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History of Tattoos

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

For thousands of years, people have practiced the art of tattooing to represent their cultures, to convey messages, and to adorn their bodies with beautiful images.

A Permanent Marking

Could you imagine feeling so strongly about something that you would get it permanently inscribed on your body? Would it be a quote, a symbol, or just something you felt was beautiful? Throughout history, many cultures have utilized tattoos for various purposes. The application of ink in the skin has served as therapeutic for pain, as representative of rites of passage, and as protections against evil or danger. Today, tattoos often represent individuality, with their wearers seeking to express their own stories and/or identities through images.

Earliest Tattoos

The earliest human remains with evidence of tattoos date to over 5,000 years ago. The individual found in central Europe has various dots and small crosses on his lower back, knee, and ankles. Because specialists have determined these patterns as somewhat random, it is believed that they were applied to relieve pain in these locations.

Some of the Egyptian women found when archaeologists uncovered tombs and objects also had tattoos. Figurines, tomb art, and mummies have all been found with body art, and bronze tattooing tools were identified at a site in northern Egypt. Upon first discovery, the tattooed women were assumed to be of a lower class or questionable reputation based on their markings, but some have since asserted the opinion that the images and locations were more likely to have been applied as good luck charms for pregnancy and birth. Dots on abdomens are reminiscent of bead nets placed on mummies as protection and images of the god Bes on upper thighs placed the protector of women in labor close to where he was needed.

Over time, more images were used by different cultures. Africans south of Egypt used blue as well as black ink to represent patterns similar to those of the Egyptians. Others also employed more geometric patterns on their arms and legs, which were more visible than abdomens and upper thighs implying greater decorative value. In central Asia, individuals have been found preserved in ice with representations of mythical creatures on their skin and Ancient Britons were also known to wear images of animals. Written records indicate that these tattoos represented high birth, possibly even nobility.

Early tattoos were applied using homemade tools and ink. Needles were tied together and often attached to a stick in order to prick the skin in the designed pattern. Ink was typically made by mixing soot from burnt wood or oil with liquid, such as breast milk. In some cases, the ink was rubbed over the punctured skin, in others ink was applied to the needles before each use.

Tattoos as Associations

In later years, the Greeks and Romans utilized tattoos to represent belonging, either to a particular god's cult or as a slave to a master. For example, one wearing ivy leaves signaled his dedication to Dionysus who was the god of wine. When Constantine became emperor, his devotion to Christianity led to banning tattoos as he believed they marred what God had created in his image. Soon it was only criminals and slaves who were tattooed to mark their status. During the years of China's Han Dynasty, criminals were also the only ones who were tattooed.

Historic Japanese Tattoos
Historic Japanese Tattoos

On the other hand, in both Japan and Polynesia, men decorated their bodies with elaborate designs that symbolized their culture. Japanese tattoos became a subversive practice when elaborate dress was limited to the elite class. Since people could not wear beautiful kimonos, they used symbolism to secretly cover their whole bodies, stopping only at the knees and elbows. In New Zealand, the native Maori have long practiced tattooing faces. The individualized designs served as identification and were also applied at different critical times in a one's life to mark rites of passage. Both men and women were tattooed, though women's tattoos were predominantly applied around the nose and mouth.

Pacific Islanders used tattoos to represent other parts of their lives as well. Tahitian girls would have their buttocks tattooed black when they reached sexual maturity. Hawaiians tattooed three dots on their tongues when they were in mourning.

Modern Tattoos

As Europeans encountered many of these cultures through war, exploration, and colonization, the practice of tattooing spread. The Crusaders marked themselves with crosses so that upon their deaths, people would know they wanted a Christian burial. When Captain James Cook sailed to Tahiti in the 18th century, he encountered not only the inked locals, but the word tatau itself.

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