The History of Tattoos

What’s a tattoo, anyway?!?

According to Webster’s, a tattoo is “an indelible mark or figure fixed upon the body by insertion of pigment under the skin or by production of scars.”

That’s the technical definition. Tattoos are artwork on a person’s body, not just painted on the surface of the skin, but created by droplets of ink that stay underneath the skin, several layers deep.

Tattoos are an incredibly popular art form today. Millions of people express their identity and artistic style by choosing unique designs for themselves. But have you ever wondered when this art form really began?

Well, there are two parts to the answer.

The first known use of the word “tattoo” was in 1777. But the actual art form goes back a whole lot longer than the vocabulary. Whatever word they used to describe it, human beings have been decorating their bodies this way for thousands of years.

Experts have found conclusive evidence of the use of tattoos dating back to 1200 B.C. But some believe that an ice-man discovered in 1991 had tattoos, and he was carbon dated as having lived approximately 5,200 years ago.

Can you imagine what it was like to be a human being more than 5,000 years ago, struggling to survive with only primitive tools and shelter … but still making the effort to show your unique identity by putting markings on your body?

Some human longings transcend technology, culture, language and time. We all want to be known for who we truly are….

Were the Iceman’s tattoos “only” decorative? Maybe not. The Iceman had tattoos of dots and crosses on his lower back, knees and ankles. Because of the placement on those areas of the body, Professor Don Brothwell of the University of York believes the tattoos might have been designed to reduce pain, somewhat like acupuncture.

We know that the ancient Egyptians also practiced this art form, because some female mummies have been found with tattoos. Their tattoos were located on the breasts, top of the thighs and across the abdomen, which would become net-like as the belly expanded. These locations make some believe that the Egyptians wanted these markings to protect women and their babies from the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. There are other theories as well. Some of the excavators believe these mummies were from the lower classes, and might have been dancing girls or prostitutes. Others theorize that older women were responsible for the task of tattooing younger women. Slaves in the ancient world may have also been tattooed as permanent identification, to prevent them from trying to escape their owner.

In ancient times, warriors of many cultures also got tattoos to show their status and reputation.

Jumping forward a few centuries, tattoos became popular in England in the late 1800s when Edward VII, Prince of Wales gave himself a tattoo of a cross.

Across the pond in America, Martin Hildebrandt, one of the first “modern” tattoo artists, was opening his tattoo parlor in New York City. Hildebrandt opened his shop in order to help those who couldn’t get to England to get the tattoo they wanted. Hildebrandt’s main customers became American soldiers.

Getting tattoos was popular with two very different types of clientele in America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

One type of early American tattoo customer was people working in the circus. They chose their artwork for shock value. In this time frame, women with all-over body tattoos were almost always performers in circus side shows.

During that era, the other kind of people getting tattoos were warriors and military personnel. 18th Century American military, specifically seamen, tattooed themselves to avoid being impressed into the British Navy.

Military tattoos continued from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War to WWI and II and all the way to modern times, including Operation Desert Storm and the Afghanistan War. There are many reasons why military personnel get tattooed. Some tattoos are to bring memories from home. Some commemorate their service,or even serve as therapy. In some cases military personnel will get tattoos as a means of identification during war times.

In World War II, identification tattoos were used on Jewish people in internment camps, in an effort to dehumanize these people. Although for the Jewish people these tattoos bring back horrible memories, for survivors of that terrible time, their tattoos can now be regarded as badges of courage and strength.

Today, there almost seems to be a tattoo shop on every corner, and everyone from high school students to great-grandparents may be “inked” somewhere on their body, with a design that represents something about their personality and sense of style.

It’s not just warriors, circus performers, athletes or celebrities anymore. In fact, one study shows that 38% of people aged 18-29 have a minimum of one tattoo. From the Iceman’s era, to our modern day, this is an art form that has endured through centuries.

Through human history, how many billions of individual human beings have chosen a special design for the tattoo on their body? What were their stories? Because of course, every tattoo has a story….

<<<Take me back to see more Tattoo Stories>>>

Wanna share your story? You know what to do! Just send your video, or a picture with your written story  about your tattoo (whatever length you’d like) to We’d love to share your tattoo story with the rest of the world, right here.