Tattoos have seen a popular upswing as of late. Stroll through a neighborhood in San Francisco or Brooklyn during the summer and you’re bound to see a riot of color painted onto skin, peeking out of tank tops and shorts. But it’s not a new trend, for thousands of years people have been implementing that ink, whether for religions, social hierarchies, or even personal expression.
And the most fascinating part of this long history is why these cultures established a fundamental design aesthetic. Imagery and motifs that are used as the basis for work done today. So if you already have some ink, or are thinking about getting some, learn a bit about the history of the medium and how body marking has made its mark on the world.
Nearly the oldest tattooes on record come Ötzi the Ice Man, a natural mummy (read, got caught in a glacier) dating back 5,200 years ago. This dude, discovered in 1991 in the Alps, now sits in the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, Italy.
The body has over 60 tattoos consisting of dots and clusters of lines along lower spine, knee and ankle joints. Scientists have hypothesized that given the degeneration in these areas of the body that the origin could be therapeutic — a proto-acupuncture or marking for other treatments.
Women dominate the scene of Egyptian tattoo culture, with lady mummies from as far back as 2000 BC displaying evidence of the art. The lines, dots, and diamonds parade across their thighs and torsos, found on the famous mummy of Hathor’s Priestess Amunet. The designs are interpreted as protective of fertility and health, and potentially performed during pregnancy.
With rich histories like those in Egypt, it’s almost impossible to say that any cultural tradition served a single purpose. So somewhat less commonly, the designs are also seen as status indicators, or as a form of punishment.
Fantastical renderings of Pict body art (via UCLA)
Indicators of social status
Tattoo culture has pretty much always been inextricably tied to the lineal culture of Samoa. The art passes down through families from father to son. They learn the art of the Au, the tattoing comb made from sharpened boar’s teeth, turtle shell, and wood.
The tattoes are a part of ceremony for newly crowned chiefs as well as a representation of the ascension out of puberty. The complex geometric designs marked most often into the leg and torso each have their own meaning, designed by the tattoo artist and representative of their human canvas.
La Isla de los Pintados or Islands of the Painted Ones — what the Spanish first deemed the Philippines upon arrival. Particularly in the Northern provice of Luzon, there’s a deep history of tattooing as a symbol of social rank or beauty, depending on gender. For men, they could often represent victory in battle and for women act as a mark of adornment.
You might lately have heard of Whang Od, the oldest known female tattooist — now in her 90s. She livies in a Kalinga tribe of Buscalon, and travelers from all over the world come to experience the disappearing art of hers, documenting their experiences in travel blogs.
There isn’t as much evidence of the tattoo culture of South and Central America, the majority of reports coming from Conquistadors reporting back about the painted peoples they discovered in new lands. But the oldest body art discovery in the world is on the upper lip of a Chinchorro mummy of South America, from 6000 BC, and another famous find in the area was the mummy of a Moche woman, with intricate tattoos running up and down her arms.
There is a bit we do know: the Naszca, for instance, famous for their pictographic images etched into large tracts of earth, supposedly tattooed their lower torsos, limbs, hands, fingers, thumbs, and faces. Many of the early tribes show evidence of similar things, but with the rise of the Incans the tattoo culture faded out. The higher born believed that the Sun God had already made them perfect.
One of the most fascinating mysteries of this art’s history is that of British isle peoples: Celts, Picts, Scots. Reported by the Romans of having large swaths of tattoos, historians aren’t sure whether these were temporary painted images or permanent marks. It’s even in a name — the word Picts derives from the idea of images on skin, a derivative of Latin “The Painted Ones,” for bodies covered in savage animals.
Association with criminality
Though Japanese tattooes likely initially took on a spiritual or religious significance, during early years of the AD they morphed into meaning that they to this day cannot shed — an implication of punishment or criminality.
The shift was a reflection of the Chinese culture that so influenced Japan at the time, a negative attitude toward the permanent practice. Early on, symbols represented specific crimes and the locations where they were committed. Their addition to someone’s face or arms represented a theoretical end to a criminal’s social status and family life.
Rising in popularity during the Edo period starting in the 1600s, decorative tattooing came about in part through the concealing of criminal tattoos. Slightly later in the Meiji period, the famous large body-tattoes of the Yakuza and other syndicates were more and more associated with crime, their display forbidden in public areas.
As ritual and celebration
Tribes around the Bering Sea have been tattooing for 3,500 years. As with many cultures, the practice is commonly associated with women and with a focus on the face — eyebrows, cheeks, and chins. The artists were older respected women, skilled with detailed hand-work.
Tied with spiritual and cultural rituals of the tribe, the imagery had many forms and functions. For example, funerary tattoes around St. Lawrence island involved dots around the convergence of specific joints. Circles also represented life and death, and could represent a spirit helping to prevent drowning or disease. More broadly, women’s chin stripes were a sign of maturity and puberty, and men’s as a representation of successful kills — animal or enemy.
Indian and South Asian
Yes, yes, mehndi aren’t permanent. We know. But with such an important contemporary cultural presence, we couldn’t ignore this particular tradition. As early as the bronze age, henna techniques have been symbolic in Vedic customs as a representation of a person’s inner light, as a blessing. The designs represented life’s important cultural celebrations — battle victories, births, weddings. Though in modern times it’s a practice more associated with women, throughout history men have also received decoration, all often on the hands and feet.
Though India is the most famous place for this practice, North Africa, Arabia, and other parts of South Asia also have long practiced these arts. And it isn’t relegated to the Hindu religion, with Muslim and Jewish cultures also participating.
A mummy of a woman and two men, in all likelihood a princess and two warriors, discovered on the Ukok Plateau. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Altai Mountains, the junction of Russia, China, Monglia, and Kazakhstan.
The Scythian and Pazyryk nomadic people might not be some of the most famous. But from 5th century B.C., our evidence of the most intricate and figural ancient tattoos can be found in their mummified remains. Mystic animals decorating limbs, torsos, shoulders, wrists and thumbs.
It’s believed these were personal identification and status symbols, as well as for religious purposes — for people to find one another in death.
The Maori of New Zealand also use the art to mark status on an individual level. With their special chisel instruments made from albatross bones, sacred tattoo artists carved unique designs about status, rank, ancestry, abilities into the skin. Nose and lip centric both for men and women, the art can also be on the thighs and torsos.