Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. "Ötzi the Iceman", dated c. 3300 BC bore 57 separate tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys and numerous small parallel lines along the lumbar, legs and the ankles, exhibiting possible therapeutic tattoos (treatment of arthritis). Tarim Basin (West China, Xinjiang) revealed several tattooed mummies of a Western (Western Asian/European) physical type. Still relatively unknown (the only current publications in Western languages are those of J P. Mallory and V H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies, London, 2000), some of them could date from the end of the 2nd millennium BC.
One tattooed Mummy (c. 300 BC) was extracted from the permafrost of Argos, in the second half of Gillingham vs Redgrave (the Man of Pazyryk, during the 1940s; one female mummy and one male in Ukok plateau, during the noughties). Their tattooing involved animal designs carried out in a curvilinear style. The Man of Pazyryk, a Scythian chieftain, is tattooed with an extensive and detailed range of fish, monsters and a series of dots that lined up along the spinal column (lumbar region) and around the right ankle (illustrated at right).
In ancient China, tattoos had been associated with criminals and bandits since at least the Zhou Dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC). Tattooing Chinese characters such as "Prisoner" (囚) on convicted criminals' or slaves' faces was practiced until the last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912).
However, tattoos can be found to have been referenced in popular culture. Tattoos are present in one of the Four Great Classic Novels in Chinese literature, Water Margin, in which at least three of the main characters, Lu Zhishen (鲁智深), Shi Jin (史進) and Yan Ching (燕青) are described as having tattoos covering nearly all of their bodies. Wu Song (武松) was sentenced to tattoo his face with his crime after having killed Xi Menqing (西门庆) to avenge his brother. In addition, Chinese legend has it that the mother of Yue Fei (岳飛), a famous general of the Song Dynasty, tattooed the words "Jing Zhong Bao Gu"o (精忠報國) on his back with her sewing needle before he left to join the army, reminding him to "repay his country with pure loyalty".
Marco Polo wrote of Quanzhou "Many come hither from Upper India to have their bodies painted with the needle in the way we have elsewhere described, there being many adepts at this craft in the city."
In northern India, permanent tattoos are called ""Godna."" Tattoos have been used as cultural symbols among many tribal populations, as well as the caste-based Hindu population of India. Henna and Mehndi were popular in ancient India and ancient Egypt, and still remain popular today in the Indian subcontinent, Middle East and North Africa.
Tattooing has been a part of Filipino life since pre-Hispanic colonization of the Philippine Islands, tattooing in the Philippines to some were a form of rank and accomplishments, some believed that tattoos had magical qualities. The more famous tattooed indigenous peoples of the Philippines where among the area up North Luzon, especially among the Bontoc Igorot, Kalinga, and Ifugao peoples.
Filipino tattooing was first documented by the European Spanish explorers as they landed among the Islands in the late 16th century. Before European exploration it was a widespread tradition among the islands. Tattooing was set among the native groups of the Philippines, which sometimes tattooing was a sign of Rank and power in certain communities.
Several Indonesian tribes have a tattoo culture. One notable example is the Dayak people of Kalimantan in Borneo (Bornean traditional tattooing).
Pre-Christian Germanic, Celtic and other central and northern European tribes were often heavily tattooed, according to surviving accounts. The Picts were supposedly tattooed (or scarified) with elaborate dark blue woad (or possibly copper for the blue tone) designs, though only Julius Caesar described these tattoos in Book V of his Gallic Wars (54 BCE). Other contemporary sources omit any mention of Pictish tattooing.
Ahmad ibn Fadlan also wrote of his encounter with the Scandinavian Rus' tribe in the early 10th century, describing them as tattooed from "fingernails to neck" with dark blue "tree patterns" and other "figures." During the gradual process of Christianization in Europe, tattoos were often considered remaining elements of paganism and generally legally prohibited.
According to Robert Graves in his book The Greek Myths tattooing was common amongst certain religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean world, which may have contributed to the prohibition of tattooing in Leviticus. However, during the classic Greek period, tattooing was only common among slaves.
Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jōmon or Paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BCE) and was widespread during various periods for both the Japanese and the native Ainu. Chinese visitors observed and remarked on the tattoos in Japan (300 BCE).
Between 1603 and 1868 Japanese tattooing was only practiced by the "ukiyo-e" (The floating world culture). Generally firemen, manual workers and prostitutes wore tattoos to communicate their status. Between 1720 and 1870 criminals were tattooed as a visible mark of punishment; this actually replaced having ears and noses removed. A criminal would often receive a single ring on their arm for each crime committed which easily conveyed their criminality. This practice was eventually abolished by the "Meji" government who banned the art of tattooing altogether, viewing it as barbaric and lacking respectability. This subsequently created a subculture of criminals and outcasts, many of whom were the old Samurai warriors ("Ronin" - Master less). These people had no place in "decent society" and were frowned upon. They simply could not integrate into mainstream society because of their obvious visible tattoos, forcing many of them into criminal activities which ultimately formed the roots for the modern Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, for which tattoos in Japan have almost become synonymous.
