A Brief History of Tattoos - Part 1

The word tattoo is said to has two major derivations- from the polynesian word ‘ta’ which means striking something and the tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’. The history of tattoo began over 5000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them.

Tattoos are created by inserting colored materials beneath the skins surface. The first tattoos probably were created by accident. Someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire. Once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently. Despite the social sciences' growing fascination with tattooing, and the immense popularity of tattoos themselves, the practice has not left much of a historical record.

Bronze Age

In 1991, a five thousand year old tattooed man ‘ötzi the ice man’ made the headlines of newspapers all over the world when his frozen body was discovered on a mountain between austria and italy. This is the best preserved corpse of that period ever found. The skin bears 57 tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys and numerous parallel lines on the ankles. The position of the tattoo marks suggests that they were probably applied for therapeutic reasons (treatment of arthritis).

Pazyryk Culture

In 1948, 120 miles north of the border between russia and china, russian archeologist sergei rudenko began excavating a group of tombs, or kurgans, in the high altai mountains of western and southern siberia. mummies were found that date from around 2400 years ago. The tattoos on their bodies represent a variety of animals. the griffins and monsters are thought to have a magical significance but some elements are believed to be purely decorative. Altogether the tattoos are believed to reflect the status of the individual.


Written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to egyptian tattoo have virtually been ignored by earlier egyptologists influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium. Today however, we know that there have been bodies recovered dating to as early XI dynasty exhibiting the art form of tattoo. In 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of amunet, a priestess of the goddess hathor, at thebes who lived some time between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. This female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body - grouping dots and/or dashes were aligned into abstract geometric patterns. This art form was restricted to women only, and usually these women were associated with ritualistic practice. The egyptians spread the practice of tattooing throughout the world. the pyramid-building third and fourth dynasties of egypt developed international nations with crete, greece, persia, and arabia. By 2,000 BC the art of tattooing had stretched out all the way to southeast asia. the ainu (western asian nomads) then brought it with them as they moved to japan.


The earliest evidence of tattooing in japan is found in the form of clay figurines which have faces painted or engraved to
represent tattoo marks. the oldest figurines of this kind have been recovered from tombs dated 3,000 BC or older, and many
other such figurines have been found in tombs dating from the second and third millennia BC. These figurines served as stand-ins for living individuals who symbolically accompanied the dead on their journey into the unknown, and it is believed that the tattoo marks had religious or magical significance. The first written record of japanese tattooing is found in a chinese dynastic history compiled in 297 AD. The japanese were interested in the art mostly for its decorative attributes, as opposed to magical ones. The horis - the japanese tattoo artists - were the undisputed masters. Their use of colors, perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole new angle. The classic japanese tattoo, is a full body suit.


From southern china the practice spread along the silk route.


In pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance. polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. polynesian peoples, believe that a person's mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. The vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies. elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.in samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘tatau’, by hand, has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role. The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The first europeans who set foot on samoan soil were members of a 1787 french expedition. They got a closer look at the natives and reported that ‘the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed, although they are almost naked’. The mythological origins of samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history of tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of new zealand, and later disseminated into various international subcultures from auckland to the netherlands.

The hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art, known as ‘kakau’. It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being. intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men's arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue.

The arrival of western missionaries forced this unique art form into decline as tattooing has been discouraged or forbidden by
most christian churches throughout history.

For more info and credits

Read Part 2 this Sunday here at Artisticskins.com

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