Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Tattooing is an art form that has existed for thousands of years in cultures around the globe. It’s likely that different groups of people independently discovered the ability to make permanent marks upon the skin, and many chose to incorporate this into their own cultures. Still others were likely introduced to the concept of tattooing when they visited new lands or were host to travelers themselves.
The acceptance of tattoos has also been fairly dependent upon cultures. In many Western countries, tattoos were considered to be low-class, while other cultures viewed them as signs of status. The background of why different groups view tattoos differently is a complex one that is informed by religion, history, and the use of the tattoos themselves.
Obviously, there are no written records of the practices of pre-historic humans. After all, that’s why it’s “pre-historic.” So, we don’t really know what went on as far as tattooing during this time. We do get a little glimpse into pre-history, however, with the discovery of a five-thousand-year-old frozen human. Scientists refer to him as “Ozti the Iceman”, and his body was discovered frozen in the Alps.; Ozti was covered in tattoos!
There is evidence that tattooing may be even older than this man from the Bronze Age, though. There are some clay statues in Japan that are thought to be about ten thousand years old. These figures are of humans, and the marks on their bodies seem to indicate that at least some people from that time wore tattoos.
Really, Really Old Tattoos
Without necessarily drawing the line between “history” and “prehistory,” there are other examples of really, really old cultures that incorporated tattooing. Bodies of Siberians from nearly 2,500 years ago have been found with tattoos depicting animals. Remains from North America have also been found that show tattoos from approximately 1,500 years ago.
Even older tattoos can be found when one looks at mummies from both Egypt and South America. Female mummies from Egypt have been found with tattoos on the thighs and stomach, leading archaeologists to theorize they were fertility symbols. South American mummies dating back 3,000 years have been found with animals depicted in their skin.
Tattoos for Punishment, Possession, and Prisoners
Perhaps part of the reason that such a stigma was placed upon tattoos is the fact that they were often used as a form of punishment in various cultures. (Interestingly, the Latin word for tattoo was “stigma.”) Tattoos were commonly used to mark slaves, a practice that stretches back into Greek and Roman times, and were also used to punish criminals. Those caught stealing, for example, might be forcibly tattooed so that others would be able to identify them as thieves.
The practice of tattooing for these purposes became less commonly practiced in the Western world with a decree from the Roman Emperor Constantine when he adopted Christianity as the official religion of his empire. More than 450 years later, Pope Hadrian I prohibited any tattooing at all.
A more modern example of the use of tattoos that has further added stigma is their complex history with prisoners of all types. Particularly disturbing is the image of Holocaust prisoners who were tattooed with identification numbers on their wrists. Not all prisoners come by their tattoos by force, however. “Jailhouse” tattoos are quite common, with varying levels of quality. There’s a whole cultural aspect to tattoos within the prison system, with different designs representing crimes and punishments.
Growing Acceptance in the US
In large part due to the prevalence of Christianity in the US, tattooing was not looked upon favorably for a very long time. There were people who broke with tradition and got ink anyway, and many of them were soldiers and sailors who chose tattoos as permanent reminders of those back home, as well as of their experiences in the armed services. Rather surprisingly, Christian symbols (along with patriotic images) were particularly popular.
It wasn’t until the 1890s, however, that a more accessible method of tattooing (the tattoo machine) was created. It suddenly became much easier and desirable to get ink. Tattooing still had a long way to go before it gained more acceptance, and for a long time it was still viewed as low-class, with connections to gang and prison life.
That is not the case today, however. Everyone from soccer moms to celebrities now sport tattoos. One estimate says that almost 40% of Americans under forty have a tattoo. This is great news for the aspiring tattoo artist and goes to show how the acceptance of this art form has grown incredibly in the last few decades.