A History of Tattoos

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Podcast Transcript

Everyone listening to this is familiar with tattoos. All of you have at least seen someone with one, most of you know someone with one, and, statistically speaking, many of you have at least one of your own. 

The act of putting permanent illustrations on skin is actually one that goes back thousands of years and is something that has been practiced by cultures around the world. 

Learn more about tattoos, where they came from, and how they have been used around the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Tattoos are one of those things that people have very mixed opinions on. Some people love them and have multiple tattoos all over their bodies. Some people hate them and would never ever get a tattoo.

Regardless of where you stand on the subject, tattoos have been an element of human culture for millennia. 

Tattooing is something that goes back so far we really don’t know where or when it began.

Before I dive into the history of tattoos, I should give a brief explanation of what a tattoo is. 

A tattoo is nothing more than an ink, dye, or pigment which is put into the dermis layer of the skin. The dermis is the middle of the three layers that make up skin. The top is the epidermis, and the lower is the hypodermis. 

To make a tattoo requires nothing more than ink and something to put the ink into the skin, usually some sort of needle. 

The simplicity of tattoos is one of the reasons why the adoption of tattoos was so widespread

Substances used as inks were varied and depended on where in the world the tattoo was being applied. Perhaps the most common substance was soot which came from burnt wood. 

Soot is a substance that is universal and can create an exceptionally dark color. Ancient tattoo traditions which have been passed down to the modern day will involve a wide variety of substances depending on what is available locally, but most of them involve soot as the basis for at least the color black. 

I should also note that, for the most part, ancient tattoos weren’t very colorful as far as we know. They mostly used a single pigment which was black.

The earliest evidence of tattoos is in doubt because it has been difficult for archeologists to identify tools used for tattooing. Because it requires nothing more than a needle of some sort, it is believed that many tattoo tools may have been misidentified or overlooked entirely. 

An ancient tool for making tattoos could easily have been used for other purposes, such as leatherworking. 

The misidentification of tattooing materials has led some to suggest that we actually may have archeological evidence of tattoos dating back as far as 50,000 years. If true, this would make tattooing one of the earliest human art forms. 

While this is speculative, the earliest evidence we have of actual tattoos comes from Otzi the Iceman. 

As I’ve mentioned in a previous episode, Otzi was a man who lived approximately 5,300 years ago. He died on a glacier in the Alps and was found in 1991, remarkably well preserved. 

There is an enormous amount that was learned from Otzi. One of the biggest surprises was that Otzi had 61 tattoos on his body. 

Many of the tattoos on Otzi were placed on areas where he was clearly suffering from arthritis, indicating that the tattoos may have had some sort of medicinal purpose. 

The extent and placement of the tattoos on Otzi indicate that tattooing probably wasn’t something that was invented recently, but rather Otzi and his people were practicing something that had been handed down to them. 

While Otzi has the oldest known tattoos, there have been other tattoos found which are almost as old. 

Two 5,000-year-old mummies found in Egypt show the earliest illustrative tattoos. One on a male shows the image of a bull and a sheep. Another on a female shows an “s” shaped design on her shoulder. 

The mummy of a 4000 year ol Egyptian priestess known as Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, was found with extensive tattoos on her lower abdomen. It is believed the tattoos may have been applied as a form of protection during pregency and child bearing. 

In 1917, a mummy was found in Chile, called the Chinchorro Man, that exhibits tattoos. The date of the particular Chinchorro Man mummy has been questioned, but there have been Chinchorran mummies found that are as old as the oldest Egyptian mummies. 

The existence of mummies in Chile indicates that either tattooing was discovered independently in the Americas, or that it was a technology that existed before humans arrived in the Americas. 

Going through the use of tattoos in every culture around the world would quite literally take hours as tattooing has been found almost everywhere in the world. 

Tattooing went from Egypt into Nubia and into modern day Ethiopia

Female Scythian warriors on the Eurasian steppes, from whom the legends of Amazonian warriors are believed to have come from, received tattoos of beasts that they hunted.

In ancient Greece, Persia, and Rome, tattoos weren’t common on most people, but were used to identify slaves. 

In China, tattoos have been found on mummies dating back 2,000 to 4,000 years, but it eventually was considered a barbaric practice that was only done by people in far southern China. 

Tattooing was extensive in ancient Japan as a spiritual practice, but by the 17the century it was only practiced by the lower classes.

In the Americas, there was an extensive culture of tattooing across many different tribes and cultures. 

Tattoos were used by Inuit people in the far north. Women would often receive facial tattoos, which were part of an initiation rite into womanhood.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they reported many different tribes with tattoos, some of which were quite extensive and covered much of their bodies. 

