A Guide To The History Of Tattoos
A Guide To the History of Tattoos

Introduction

A man getting a tattoo

Tattooing is an art form that has existed for thousands of years in cultures around the globe. Throughout that time, different groups of people developed their styles and methods completely independent of one another, creating a vast array of tattoos with cultural significance tied to them.

We’re going to cover the development and significance of tattooing across the span of this guide. Starting from the technology that made tattooing possible and how it has developed, we have also detailed how those with tattoos were accepted by different cultures and how this sentiment has changed over time and why that happened.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have learned about the complex history of tattoos and how they were informed by history, culture, religion, and technology to bring us the tattooing we enjoy today. Who knows, you might even want one for yourself.

How Tattoo Machine Technology Has Improved Over Time

Tattoo machine and inks

Before we get into the culture of tattooing and how it has developed historically, let’s start with how tattoos came about. While there are many ancient examples of tattooing, which are covered later in this guide, we should explain the initial technologies that make modern tattooing possible.

Unless you’re going out of your way to be tattooed through traditional means, your local tattooist will use a tattoo machine. Tattoo machines are older than you probably think, having been patented by New York tattooist Samuel O’Reilly in 1891. That patent built the foundations for the technology that every modern tattooist uses. It’s also been claimed that the patent shares similarities with a similar 1876 patent for an engraving pen filed by Thomas Edison and that some responsibility lies with the prolific inventor.

O’Reilly’s first tattoo machine used a reciprocating DC motor mechanism that moved at high speeds, making the tattoo needle faster and less painful, which made it explode in popularity.

Another foundational figure in the development of tattoo machines is Percy Waters, who patented a design that’s closer to modern models, unlike O’Reilly’s first design. Marrying two electromagnetic coils with a spark shield and an on/off button, those coils could determine the depth of each stroke to create varying results. The machine served Waters well at his Detroit tattoo business throughout the 1930s.

Later in 1978, Manfred Kohrs designed the first rotary machine made of an electric motor and an ink reservoir. Then that design was further modernized by Franco Vescovi in 2009. It made the machine lightweight, so tattoo artists could hold it for longer and tackle larger tattoos in one sitting.

Other aspects of tattooing have benefited from technological advancements. For example, the explosion of handheld touchscreen smartphones and tablets has allowed artists to use iPads and similar products to draw out their designs, supporting even more detailed tattoos.

The First Tattoo Performed

picture of Otzi the Iceman, BC 3300 with 57 Tattoos

If we have such a comprehensive history of tattoo machines, do we know the first tattoo that was performed? Not really, it’s more complicated than that. Tattooing is an ancient practice that existed long before the tattoo machine came into existence. Let’s go through some of these ancient tattoos so that we can appreciate how old the practice is.

Tattoos are pre-historic, so nobody thought to write down the first-ever tattoo at the time. All we have are glimpses into pre-historic tattooing, the best of which is Ötzi the Iceman. You may have heard of this 5,000-year-old frozen mummy before, they’re a very important specimen for teaching us about our past and, you guessed it, he was covered in tattoos!

Does that mean he was the first? Absolutely not. While incredible to us today, Ötzi was an ordinary guy for the time and so people before him would have donned the same markings. Also, Japanese statues estimated at 10,000 years old seem to represent humans with tattoo-like markings on them, so they have Ötzi beat.

As for other old tattoos, 2,500-year-old Siberian corpses have had tattoos that depicted animals. Similarly, North American bodies had tattoos on them 1,500 years ago as part of native faiths. Then, both South American and Egyptian mummies have been found to have tattoos on them. The South American examples were estimated at 3,000 years old while the Egyptians were older, coming from 3370 BC – 3100 BC, 5,000 years ago.

While the hunt never ends for preserved bodies of the past, some of which may shed more light on ancient tattoos, we’ll never know which one came first. The tattoos we have found seem to be either fertility markings given to the stomachs and thighs of women or depictions of animals in the region, like cave paintings for the skin.

Tattoo Trends In The 20th Century

Man getting tattoo removal via lazer

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds when it comes to ancient history, so let’s focus on what we do know. Below we’ve detailed how tattoos have developed throughout the 20th Century and which trends have shaped the culture of tattooing that we have today.

