When one thinks about the history of tattoos, they often picture a great-grandfather, adorned with a faded blue American eagle on his bicep, or a Navy-inspired anchor on his forearm. In Western culture particularly, tattoos have, until fairly recent times, been associated with soldiers, bikers, and bad boys. The true history, however, goes back further than anyone could imagine.
When Ötzi the Iceman, the oldest known European mummy (dated to approximately 3300BC), was discovered in 1991, archaeologists were amazed to find his body adorned with several tattoos. It had been previously believed that tattooing had only been practiced for the last three or four thousand years; the discovery of Ötzi’s tattoos pushed that back at least another thousand years, and some historians believe it goes even further back than that.
So how did this all begin? The answer, of course, depends on the culture, as each had their own reasons and practices. It can be safely said, however, that tattooing was (and in many ways, still is), associated with initiation, identification, and the completion of rituals. They’ve been used in every possible way, from marking criminals, to celebrating one’s coming of age, to symbolising a connection between oneself and nature. Coptic Christians often tattooed crosses on various parts of their bodies; ancient Filipinos used tattoos to show their rank, or celebrate accomplishments, Hawaiians would tattoo their tongues in times of mourning, and many tribal cultures believed that tattoos brought magical or spiritual protection and wisdom.
How these ancient tattoos were done varies as much as the reasons they were done. Ancient Egyptian tattoo implements were small pieces of wood and bronze, and resembled wide, flat needles – these were often bunched together to speed up the process, and create intricate patterns. In Tahiti, sharpened shells were attached to long sticks, and tattoos were essentially scratched into skin. Japan and China took to very long and sharp metal needles, while various indigenous tribes would use sharpened pieces of bone. Inks were made of everything from crushed plants and flowers to the natural inks of sea creatures, some created so skillfully that their pigments can still be seen today on mummies and frozen remains.
In the early 18th century, tattooing became a more common and well-known trade, with sailors, traders, and colonists viewing and picking up its many different practices on every corner of the globe. From there came the advent and improvement of tattoo implements, culminating in the first modern tattoo machine, inadvertently invented by Thomas Edison in 1876 (Edison’s “electric pen” had been intended as a duplicating machine, but Samuel O’Reilly saw its potential as a tattoo device, and began modifying and using it as such in 1891).
While most cultures have evolved with the times, improving their tools and sharing their techniques with others, the reasons and rituals behind tattoos still remain as varied as they were thousands of years ago. From deeply ritualistic markings, to spur of the moment experiences, to meaningful pieces of walking art, tattoos have risen far above other cultural fads, only becoming more popular and personal as time goes on.