A Brief History of Tattoos


A Brief History of Tattoos

The history of tattoos takes us on a journey stretching back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations adopted tattooing for a variety of reasons, from punishment to creative-expression. The history of tattoos is a story that develops further everyday as the popularity of tattoos continues to rise. Tattooing has a rich and colorful history, it is thought that tattoos have been important to people for over 10,000 years.

3200 BC Otzi the Ice Man

Otzi the Ice Man is a mummy found in 1991 in the Austrian Alps.  Otzi is currently Europe’s oldest known natural mummy. Otzi provided the world with a plethora of knowledge, including the fact that he possesses the oldest known tattoos. The Ice Man has 61 tattoos, all consisting of simple horizontal or vertical lines. It has been hypothesized that Otzi’s tattoos were from acupuncture treatments. Although, the theories of his tattoos being for medical reasons could be completely wrong. It is entirely possible that the tattoos held symbolic qualities close to Otzi and his culture.

2800 BC

Around 2800 BC, Egyptians began tattooing as an art form. Ancient Egypt is commonly referred to as the “cradle of tattooing” for its advancement in tattoo arts. Many female mummies from this time period have patterns of tattoos on their bodies. Ancient Egyptians believed that the series of dots and dashes promoted fertility. Other reasons the ancient Egyptians got tattoos were to connect with the Divine, as an act of sacrifice to a god, as a permanent talisman that is impossible to lose, and to provide medical protection.

From Ancient Egypt, tattooing spread to other countries such as China and Egypt; starting a rich tradition of tattooing in the ancient world.

Tattoos in Ancient Egypt
Artwork from Ancient Egypt depicting acts of tattooing. Tattoos in Ancient Egypt played a large role in the society and their relationships with their Dieties.

920 AD

In roughly 920 AD, the famous Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan reported sighting Vikings covered in tattoos. He described these tattoos reaching from the tips of their fingers to their necks. Other than this one piece of historical evidence, the history of tattoos on Vikings is still largely a mystery.

1600 AD

In 1600 AD, Indians begin marking criminals with tattoos. This technique of marking convicts with tattoos was adapted by other civilizations. India has great diversity in the cultures that occupies the country. This contributes to the large variety of tattoo history in India. Each tribe in India that practices tattooing has different reasons behind tattooing. The reasons range all the way from religious to rebellious.

1700 AD

During the middle of the Ado period, there was a population explosion in many Japanese cities. This resulted in a subsequent explosion in criminal activities in the densely populated areas. To combat this crime, ‘Irezumi’ was introduced as a punishment. Irezumi, or more simply “insert ink”, was to mark criminals with signs that would follow them for life.

This act of inserting ink was picked up in the Japanese pop culture of the time, resulting in a growth of tattooing as an art form. Japanese citizens began to get tattoos as a symbol of fashion. Middleclass Japanese began to decorate their bodies with colorful tattoos to express their artistic freedoms.

Yakuza members participating in a local festival. Proudly displaying their colorful and elaborate tattoos as they parade through the streets.

1770 AD

In around 1770 AD, the British Captain James Cook and his crew explored the Polynesian triangle. When James Cook returned from his voyage, he described the behaviors of the Polynesian people. James Cook brought back to Europe a tattooed Tahitian named Ma’i. The public was fascinated by his tattoos which started a wave of tattooing across Europe.

During this time period is also when the word “tattoo” first appeared in the English language, borrowed from the Polynesian word tatu, or “to write”. Before the introduction of the word, tattooing was described as staining.

1800 AD

During this explosion of tattoos in Europe, the Royal Navy began a rich history of tattooing. Tattoos were an instant success with parlors popping up near British ports. Sailors received tattoos significant to their role in the Royal Navy as well as a form of self-expression. The tattoos also doubled as a way to identify bodies in the event that a soldier was unidentifiable otherwise.

1920 AD

In the 1920’s, tattoos could be seen on most inmates, gang members, and criminals; casting a negative light on the art form. The societal stigma against tattoos was strong, discouraging some from getting tattooed. Tattoos being seen as negative perhaps aided in tattoos becoming popular as a form of rebellion.

1961 AD

A minor Hepatitis B outbreak in New York City was linked to a tattoo parlor. This event caused tattoo parlors to be banned in New York up until 1997. Other states followed suit and also banned tattoo parlors due to this outbreak.

It must be noted that the government regulators was just looking for an event to ban tattoos, thus piggybacking on the 1961 Hepatitis B outbreak. New York government officials stated that only a total ban on tattoos would keep the public safe.

1990 AD

In the 90’s, pop culture helped to bring tattoos back to the West. It is estimated that a total of 39 million North Americans were tattooed by 2005.

Present Day

Tattoos in the present day are as popular as ever. It seems that half of the people you might see have at least one tattoo. Tattoos are continuing to rise in popularity and with modern techniques they’re safe than ever. There are 21,000 tattoo parlors in just the United States alone.

Further learning:

“The history of tattoos” covers the cultural history of tattooing. This videos takes a look at the origin of tattooing and how it’s function has changed over time.

“What makes tattoos permanent?” goes over how tattoos manage to stay on the skin, even with the human body constantly regenerating skin cells.


  1. Tattoo therapy could ease chronic disease (http://news.rice.edu/)
  2. Iceman Otzi Has World’s Oldest Tattoos (http://insider.si.edu)
  3. What is the hisory of tattooing? (http://news.psu.edu/)