Circus Freaks

The tattoo culture of the Western world seems to have started in the 20th Century within underground groups, namely the so-called circus freaks. These traveling groups gathered people with uncommon conditions or anatomical oddities that people would pay to see, often presented through a show to maximize their entertainment value.

While those sideshows were discriminatory by their nature, and often the freaks were mistreated by those managing the circus, they did provide for people who would have otherwise been abandoned.

Among the circus freaks were people with tattoos. The more tattoos, the better, and tattooed women were an especially big draw. Notable examples include John O’Reilly, called The Tattooed Irishman, and Emma de Burgh who sported religious-themed body art and traveled with her tattooed husband.

Again, assuming they weren’t mistreated by their circus and were given a fair cut of the earnings, these shows provided somewhere for women with alternative style choices to make some money and find independence that they wouldn’t have enjoyed in wider society. It's worth noting that our friend Percy Waters was drawn into the tattoo world by these sideshows too, so we owe a lot to those freaks who came before.

1920s Cosmetic Tattoos

Tattoos became relatively popular with women as the 1920s came around. Makeup was expensive and rubbed off at the end of the day, so why not cut the recurring cost by getting tattoos instead? That was the logic that drove this wave of feminine tattoos, which would add definition to the eyebrows and line the lips to make them more distinct and attractive.

There was still a taboo attached to tattoos at the time, even ones like these that are tame by our modern standards, and so many women had to keep them a secret. In fact, so-called permanent makeup is still used today.

Sailors & Tattoos

As the world’s seaways opened up and more nations developed their naval capability, a bustling scene of 20th Century tattoos was based around life on the Seven Seas and sailor culture.

A lot of early 20th Century tattoos had served performative or practical purposes. With the sailors, their superstitions and other meaningful ideas were expressed in their body art, just like those ancient fertility tattoos we mentioned earlier. When you’re at the mercy of the seas, it was easy to become sentimental and don imagery that was thought to make storm-causing deities happy.

Here are some examples:

  • Anchors: Decorated sailors who crossed the Atlantic, and sometimes denoted ranks at Boatswain.
  • Dragons: Decorated sailors who spent time in Asia.
  • Chicken & Pig: Chicken and pigs would often survive shipwrecks due to their lightweight wooden crates, so sailors tattooed the chicken (often a rooster) and pig on each foot to prevent drowning.
  • Lady Faces: The faces and heads of women, traditionally thought to be the girlfriends or wives of those who adopted them though others adopted them for the aesthetic, where they came to symbolize luck, desire, or muses. The gypsy lady head is a popular tattoo that came from Romany culture and symbolized a traveling lifestyle.
  • Nautical Stars: A simple yet distinct design associated with the US Navy and other armed forces, which was also said to keep a sailor on course and guide them home. An offshoot is also used to represent North California in clothing merch and tattoo culture.
  • Sharks: Thought to protect sailors if they fell overboard in shark-infested waters.
  • Swallows: Carries many meanings, from denoting experience as a sailor and sometimes whether the sailor has traveled around Cape Horn. There are also legends that they guarantee the safe return of the sailor (like a swallow returning to its nest) or guarantee the swallow will carry the sailor’s soul to Heaven should disaster strike.
  • Ships: Like swallows, ship tattoos have many meanings. A fully-rigged ship historically represented the traversal of Cape Horn while other ships can mean good luck, finding the right direction, bravery, honor, home, and new beginnings.
  • Harpoon: Decorated fishermen and whale hunters in a fleet. 
  • Shellback: Decorated sailors who had crossed the equator.
  • Ropes: Common with deckhands.

Sailor Jerry

Along with those perennial designs, other instant classics deserve their own section. Tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins, nicknamed Sailor Jerry, is one of the most important pioneers in modern tattooing. He started by experimenting with stick-and-poke tattooing when he was younger until he found himself in Chicago in the 1920s, where he learned to use a tattoo machine.

Much of his art is associated with sailors during the WWII era. This is because he joined the navy and was posted in Hawaii in the 30s. He stayed there and honed his craft until the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. His style was bold and full of sharp lines, sometimes featuring slogans and pro-American symbolism.

