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The History and Origin of Tattoos


The history of tattoos is a long one, originating long before recorded history. The word tattoo originally comes from the Tahitian word “tatu”, meaning “to mark something”. The Polynesian word “tatao”, which means “to tap”, may have also played a role in the word tattoo coming into our language. The reasons for tattooing vary depending on the culture and the period of time for that culture. However, there are commonalities between the earliest tattooing and those being done today.

The History of Tattoos - Otzi
Otzi the Iceman

Tattooing is a practice that has been around since the Neolithic times, almost 5500 years ago, and possibly even earlier. How do we know this? On September 19, 1991, a mummy was found by two German tourists in the Otzal Alps, near Hauslabjoch, which is on the border between Austria and Italy. This mummy was named Otzi the Iceman and is also called Similaun Man. The cool thing about this mummy was that because he was frozen shortly after his death, even though he died in approximately 3300BC, he was fairly well preserved. Upon examining the body, he was found to have about 57 carbon tattoos. These were just simple dots down is lower spine, behind is left knee, and on his right ankle. This proved that tattooing was a practice humans had been doing for at least 5500 years!

The earliest recorded history of tattoos comes from ancient Egypt. Wall paintings inside the periods older than 2000BC have shown that the use of tattoos where a part of ancient Egyptian life. As the Egyptian culture spread, so did the art of tattooing. Civilizations such as Persia, Arabia, Crete, Greece, and China pickup up the art of tattooing and further expanded it.

The Greeks were known to use tattooing as a form of communication and identification amongst spies. These markings also showed their rank. Criminals and slaves were marked for identification purposes during the Roman Empire. In western Asia, tattoos were used to show social status. Tattoos caught on in Japan where they were used in religious ceremonies. Women were the tattooists in Borneo, as it became a tradition. These women created designs that showed a person’s position in the society and which tribe they were a member of.

In the west, tattoos were also flourishing. The Norse, Danes, and Saxons would tattoo their family crests on themselves, a practice that is still ongoing today. In the year 787 AD, tattooing was banned by Pope Hadrian. However, tattooing still was popular until the Normans Invaded in 1066. The Normans did not like the practice of tattooing. Tattoos pretty much disappeared from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

The Origins of Tattooing
Prince Giolo, the Painted Prince

In 1691, William Dampier, a sailor who traveled the South Seas, brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo to London. He was put on exhibition around London and became known as the Painted Prince. It had been 600 years since anyone in Europe had seen a tattoo, and the Painted Prince became all the rage.

However, it was not until the late 1700s when Captain James Cook brought another tattooed Polynesian named Omai back to London that the art of tattooing returned to the west. Omai became a great attraction in London, and soon the upper class were getting small tattoos in places that others wouldn’t be able to see. Cook and his men would tell tales of the “tattooed savages” they had encountered. They used this term taken from the Tahitian word tatau, and such the word ‘tattoo’ was introduced into the English language. Because the process of tattooing was painstakingly slow, tattoos did not become that widespread in Europe. Each puncture of the skin had to be done by hand, apply the ink.

Then, in 1891, an American named Samuel O’Reilly invented that first electronic tattoo machine, based upon Thomas Edison’s design for the Autographic Printing Pen, which punctured paper with a needle. The basic design of moving coils, a tube and a needle bar are still components of modern tattoo guns.

Early Tattoo Machine
An early electric tattoo machine

Because the electric tattoo machine made it possible for almost anyone to get a reasonably priced tattoo, the average person began getting tattoos. This gave birth to a whole new era in tattooing in which people started getting tattoos on various parts of their bodies. At first, tattoos were not respected by the upper class, and were considered non-sense and suitable for only sailors, drunkards, and criminals.

The popularity of tattoos continued, and now after almost 6000 years, tattoos are seen as a fashion symbol rather than a simple mark. What once seemed like non-sense has become a major component of a new generation of fashion, and expressing one’s individuality. Today, tattoos are more popular than they have ever been. All classes of people seek to find the best tattoo artists around. Today’s tattoo artists have a respect not seen in centuries. With better tattoo guns and improved inks, tattooing has reached a whole new level.

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Tattoo Trivia:

Angelina Jolie has a tattoo on her stomach that spells out the Latin words meaning "What Nourishes Me Also Destroys Me".