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tattoo history

tattoo history

tattoo history

No one knows exactly when or where tattooing started but there is evidence that placing pigment (or colour) into the top layers of skin has been around for thousands of years in many cultures. It is believed that tattooing was probably discovered by accident, someone cut themselves and then accidentally rubbed the wound with a dirty hand which had charcoal or ashes from a fire on it. When the wound healed the colour remained and stayed permanently.

The etymological origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is believed to have two major derivations; the first is from the Polynesian word ta which means striking something and the second is the Tahitian word tatau which means ‘to mark something’.
These permanent designs were often plain markings and sometimes elaborate designs. They were status symbols, religious beliefs, decoration, adornment , signs of love and even forms of punishment. But tattoos have always been used as a way to decorate the human body.

For a long time it was thought that the earliest forms of tattoos were from EGYPT Ancient mummies were found with blue markings implanted under the skin and it was thought even Cleopatra herself was wise to the ways of this art.

tattoo egyptian

The hand of an egyptian mommy



But In 1991 “Otzi The Ice Man” was found on a mountain between Austria and Italy.He was incased in ice and was the best preserved corpse of this time ever found, his body bears 57 tattoos. He was carbon dated at around 5,200 years old so this makes him older than the Egyptian mummys found.

Archeologists have discovered many different variations of tattooing all over the world with many different devices being used, like thorns, knives, needles and bamboo. There are also many different techniques used, piercing, cutting or puncturing and then depositing the colour under the skin in some way.
A technique similar to tattooing is cicatrisation (similar to scarification), where the skin is cut to make permanent scars.

tattoo cicritisation2



tattoo cicritisation

Young girl getting circritisation

The pic below is apparently of BURMA MONKS , they use a long tapered rod made of brass or even glass. This is guided through a brass tube which is used to steady the rod, up and down at a 90 degree angle with one hand. Assistants stretch the skin while ink is applied.

tattoo burma monks

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.




tattoo plynesian tools tattoo polynesian

Tattooing with ink became very popular with the MOARI’S OF NEW ZEALAND. This distinctive style of tattooing was known as “moko” and was one of the most impressive styles of all polynesian style tattoos. The maoris transferred their woodcarving skills into the art of carving the skin.

tattoo maori 2

Some would tattoo these amazing designs all over their face as a right of passage into manhood, it was also a mark of distinction and showed their status and tribal affiliation. It also showed the wearers exploits in war and other major life events, but it is also said it was done to disguise any expressions of fear.


tattoo maori


The people of SOUTHEASTERN NEW GUINEA regard tattoo marks on girls as a sign of beauty.

tattoo new guinea girl1


Centuries ago the JAPANESE men ornamented themselves with tattoos to designate their rank in society.But they mainly used tattoos to decorate their body, men who worked in jobs where they would take their shirts off would wear many tattoos. Even today the “Japanese Full Bodysuit” is a mark of specific right.
At one time in history tattooing was forbidden in Japan as they were trying to “westernise”the land of the rising sun.
Although the Japanese hand technique which is almost as old as the country, is still practised today and is learned through apprenticeship .

tattoo japanese


The AINU people of Japan traditionally tattooed moustaches on their daughters by rubbing soot into small knife cuts. It would begin when the girls were only 2 or 3 years old with a semi circle above the lip and a few more incisions made every year until she is married. This practise has now been banned by law.

tattoo japan girl 1




tattoo japan girl


Explorers returned home with tattooed Polynesian people to show at fairs and museums, to showhow civilised the Europeans were compared to the ‘primitive natives’. After Captain Cook returned from his voyage to Polynesia tattooing became a tradition in the British navy. By the middle of the 18th century most British ports had at least one professional tattoo artist in residence. In 1862, the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, received his first tattoo – a Jerusalem cross – on his arm. He started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when he was tattooed before ascending to the throne. In 1882, his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York were tattooed by the Japanese Master tattooist, Hori Chiyo.
Olive Oatman was a white woman who was taken by the Yavapais Indian tribe when she was just 13 years old. Her family was murdered by the attackers, her brother clubbed and left for dead and Olive along with her 10 yr old sister was taken and kept as slaves and were regularly beaten. Lucky for them some Mohave indians saved them by swapping the Yavapais indians some blankets and 2 horses for them. They were taken in as family and treated well by the tribe.
The Mojave tattooed her chin as part of religious beliefs, it was meant to ensure her passage into the afterlife. Her sister was also tattooed but unfortunately she died from starvation during a famine before any pictures were taken. When Olive was 19 she was released and eventually reunited with her brother.

tattoo olive oatman

In the 1920’s women with extensive tattoos were found travelling with the circus.

tattoo 1920 woman

1920’s circus woman



As some cultures banned the tattoos it began to materialise and transform in other parts of the world. These days in most parts of the world it is used as a form of beautification. It became very popular among American and European sailors. In the 90’s it became even more popular with many groups including fashion models, youths, gangs and prison inmates.
Today prison inmates in the USA bear tattoos as signs of their gang affiliation , ranking and of crimes they have committed.




tattoo sailor

American sailors



tattoo prison inmate

American prison inmate

This is Australian pin-up model Cindy Ray , she had become a global superstar by 1962 becuase of her elaborate tattoos.








tattoo 1962 aussie pinup


These days tattoos are a part of fashion, from the “tramp stamp” to the full sleeve or even full body tattoo. As the years go by just like clothing tattoo fashion changes too. This is why it is important to remember tattoos are permanent ! What we like today we may not be as happy with in 10 years time.

tattoo sleeve 2

A modern sleeve tattoo

Although cosmetic tattooing had been used all over the world for many years it became popular in the western world in the 1980’s. Woman began having their eyebrows, eye liner and eyebrows tattooed as a permanent form of makeup. Not a lot was known about this back then and it was actually found that some of the pigments were linked with cancer and some of the tools could spread diseases such us herpes, HIV and hepatitis.

Thankfully since then much has changed with the tools and pigments we now use and the industry standards have grown tremendously. It has now finally become a popular and respected industry.
When it first became popular people did not want to call it tattooing so they called it micropigmentation, intradermal pigmentation, dermagraphics etc. They tried to make it sound more medical than simply calling it “cosmetic tattooing”.
Within the last 10 years we have seen a huge growth in permanent cosmetics. It’s not just the model and actress that have these treatments , but professional women, mothers and housewives use cosmetic tattooing instead of applying makeup everyday and even to make them look younger .

It has also been very popular for people with Trichotillomania, hair loss, alopecia, or even cancer patients that have lost their hair during chemotherapy. Cosmetic tattoo is more than a luxury it can give you back your confidence.

Author Info

Meredith Shepherd

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