Sailor Jerry was denied re-enlistment and so he joined the Merchant Marines instead. They spent a lot of time in the Japanese theatre and so Jerry was inspired by Eastern styles, particularly after he worked with the Horis, a term for Japanese tattoo masters with whom he swapped designs. Water shading was one of the Japanese techniques that Jerry adopted for his classic art.

He contributed other important developments to tattoo culture too, such as inventing carbazole violet, the first known purple tattoo ink, and single-use needles. His Honolulu tattoo practice came to an end when the IRS came knocking, looking for his tax dollars. While he was patriotic, he resented the IRS and the idea of paying taxes for a business based on art that he created alone.

Take a look at his designs, we guarantee you’ll recognize some of them.

The 1950s

After the Second World War, nautical-themed tattoos on the arms and chest continued in popularity into the ‘50s. This connection to sailors made tattoos a symbol of masculinity, as opposed to the feminine applications of the 1920s. This led them to be associated with rebellious people and other outcasts in a society that valued traditional family life more than ever after the horrors of the two World Wars.

The 1960s

Like with every part of society, the 1960s was a time of radical change. The Korean and Vietnam wars made large segments of the American populace suspicious of the country’s foreign policy, creating the hippie counterculture and all of the imagery related to the era. One of those is the peace sign, which was naturally translated into tattoo form for many of the protestors.

While that was happening, the media still had their heads in the 1950s and often depicted big, scary biker types with tattoos. There was some truth to this, as biker groups had adopted tattoos that had nautical themes, biking/motor themes, and death imagery like skulls or skeletons.

During this time and into the ‘70s, unfounded rumors blamed the spread of hepatitis in New York on tattoo parlors. If you were dealing with a tattoo parlor, your chances of getting it were virtually nonexistent, and other more common vectors were to blame. Where tattoo parlors did transmit hepatitis, it was because proper hygiene practices weren’t being followed.

The 1970s/80s

With the ‘70s and the ‘80s, we see the mainstreaming of tattoos in the Western world. They weren’t decorating freaks, sailors, and soldiers anymore and were instead being adopted as a form of self-expression. With this renewed interest, the designs started to become more intricate, especially as sleeves started to gain popularity.

Prominent designs during these decades included the classic anchor or the Celtic knot, both of which were distinct yet highly versatile, coming in many different varieties. The rise of rock and roll also led to fans getting tattoos when their favorite band members sported them. New School art also developed a bright and colorful art style that depicted cartoon characters of the period.

It was during the 1970s that Jack Rudy started tattooing at Goodtime Charlie’s Tattooland in Anaheim, California. Through his pioneering of Black and Gray-style tattoo art and the single-needle tattooing technique, Rudy would solidify himself as a legend in the industry over the next few decades. Today he owns the Tattooland and runs a car club, which requires you to have many tattoos to join.

MTV started in the ‘80s too, and their impact on the music industry and popular audiences would lead to mainstreaming tattoos throughout the ‘90s.

The 1990s

As MTV’s influence spread and celebrity culture developed in the 1990s, tattoo culture was introduced to new designs that are still common today, such as:

  • Sun Tattoos
  • Tribal Tattoos
  • Chinese Letter Tattoos
  • Barbed-Wire Armbands

That last design was furthered by celebrities like Pamela Anderson, who got the tattoo for a movie role and has since taken steps to remove it. Celebrities dictated many tattoo trends during this time. With this mainstream attention came more feminine designs like hearts, stars, flowers, and butterflies, that last one partly driven by Mariah Carey.

The 2000s

The popularity of butterflies continued into the 2000s and was only matched by the Yin and Yang, the iconic symbol for complex Chinese cosmic energies that are opposed to one another, often characterized as day/night, known/unknown, or order/chaos. Such prestigious and philosophical symbols were used as tramp stamps and were spurred by the rise of reality television.

Tattoos were now considered mainstream by many thanks to mainstream media centered around tattoos, which we’ve covered later in the guide.

Realism Tattoos In The 21st Century

Realism tattoos on arm

It’s the 21st Century where tattoo designs went into overdrive. The most popular and most impressive example is tattoo realism, tattoos that are picturesque in their detail and how true-to-life they are. Tattoos in this style can even look photorealistic.

