A Brief History of Tattoos: From Ancient to Today

Do you have a tattoo or have you ever wanted to get one?  For most recorded human history people have marked themselves in one way or another.  Tattoos through the millennia have carried many meanings.  They have been used for therapy, fertility, as marks of status, memorials to lost loved ones, and as body decoration.  Tattooing has fallen in and out of favor many times over the years.  Over the last few decades, the art has experienced a huge surge in popularity.  So how did tattooing become what it is today? In this article we’ll cover a brief history of tattoos.

The earliest physical evidence of a tattoo dates back to around 5,200 years ago, although tattooing is thought to be older than that even.  The oldest known physical examples of tattoos are on a mummy called Ötzi the Iceman.  The Iceman was found in 1991 in the Alps along the Italian-Austrian border.  The freezing conditions kept the body, skin, and tattoos preserved.  In many places on the body were small tattoos.  According to Professor Don Brothwell of the University of York, “the distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on his lower spine and right knee and ankle joints correspond to areas of strain-induced degeneration, with the suggestion that they may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic.” (Lineberry, 2007, para. 3).

Mummified Hand with Tattoos
Mummified Hand with Tattoos

The Egyptians are often referenced when speaking of tattoos in ancient cultures.  Figurines depicting tattoos on the female body date back to around 4,000 B.C.  The first physical evidence of tattoos in Egyptian culture is present on three female mummies dating to 2,000 B.C.  The practice of tattooing in ancient Egypt, based on archeological findings, was exclusive to females.  This led many to believe that the marks were of dubious status, indicating prostitution.   Lineberry (2007) believes otherwise stating, “the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth.” (para. 6).

Although many of the early cultures were thought to use tattoos for fertility and therapeutic reasons others used them as signs of rank and status.  Many also used the practice for spiritual purposes.  Tribal cultures of the Pacific and Americas frequently applied tattoos for this reason.  Males receive marks as a rite of passage into adulthood as well as symbols of feats and accomplishment.  Women were also tattooed but usually to a lesser extent.  Female tattoos focus on the chin, lips, or eyebrows.  As people spread throughout the Pacific islands they brought the practice with them.

Evidence of tattooing is present in many ancient cultures.  As cultures integrated, warred with one another, and spread so too did the art form.

The early instruments used were made of bone and later metal.  Sharp points were made and bunched together in a row.  Oils, minerals, soot, and other pigments were used in the process.  The tools were hammered into the skin to sink the pigment and that created a permanent mark.  Though the materials varied the practice remained almost unchanged for 1,000’s of years.  Only in the last few 100 years have tattoos become mechanized.  The grouping of needles is still used with today’s modern equipment.

The Greeks and Romans used tattooing mainly as a way to mark criminals and slaves.  With permanent marks identifying the individuals, identification would be an easier task.  According to the Vanishing Tattoo website “The Latin word for “tattoo” was stigma, and the original meaning is reflected in modern dictionaries.”  (para  10).  The Greeks and Romans left detailed information on how to apply and remove tattoos.  Though written evidence is scarce, many scholars believe that Romans later began to use tattoos within the military.  After a recruit met the requirements and was accepted to the Roman military, he would be marked with the official symbol, though the exact look of the mark remains unknown.

The practice of tattooing slowed dramatically as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam began to take power.  The Old Testament, specifically this passage from Leviticus, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” was cited as a reason for the denouncement of tattooing.  Though religious beliefs had a powerful influence over many cultures tattooing was still practiced to a much lesser extent.

As time progressed a distinction was made in the Christian religion between profane tattoos and tattoos done out of religious purposes.  According to the Vanishing Tattoo website “In 787 the Council of Northumberland stated, “When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised.  But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit therefrom.””  (para. 2). The heathens that they mention are a reference to the native Britons who did not align themselves with the Church’s beliefs.  Crusaders often had tattoos of crosses placed on their arms to prove and remember their journeys to the Holy Land.

Tattooing began to see a resurgence as sailors brought the practice back from their voyages.  One of the earliest recorded examples is from 1769.  Captain Cook and his crew recorded and received tattoos from the exotic locations on their travels.  This trend continued as many British sailors returned home with tattoos.  Soon afterward many British ports had at least one tattoo artist in permanent residence.

Tattooed Sailors
Tattooed Sailors

Later in the 19th century, the British military and navy began to encourage the use of tattooing.  Specifically, they encouraged tattoos that specified regiment affiliation.  Tattoos for this purpose were thought to both raise morale and help in identifying causalities.

The practice was also used in the United States in many of the military branches.  In 1870 the first tattoo shop opened its doors in New York City by Martin Hildebrandt.  When Mr. Hildebrandt opened this shop tattoos were still done by hand with tools that weren’t unlike those used for 1,000’s of years.  In 1891 Samuel O’Reilly, a tattoo artist and mechanic, patented a device that could automatically move the needles up and down.  This drastically reduced the amount of time it took to tattoo.  Within the next 10 years, there was a tattoo shop in almost every major city in America.

It wasn’t until the middle part of the 20th century that tattoos started to become incorporated into popular culture.  The Beatnik and Hippie movements began using tattoos as part of their counterculture movements through the 50s and 60s.

Today according to a 2006 Pew research study, “found that 36 percent of people age 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those age 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo.” (Trebay, 2008, para. 15).  Tattoos are no longer the younger generation rebelling against the older generation.  Many young individuals getting a first tattoo have parents and even grandparents with tattoos.  Tattoos are frequently shown in print, on television, and in movies.  The industry has become a huge business, both in practice and in the sale of merchandise.

In the United States tattoos have become more acceptable in the workplace as well.  It is more common to see an individual with a tattoo working in a corporate environment that in the past.  Still, it is common to cover up these tattoos with appropriate work attire with long sleeves.  Depending on the workplace and the type of business tattoos may not portray the right image.  A heavily tattooed individual may not fit well with the image of a company oriented toward family and children.

Placement and subject matter can also have an effect on how others perceive an individual’s tattoos.  Tattoos on the face, neck, and hands carry more negative connotations than most other placements.  Oftentimes they are associated with gang affiliations, prison, and the heavily tattooed community.  The other downside is that tattoos in these areas cannot be easily covered with normal clothing and they are on display at all times.  Controversial subject matter such as nudity, violence, and symbols of intolerance are also perceived negatively by many people.  Displaying a tattoo of a swastika is just as offensive to many as wearing a shirt with a swastika except the tattoo is permanent.

To this day tattoos remain a very personal subject.  Though some still view tattoos as an indicator of the lower class, many have become more accepting of the practice or have a tattoo themselves.  Science rules out the therapeutic and fertility reasons for tattooing, and today they are mainly for decorative or personal reasons.  Tattoos are similar any other piece of art, one person may see beauty in a tattoo and the next does not.  Tattoos will certainly fall in and out of favor over time but they will not disappear completely.


Lineberry, C. (2007).  Tattoos The Ancient and Mysterious History. The Smithsonian. Retrieved  from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html?c=y&page=1

Tattoo Museum. Retrieved from http://www.vanishingtattoo.com/tattoo_museum/index.html

Trebay, G. (2008). Tattoos Gain Even More Visibility. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/25/fashion/25tattoo.html