The tattoo history in humans is long and varied. Humans have marked their bodies with
tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have
served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of
punishment. Joann Fletcher, research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain,
describes the history of tattoos and their cultural significance to people around the world, from the famous "
Iceman," a 5,200-year-old frozen mummy, to today’s Maori.
What is the earliest evidence of tattoos?
In terms of tattoos on actual bodies, the earliest known examples were for a long time
Egyptian and were present on several female mummies dated to c. 2000 B.C. But following the more recent discovery
of the Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 and his tattoo patterns, this date has been
pushed back a further thousand years when he was carbon-dated at around 5,200 years old.
There's certainly evidence that women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs from figurines
c. 4000-3500 B.C. to occasional female figures represented in tomb scenes c. 1200 B.C. and in figurine form c. 1300
B.C., all with tattoos on their thighs. Also small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered
at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt and dated to c. 1450 B.C. And then, of course, there are the mummies
with tattoos, from the three women already mentioned and dated to c. 2000 B.C. to several later examples of female
mummies with these forms of permanent marks found in Greco-Roman burials at Akhmim.
Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found
with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of "dubious
status," described in some cases as "dancing girls." The female mummies had nevertheless been buried at Deir
el-Bahari (opposite modern Luxor) in an area associated with royal and elite burials, and we know that at least one
of the women described as "probably a royal concubine" was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as
revealed by her funerary inscriptions.
And although it has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or
were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases, I personally believe that the tattooing of
ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very
difficult time of pregnancy and birth. This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the
abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts, and would also explain the specific types of designs, in particular
the net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. During pregnancy, this specific pattern would expand in
a protective fashion in the same way bead nets were placed over wrapped mummies to protect them and "keep
everything in." The placing of small figures of the household deity Bes at the tops of their thighs would again
suggest the use of tattoos as a means of safeguarding the actual birth, since Bes was the protector of women in
labor, and his position at the tops of the thighs a suitable location. This would ultimately explain tattoos as a
purely female custom.
In Japan, tattoos are strongly associated with the yakuza, particularly full body
tattoos done the traditional Japanese way (Tebori). Certain public Japanese bathhouses (sentô) and gymnasiums often
openly ban those bearing large or graphic tattoos in an attempt to prevent Yakuza from entering.
In the United States many prisoners and criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their
criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation. A tear tattoo, for example, can be
symbolic of murder, with each tear representing the death of a friend. At the same time, members of the U.S.
military have an equally well established and longstanding history of tattooing to indicate military units,
battles, kills, etc., an association which remains widespread among older Americans. Tattooing is also common in
the British Armed Forces.
Insofar as this cultural or subcultural use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity
of tattoos in the general population, tattoos are still associated with criminality. Although the general
acceptance of tattoos is on the rise in Western society, they still carry a heavy stigma among certain social
The prevalence of women in the tattoo industry, along with larger numbers of women bearing
tattoos, is changing negative perceptions. A study of "at-risk" (as defined by school absenteeism
and truancy) adolescent girls showed a positive correlation between body-modification and negative feelings towards
the body and self-esteem; however, also illustrating a strong motive for body-modification as the search for "self
and attempts to attain mastery and control over the body in an age of increasing alienation." Tattoos have
experienced a resurgence in popularity in many parts of the world, particularly in North and South America, Japan,
and Europe. The growth in tattoo culture has seen an influx of new artists into the industry, many of whom have
technical and fine arts training. Coupled with advancements in tattoo pigments and the ongoing refinement of the
equipment used for tattooing, this has led to an improvement in the quality of tattoos being produced.
During the first decade of the 21st century, the presence of tattoos became evident within
pop culture, inspiring television shows such as A&E's Inked and TLC's Miami Ink and LA Ink.
Tattoos are generally considered an important part of the culture of the Russian mafia.
Tattoo's signify the rank of the soldier within the hierarchy of the criminal organization.
Formal interest in the art of the tattoo has become prominent in the 1990s through the
beginning of the 21st century. Contemporary art exhibitions and visual art institutions have featured tattoos as
art through such means as displaying tattoo flash, examining the works of tattoo artists, or otherwise
incorporating examples of body art into mainstream exhibits. One such 2009 Chicago exhibition Freaks & Flash
featured both examples of historic body art as well as the tattoo artists which produced it. A decline often
occurred in other cultures following European efforts to convert aboriginal and indigenous people to Western
religious and cultural practices that held tattooing to be a "pagan" or "heathen" activity. Within some traditional
indigenous cultures, tattooing takes place within the context of a rite of passage between adolescence and
Many studies have been done of the tattooed population and society's view of tattoos. In
June 2006 the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology published the results of a telephone survey which took
place in 2004. It found that 36% of Americans ages 18–29, 24% of those 30-40 and 15% of those 41-51 had a tattoo.
In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a telephone survey which found that 36% of Americans ages
18–25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo. In January 2008, a survey conducted online by Harris
Interactive estimated that 14% of all adults in the United States have a tattoo, just slightly down from 2003, when
16% had a tattoo.
In many cases, it seems to have sprung up independently as a permanent way to place
protective or therapeutic symbols upon the body, then as a means of marking people out into appropriate social,
political or religious groups, or simply as a form of self-expression or fashion statement.
Yet, as in so many other areas of adornment, there was of course cross-cultural influences, such as those which
existed between the Egyptians and Nubians, the Thracians and Greeks and the many cultures encountered by Roman
soldiers during the expansion of the Roman Empire in the final centuries B.C. and the first centuries A.D. And,
certainly, Polynesian culture is thought to have influenced Maori tattoos.
Today, tattoos are now a cultural phenomena, where everyone from celebrities to sports
stars, show off their tattoos to the paparazzi and the mass media to document. From Angelina Jolie to David Beckam,
the influence of tattoo on pop culture cannot be denied. The question is, how do these tattoo's age. As this
generation of highly tattooed individuals age, how will they deal with the related stigma of having large amounts
of tattoos' on an aging body.