So how did that art style develop? While some advancements in tech helped, like wireless tattoo machines, it was the meteoric rise of social media that helped tattoo artists all around the world level up their skills. Through social media platforms, the most popular being Instagram for tattoo culture, allowed tattoo artists to see each other’s art no matter where they were.

This facilitated the free exchange of ideas and techniques and, once some talented artists proved such realistic tattoos were possible, many artists jumped aboard and started pushing the limits of what could be done. Now that technological limitations had been overcome, artists could push themselves and draw from an international well of resources to become adept at popular realism art. As realism became popular, tattoos could also be drawn in 3D.

The art being created benefited from machine improvements that allowed smoother shading gradients and contoured lines in black or color. Carbon stencils have also allowed for easier stenciling and plotting of body art since the old acetate stencils rubbed off easily and made it difficult to tattoo large scale or highly intricate work.

So why didn’t realism develop sooner? While many would assume the technological shortcomings of tattoo culture held realism back, it was mainly social. While tattoo artist is the accepted term today, most early tattooists were not professional artists. They were ordinary people, typically from shunned demographics like bikers, criminals, or sailors, who had no formal art education. This meant that the main limitation was on the artists themselves.

As an art form, tattoo styles change based on social and cultural circumstances and the industry’s technological realities. It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for the industry but it only seems to be moving from strength to strength. The development of electronic tattoos seems like the next big advancement for the industry, which would turn body art into practical tools that can interface with the world around us.

Traditional Practices Of Tattoos

Traditional practices of tattoos

Why did tattoos have negative connotations tied to them for much of the 20th Century? To answer that, let’s take a look at some traditional tattooing practices and how they were used.

China & Asia

In China and the Asian continent at large, tattoos are considered to be a sign of a criminal or somebody who engages in barbaric behaviors. Many people who are associated with gangs would have tattoos in 20th Century China and Asia, though this sentiment is slowly changing.

Despite this, Asia has a history of mummies that are sporting tattoos, some of which date as far back as 2100 BC, or 4,100 years ago. China’s rich history of folk heroes has also been described as sporting tattoos.

A common historical practice that sullied the reputation of tattoos was branding. Criminals who had been convicted were often tattooed somewhere on their face, so everybody can see their crime and be warned that the person had no qualms about breaking the law.

Egypt

As mentioned earlier, old Egyptian mummies have also been found with tattoos on them, but why? Female mummies have been found as far back as 2000 BC, suggesting that Egyptian tattooing was only practiced on women. Male bodies were rarely found with tattoos while it is much more common for mummified females.

An interesting theory that explains the use of some Egyptian tattoos is that they were developed over time as a medical practice. Some mummies, like the priestesses of Hathor, were found with problems like pelvic peritonitis that seemed to indicate they were applied to treat the condition.

Samoa

The Polynesian islands have an interesting history with tattoos and Samoa certainly isn’t an exception. Called “tatau” in their Samoan language, tattoos are an important cultural practice that is passed down from father to son. The tattooing is usually done by hand, involving boar teeth, turtle shells, and other natural resources. They even used natural resources for cleaning the area afterward by swimming in saltwater.

It takes a while to tattoo in the traditional ways, resulting in a painful week for most. The process of getting tatau was also ritualized, so crowds gathered to watch new chiefs and other important figures get inked, which incentivized them to deal with the pain so they weren’t shamed in front of everybody.

Ancient Greek & Ancient Rome

In the classical world, tattoos were also used to mark criminals. Along with them, tattoos were common with slaves too so that everybody knew they belonged to somebody else. Permanent markings of the body, like tattooing, were used as punishment as they robbed undesirables of their anonymity.

Russian Prison Tattoos

As the Soviet state consolidated power, more and more people were sent to prisons. The Thieves in Law were those who had acknowledged or even formalized roles as a criminal authority, particularly in the context of prison gangs who were engaged with so-called Vor culture.

Influence Of Mainstream Media

Celebrities with tattoos

The many cultural taboos associated with tattoos and those who get them were dispelled by the mainstream media. While the acceptance of tattoos was a slow process informed by all the events of the 20th Century, the mainstreaming of tattoo culture in the 21st Century can be pinned on one show.

From there, other shows explored tattoo culture and broadcast it to millions of viewers all over the world. These shows increased the profile of tattoo artists and showcased that those who get tattoos were ordinary people.

