The History of Tattoos

Whether or not you personally approve of body art, you have to admit that the history of tattoos is a long one. For the longest time, the earliest actual evidence of tattoos was on Egyptian mummies dated back to 2,000 BC. So it was accepted that tattoos have been around since the building of the pyramids, although many experts believe that the origin of tattoos is much more ancient.

Then in 1991, hikers on the Alps near the Italy-Austria border stumbled upon the mummified remains of what turned out to be a prehistoric human. Carbon dating put it at more than 5,300 years old. Its most notable feature was that the body had at least 75 distinct tattoos, spread from the ankles to the upper neck.

Ancient Civilizations and Tattoos

In many parts of the world, the spread of tattoos was due to the spread of Egyptian influence. But tattoos have also adorned the bodies of isolated communities, such as the Maoris. Each group had different purposes for them:

  • In ancient Egypt, tattoos were believed to safeguard women during pregnancy.
  • Tattoos adorned the male leaders in the Libyan neighbors of Ancient Egypt.
  • Herodotus wrote that tattoos were the mark of nobility among the Thracians and Scythians.
  • The ancient Britons used them as a mark of high status. The Romans who fought them even called one tribe the “Picts”, literally meaning “painted people”.
  • Among other ancient Greeks and Romans, it was also used as a mark of “belonging”, either to a religious sect or to a master in case of slaves. Sometimes it was used to mark criminals, which is a practice that endures even up to today.
  • The Maoris also tattooed their face for high status. This is a very popular reason, as it was why tattoos were used among the Ainu, in Borneo, and among Dayak warriors.
  • The people who arrived in England, such as the Saxons, Danes, and other Norsemen, used tattoos of family crests to identify their people.
  • In Japan, it started as a way to mark criminals. But around the start of the 1700s, it became a custom that only royalty could wear ornate clothes. So the Japanese people used tattoos as adornment.


In the West, there have been many movements to ban tattoos. The first notable instance was when the Christian Emperor Constantine banned them during the 300s AD because they disfigured the human body, which was in God’s image. Then in 787, Pope Hadrian banned them too. The Normans ended tattooing in Britain when they invaded in 1066.

Western Culture didn’t have tattoos from the 1200s to the 1600s. Even though from the 1700s onward there were times when tattoos were in fashion, they were just fads. They were painful, they took too long, and they caused outbreaks of hepatitis.

Modern Resurgence

Tattoos began their resurgence in the 1960s when it was part of the counter-culture. It was for tough guys—military enlisted men (especially sailors), bikers, and criminals. But today, it’s more popular than ever before.

  • 36% of Americans aged 18-25 have at least one tattoo.
  • The tattoo industry is the 6th fastest-growing retail business in America.
  • Google reports 147 million tattoo related searches each month.

The new popularity of tattoos has been attributed to shows such as Miami Ink in 2005. More and more celebrities displayed them, and fans emulated them. These were seen on basketball players, musicians, and actors. With social media, the notion spread that tattoos are now mainstream. So it seems that the history of tattoos has a long way to go!

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