I should give a special mention to the one region of the world which is probably best known for its extensive and intricate tattooing, the Pacific. 

There are five different styles of tattoos in Polynesia. New Zealand Maori, Marquesan, Samoan, Tahitian, and Hawaiian. 

The Maori people of New Zealand practice what is known as T? moko. These often involve facial tattoos for both men and women. They were traditionally used to signify social status as well as for adornment. 

Tahiti is actually believed to have been where the word “tattoo” originated from. It is thought to have come from the word “tatau” which was the word for the bone from a flying fox that was used as a tattoo needle. It was first used in this context in the diary of Captain Cook. 

In one of the most hilarious historical errors of all time, in 1722 a Dutch ship arrived in Samoa and wrote of their meeting with the inhabitants, “They are friendly in their speech and courteous in their behavior, with no apparent trace of wildness or savagery. They do not paint themselves, as do the natives of some other islands, but on the lower part of the body, they wear artfully woven silk tights or knee breeches.”

Those silk tights they thought they were wearing on their legs? They were actually tattoos. 

I hope I’ve driven home the point as to just how ancient and widespread tattooing was. What tattoos represented, who received them, and how they were perceived varied from place to place, but it was something that was near universal.

So how did we get from these ancient forms of tattooing to what we see today?

Tattooing had fallen out of fashion throughout much of Europe by the 17th century. There were some minor exceptions, however. If pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem, they would often get a tattoo of the Jerusalem cross to signify that they had made the journey. 

However, the group which began getting tattoos and who slowly brought them back were sailors. In particular, sailors who went to the Pacific would often get tattoos to commemorate their voyage. 

Eventually, sailors began using tattoos as a form of identification and a type of initiation. A new crew member might be required to get a tattoo to show they were a part of the crew. They could get a commemorative tattoo for crossing the equator or rounding Cape Horn.

Sailors also got tattoos for personal reasons, which also served as a way to identify bodies that might have drowned or fallen overboard.

As more and more sailors returned home with their tattoos, tattooing began to spread, usually among the lower classes of society and criminals.

Over in the United States, modern tattooing can be traced back to a single individual. A former sailor and Civil War veteran named Martin Hildebrandt. In the early 1870s, he opened up the world’s first tattoo parlor in New York City and was the first professional tattoo artist.

About ten years later, Sutherland Macdonald opened up the first studio in London.

Tattooing did eventually spread all throughout society. Members of European nobility and royalty began getting tattoos, discretely, of course.

Kings George V and Edward VII of Great Britain, King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King Ferdinand I of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia all reportedly had tattoos.

Heavily tattooed men and women often performed in circus sideshows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They would have their entire bodies covered in tattoos save for their faces and hands. Betty Broadbent and Nora Hildebrandt were two of the most famous tattooed ladies of the period.

The most significant technical innovation in tattooing occurred in 1891 when a New York City tattoo artist, Samuel O’Reilly, received a patent for the electric tattoo machine.  It was a modification of the electric pen, which was developed by Thomas Edison.

Electric tattoo machines are still used today and are the primary way of applying tattoos. A tattoo machine works by using electromagnetic coils to move a set of needles rapidly in and out of the skin.

Throughout the 20th century, tattoos slowly gained in popularity. 

In 1936, an estimated 10% of all Americans had at least one tattoo. 

As with the long history of tattoos before the 20th century, the meaning and use of tattoos were very mixed. 

Permanent tattoos were used to mark and track prisoners in death camps during the Holocaust. 

Tattoos became staples of biker gangs and prisoners. 

However, at the same time, many native peoples around the world rediscovered tattooing as a way to connect with their culture. 

Ordinary people got tattoos as tattoo parlors became more ubiquitous. 

Data on tattoos in the United States was released just a week beforeI recorded this episode by the Pew Research Center. They found that 32% of all Americans have a tattoo, and 22% have more than one.

38% of all women have at least once compared to just  27% of men. 

If you look at the data by age, 41% of adults under age 30 have at least one, as do 46% of those ages 30 to 49.

Tattoos still aren’t something that is for everyone, but they are more popular today than ever. 

Depending on where you go in the world, tattoos can have wildly different connotations. In countries like Japan or El Salvador, tattoos often represent membership in a criminal gang. 

In places like New Zealand or Samoa, it can represent a connection with a person’s cultural heritage. 

For many people, it can simply be an artistic expression or a way to remember an important event or person. 

Regardless of their modern meaning, tattoos are one of the oldest and most universal forms of human expression, one which may go back tens of thousands of years.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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