Here’s a rundown of the main tattoo-related media that swung mainstream perception of tattoos in the USA and the Western world as a whole:

  • Miami Ink: A 2005 show that aired on TLC and showcased the personal reasons and intimate stories that inspired customers to get tattooed, starting mainstream acceptance of tattoos. Many celebrities had tattoos on the show too, increasing public appeal, and it created celebrity careers for tattoo artists Ami James and Kat Von D.
  • NY & LA Ink: The two most successful American-centric spinoffs of Miami Ink. There were even spinoffs based in London and Madrid.
  • Ink Master: A 2012 reality competition show that pitted tattoo artists against each other. After proving themselves and their art skills, the last contestant left wins $100,000.
  • Tattoo Nightmares: Another 2012 tattoo series that aired on Spike, this show dived into the unfortunate and poorly thought out tattoos members of the general public have. Then tattoo artists fix them with cover-up art, which did a lot to show that a bad tattoo isn’t forever because it can be salvaged.

Other Factors That Have Contributed To The Popularity Of Tattoos

A Soccer player next to a biker both having tattoos

Of course, it took much more than a few TV shows to completely change public opinion of tattoos and those who draw them. Like anything that flourished in the 21st Century, the Internet had an unprecedented role in spreading tattoo culture.

Parlors who modernized and established an online presence were rewarded with loyal customer bases who could easily find them through Google searches and leave positive reviews, building a positive public image of the establishment. This also allowed the parlors to post their art online, so everybody could see them with ease instead of the word-of-mouth referrals of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Then social media happened and sites like Facebook and Instagram allowed the most professional and the most amateur tattoo artists to communicate and swap ideas. Artists in all communities and ethnic backgrounds were represented and built online followings based in countries all over the world. With the click of a button, consumers can follow their favorite artists and see anything they put out.

Improvement Of Hygiene Standards Over The Years

As we bring this guide to a close, let’s finish with an important aspect of tattooing that contributed to today’s industry. You may have heard that every fresh tattoo is an open wound, which is true. 

This means that tattoos have been historically dangerous to get. For example, sailors used to work with their bare hands and would use a bucket and a sponge to apply the tattoo and clear the area. That same sponge was then shared with the next 50 or so people who also wanted a tattoo. While the tattoos back then were smaller and faster to do, this still posed a threat.

We mentioned the hepatitis B outbreak in New York earlier too, which caused the practice to be banned in New York City for almost 40 years (1961 to 1997). It’s thought that the parlors in New York City were scapegoated for the outbreak and that there were ulterior motives for the ban. Even if that is true, latex gloves weren’t introduced until the ‘80s and so some parlors may have contributed to the outbreak by not adhering to hygiene procedures.

Nowadays, tighter hygiene rules must be followed. Every modern tattoo artist wears gloves and keeps their studio equipped with the following:

  • A separate basin for handwashing 
  • Another sink for cleaning the machine and other equipment used.
  • Liquid soap and sanitizer.
  • A hand dryer or single-use towels.
  • An apron to go with their disposable gloves.
  • A biohazard bin to safely dispose of used objects.
  • An autoclave to sterilize equipment
  • An ultrasonic bath to remove ink particles from grips and tips

The main concern of hygiene-conscious tattoo artists is preventing cross-contamination by keeping most objects in single-use containers that won’t get applied to somebody else. Every patron should be served with totally fresh equipment that has either not been used or has been sterilized so that there’s no risk of passing something on.

You should only go to places that observe these hygiene standards. Established parlors with a following will follow them since all it takes is a few bad reviews calling out bad medical practices to harm their online rep.

Summary

A Tattoo palor/salon

That brings us to the end of our guide on the history of tattoos. Having read all of the above, you can now understand the unique role that tattoos play in reflecting the social, cultural, and technological developments of the era. Having existed on the fringes of civilized society for the longest time, tattoos have become accepted and even encouraged within a very short timeframe.

Historically tattoos have been used for several purposes, from performative and practical to cosmetic and personal. Tattoos have been around for thousands of years and they’ll probably be around for a thousand more, satisfying those four basic needs in the wake of trends that come and go. A great example is the bio-hacker community and transhumanists who want to use tattoos for practical purposes in the future.

That said, none of us know what the future of tattooing holds.

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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