The History of Tattoos: From Ancient to Modern

Maori Tribal Patterns

Tattoos have been around for thousands of years. The art of tattooing evolved independently in various cultures around the world and served extremely diverse purposes. Tattoos have been used to place protective symbols on the body, to signal social, political or religious groups and as a form of self-expression or fashion statement.

Tattoos in Ancient Times

The oldest documented tattoos belong to Otzi the Iceman from 3300 B.C., whose preserved body was discovered in the Alps. The tattoos were small lines, made by rubbing powdered charcoal into cuts, along his lower back, ankles, knees, and a foot. Experts from the Smithsonian believe the tattoos were used as a medical treatment for pain, as x-rays of Otzi revealed bone degeneration at the site of each tattoo.

Other examples of ancient civilizations that practice tattooing include the Egyptians, as female mummies with tattoos from the age of the pyramids have been discovered. A Penn State news story says Egyptian trade also brought the art to Crete, Greece, and Arabia. Tattooing has also existed in Japan since around the 5th century B.C., where tattoos were used for beautification, magic, and to mark criminals. Excavated Siberian tombs had bodies from over 2,000 years ago with tattoos of animals and mythical beasts.

Tattooing is found in even more ancient civilizations, including China. Celtic and Northern European tribes, such as the Picts, which literally means “painted people,” all practiced a form of tattooing. Most importantly, the Samoan and the Polynesian islands, including the Maori people, is where the word “tatou” originated. Tattooing in ancient times, while various in form, existed on every inhabited continent.

The Decline and Resurgence of Tattoos

Tattooing started to decline with the rise of the Roman Empire, when Emperor Constantine banned tattoos except as use for brands on criminals and slaves, according to an article by National Geographic. Warriors during the Crusades, in the 11th and 12th centuries, would mark themselves with the Jerusalem cross to ensure they would get a proper Christian burial if they died. The Crusades’ end marked the decline of tattooing in the West.

Japan also banned tattoos. The tattoo body suits that epitomize Japanese tattooing came about because of repressive laws that prohibited the lower classes from wearing ornate kimonos, and they would hide the tattoos under their clothes. The government outlawed tattoos in 1870 because the practice was viewed as rebellious. The yakuza, the gangster class, kept tattooing alive as they embraced the body suits, for the art and because it was illegal.

Tattoos Today

In Western cultures, tattooing entered its renaissance through fringe groups and soldiers and slowly entered the mainstream. Tattoos are becoming more widely accepted, and people today use tattoos as a representation of themselves, to tell their stories, share things they like, or to honor a loved one. Tattoos have also never been more diverse than they are now. With a melting pot of cultures and the availability of information and images from all corners of the world, there has been a marked increase in the number of styles in which tattoo artists specialize.

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