The etymological origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is believed to have two major derivations; the first is from the Polynesian word ta which means striking something and the second is the Tahitian word tatau which means ‘to mark something’. The use of tattoos is recorded to have begun thousands of years ago and its history is as varied, colorful and diverse as the people who carry them. From a simple scientific standpoint – tattoos are created the insertion of colored materials beneath the skins’ surface or epidermis. The first tattoos were most likely created unintentionally. Someone with a small wound or gash happened to rub it with a dirty hand that was covered with soot or ash. Once the wound had healed, they realized that the skin had healed over the ash and that the mark became a permanent addition.
Our knowledge of tattooing in Europe really begins with the Ancient Greek and Roman historians. The only sources of information before this are archeological finds which are scare and, above all, open to interpretations. It is possible that tattooing cultures already existed in Europe before the last Great Ice Ace, 12,000 years ago. Bowls with traces of black and red pigments along with sharpened flint instruments were discovered in the Grotte des Fees (Fairy Grotto) in Chatelperron – France, 1867, and in caves in Portugal and Scandinavia. The shape and size of the tools suggest that they have been used for tattooing.
Images of people decorated with what appear to be four tattooed horizontal lines on both sides of their noses have been found on prehistoric stone pillars in Aveyron and Tarn, France. Clay Cucuteni figures dating from 5,000 BC showing traces of tattoos have been found in the Romanian Danube region. Drawings and figurines discovered in a Thracian burial mound near Philippopolis may depict tattooed people, but considering the complexity of the decorations it is more likely that these represent body painting or finely worked figurines. The main reason for the disappearance of ancient traditions in many places was the ending of their almost total isolation. After centuries of living as more or less equivalent cultures indigenous populations were overwhelmed by the dominant European seafaring nations. The technological and militarily superior Europeans introduced their own value systems based on Christian beliefs. Like the Greeks and the Chinese before them the Europeans disdained the practices of the inhabitants of the newly discovered regions. It could not have escaped the notice of the natives that many of the mainly male adventurers found the permanent body decorations of the ‘otherwise so attractive’ women disdainful. Similarly, many Greenland Inuit women rejected the traditional facial tattoos, fearing that mainland men would find them unattractive.
In 1991, ‘Otzi the Ice Man’ made the headlines of newspapers all over the world when his frozen body was discovered on a mountain between Austria and Italy
In 1948 – just over 200 kilometers North of the borders between Russia and China – Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko began excavating…
Various written manuscripts, actual physical remains and works of tattoo art pertaining to the Egyptian period had mostly been ignored by earlier Egyptologyists
The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan is found in clay figurines with painted or engraved faces representing tattoos
From Southern China the practice spread along the silk-route
In pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world
The Maori of New Zealand had created one of the most impressive tattoo cultures of all those in Polynesia
Borneo is a rare example of where traditional tribal tattooing is still practiced in just the same way as it has been for thousands of years
India / Thailand
Hanuman in India was a popular symbol of strength on arms and legs
In Africa, where people have dark skin, it is difficult to make coloured tattoos as we know them
Ancient Greece & Rome
The Roman tattoo culture derived from that of the Greeks, a pattern common to many aspects of Roman culture
Were a tribal people who moved across Western Europe in times around 1200 and 700 B.C.
Central & South America
In Peru, tattooed Inca mummies dating to the 11th century have been found
Early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among Native Americans
During the time of the old testament, much of the Pagan world was practicing the art of tattooing as a means of deity worship
It is very likely that the vikings were tattooed
Explorers returned home with tattooed Polynesians to exhibit at fairs, in lecture halls and in dime museums…
In the 18’th century, many French sailors returning from travels to the South Pacific often arrived back in port tattooed
Stereotypical and Sensationalized Associations of Tattoo Designs
Often returned to port with tattoos they received during their voyage
For hundreds of years the practice of tattooing was believed to be reserved for sailors, cultural outcasts, the marginalized and criminals
The prevalence of tattooing during the late 19’th and early 20’th century owed much to the once popular circus
As with other artistic mediums and cultural developments, vocabulary continually evolves