Prior to the discovery of Otzi the Iceman, found in Europe, it was believed that Egyptians were the first to engage in tattooing – figurines adorned with images, mummies with faint designs, and tools that seemed made for the purpose gave a strong impression that they had been the innovators of such a practice. As more and more artifacts and bodies are uncovered, however, we learn that tattooing, particularly to symbolize one’s status, has existed for far longer, and in far more parts of the world, than previously believed.
In recent years, Eurasian mummies and entombed bodies have been discovered near modern-day China and Russia, adorned with animal designs, lines of dots, and mythical monsters, believed to be symbols of strength and virility. In Borneo, tribal tattoos consisting of thick black lines and nature themes have symbolised the stages men and women have gone through and the skills they possess since ancient times. Maori and Samoan tribes have long used tattoos, often covering most of the body, to make clear their social status and position within the tribe. Throughout Central and South America, ancient peoples ranging from farmers to the socially elite have been found bearing tattoos – generally animal designs and small symbols – that seem to have magical or ritualistic qualities to them, likely thought to bring them luck, protection, and wealth.
I could go on all day, really, but I think you get the picture – tattoos have been part of human culture for thousands of years, even within isolated societies. We have, it seems, come up with this idea over and over again, feeling it relevant to mark our bodies with meaningful symbols. Early designs were often nature-themed or “tribal” – consisting of a series of lines, dots, and bands – generally to protect, show status, and mark the various stages of life. As societies, cultures, and philosophies evolved, so too did the symbols used. Celts and Britons took to intricate and ornate patterns to declare their status, Greeks and Romans began tattooing themselves as a mark of religious devotion or belonging to a certain group or sect, and China and Japan moved from tattoos that designated people criminals or of a certain trade to more ornate and less stigmatized designs, available to the general public.
Human beings, as a whole, seem to have a need to symbolize that which matters most to us. Regardless of culture, religion, or era, we have long marked ourselves and our surroundings, sometimes to separate ourselves from, and sometimes to feel a deeper connection to, the natural world and its many forms of life. Even in the modern world, we are constantly seeking more valid, more extreme, and more innovative ways to express where we see ourselves in relation to the world around us.
Whether chocolate bunny or crucifix, whether tribal design or modern art, we as humans are constantly pushing boundaries and refining designs to adequately symbolize what it means to be us. The evolution of symbolism is, it is no exaggeration to say, the evolution of humanity itself. While tattoos may still be stigmatized and frowned upon in parts of the world, from a historical perspective, they are the most common, long-standing, and widespread way to tell our story in a way that transcends both time and language.