Tattoos could also be used as a type of punishment, making it impossible to hide the sins that one had committed. There are claims that the Egyptian also used “medical tattoos”, which I believe could have been an early version of acupuncture.

Acupuncture was however invented in China around year 100 BC. There is a notable similarity between the Chinese and Egyptian tattoos since both cultures used tattoos to punish prisoners/thieves/etc.

Japanese Tattoos

Japanese Tattoo

The Japanese people have had a very mixed view on tattoos throughout history. The Japanese tattoos were one of the first tattoos in the world.

Tattoos could, just like in China and Egypt, indicate punishments but they could many times be marks of honour.

Samurais would resort to tattooing themselves after 1873, when Emperor Meiji removed the Samurais’ rights to wear a katana in public.

After Samurais were stripped of their armour and weapons, they resorted to tattoos as replacements of their previously used wooden armour.

Tattoos were frowned upon after the shift in power from local tributes to a new Emperor, which resulted in samurais being forced to hide from the public.

While being forced to hide, Yakuza was formed to unify the samurais. The fact that tattooed people had to hide, has turned Yakuza to a completely different organisation than what it originally was.

The Japanese tattoos are known world-wide and the Japanese style (koi fishes, samurais, lotus flowers and other Japanese themes) is still being used in basically every country and is a popular style to combine with other tattoo styles such as surrealism and neo-traditional styles.

Samoan Tatau

Samoan Tattoo

The word “tattoo” itself comes from Samoan culture, originating from the word “tatau”.

The Samoan people have been using the same tattooing techniques for over 2000 years and the same tools are still being used whenever a young Samoan is ready for his/her first tattoos.

The Samoan tattoo is ancient and the concept of the tattoos are actually more similar to our western perception of tattoos – to honour the person wearing the tattoo rather than a punishment.

Leaving a tattoo session would not only result in ugly/unfinished body art, but also in permanent shame for one’s family. Due to the social status that came with tattoos, close to none chose to leave a tattoo session before the piece was completed.

Samoans had clear differences between male and female tattoos, the male tattoos are called “pe’a” while the female tattoos are referred to as “malu”.

Tattoos were and are still of high significance in the Samoan culture and they still use sharpened boar teeth that are attached to a turtle shell and a piece of wood.

Maori Tattoos

Tattoo on a Maori Chief

The Maori people have been tattooing themselves for an unknown period of time, although it is known that the Maoris have been tattooing both body and head for a long time throughout history.

The tattoo style used in their tribes is called “Ta moko” and involved unique facial tattoos which would define the background of each Maori.

The Maori people are well known for their tattoos but also for how big they tend to grow, as we can see in New Zealand’s rugby teams nowadays.

The “ta moko” tattoo style did however fade out of the culture eventually as Europeans would start to collect “Mokomokai” (tattooed heads that were separated from the body and preserved in shark oil).

This phenomenon (collecting Mokomokais) was originally only used between Maoris, to honour one’s family or to dishonour an enemy. The preserved heads was a new concept for the Europeans who eventually adopted the phenomenon of stealing Mokomokais from their enemies, most times in order to sell the heads back in Europe.

Tattoos in Europe

The oldest proof of tattoos in Europe, was found on the body of a frozen man that got naturally preserved by the ice.

He is also known as Ötzi the Iceman, it was discovered that Ötzi had 61 tattoos spread out over his body. Different theories have been proposed by various people regarding the reason of his tattoos. Some claims that they were medical tattoos but there is no actual proof to back any theory up properly.

The Rus’ people has been depicted as being tattooed from neck to toes, although the oldest confirming texts are from the early 10th century.

Julius Caesar on the other hand wrote about the Picts, a people in the northern/eastern parts of Scotland. Caesar wrote about the dark blue/black colours that he had seen in what came to be Scotland in modern times.