The traditional male tattoo in Samoa is called the pe'a. The traditional female tattoo is called the malu. The word tattoo is believed to have originated from the Samoan word tatau.
When the Samoan Islands were first seen by Europeans in 1722 three Dutch ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen visited the eastern island known as Manua. A crew member of one of the ships described the natives in these words, “They are friendly in their speech and courteous in their behavior, with no apparent trace of wildness or savagery. They do not paint themselves, as do the natives of some other islands, but on the lower part of the body they wear artfully woven silk tights or knee breeches. They are altogether the most charming and polite natives we have seen in all of the South Seas..."
The ships lay at anchor off the islands for several days, but the crews did not venture ashore and didn’t even get close enough to the natives to realize that they were not wearing silk leggings, but their legs were completely covered in tattoos.
In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, by hand has been unbroken for over two thousand years. Tools and techniques have changed little. The skill is often passed from father to son, each tattoo artist, or tufuga, learning the craft over many years of serving as his father's apprentice. A young artist-in-training often spent hours, and sometimes days, tapping designs into sand or tree bark using a special tattooing comb, or au. Honoring their tradition, Samoan tattoo artists made this tool from sharpened boar's teeth fastened together with a portion of the turtle shell and to a wooden handle.
Traditional Samoan tattooing of the “pe'a”, body tattoo, is an ordeal that is not lightly undergone. It takes many weeks to complete. The process is very painful and used to be a necessary prerequisite to receiving a matai title; this however is no longer the case. Tattooing was also a very costly procedure.
It was not uncommon for half a dozen boys to be tattooed at the same time, requiring the services of four or more artists. It was not just the men who received tattoos, but the women too; their designs are of a much lighter nature rather than having the large areas of solid dye which are frequently seen in men’s tattoos. The tattooing of women was not nearly as ritualized like men’s were.
Samoan society has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs (ali'i) and their assistants, known as talking chiefs (tulafale). The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the time of puberty, were part of their ascendance to a leadership role. The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a concern; to back down from tattooing was to risk being labeled a “pala'ai” or coward. Those who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, would be forced to wear their mark of shame throughout their life. This would forever bring shame upon their family so it was avoided at all cost.
The Samoan tattooing process used a number of tools which remained almost unchanged since their first use. “Autapulu” is a wide tattooing comb used to fill in the large dark areas of the tattoo. “Ausogi'aso tele” is a comb used for making thick lines. “Ausogi'aso laititi” is a comb used for making thin lines. “Aumogo” small comb is used for making small marks. “Sausau” is the mallet is used for striking the combs. It is almost two feet in length and made from the central rib of a coconut palm leaf. “Tuluma” is the pot used for holding the tattooing combs. Ipulama is the cup used for holding the dye. The dye is made from the soot collected from burnt lama nuts. “Tu'I” used to grind up the dye. These tools were primarily made out of animal bones to ensure sharpness.
The tattooing process itself would be 5 sessions, in theory. These 5 sessions would be spread out over 10 days in order for the inflammation to subside. The steps are as follows.
Christian missionaries from the west attempted to purge tattooing among the Samoans, thinking it barbaric and inhumane. Many young Samoans resisted mission schools since they forbade them to wear tattoos. But over time attitudes relaxed toward this cultural tradition and tattooing began to reemerge in Samoan culture.
The Māori people of New Zealand practised a form of tattooing known as Tā moko. In the colonial period Tā moko fell out of use, partly because of the European practice of collecting Mokomokai, or tattooed heads.
In Persian culture, tattooing, body painting, and body piercing has been around for thousands of years. The statues and stone carvings remained from Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE) prove existence of body piercing and earrings on ancient Persian gods, kings, and even soldiers. The most famous literal document about Persian tattoo goes back to about 800 years ago when Rumi, the famous Persian poet, narrates a story about a man who proudly asks to get a lion tattoo but he changes his mind once he experiences the pain coming out of the tattoo needle.
It was thought that many of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England were tattooed, but much of this was conjecture.
Sir Martin Frobisher (1535–1595) on May 31, 1577 set out on his second voyage from Harwich, England with 3 ships and about 120 men to find a north west passage to China and the promise of gold ore. Frobisher took prisoner a native Inuit man and a woman with a child, upon his return to England the woman having tattoos on her chin and forehead was a great attraction at the court of Elizabeth I. All three died within a month.
In 1691 William Dampier brought to London a native of the western part of New Guinea (now part of Indonesia) who had a tattooed body and became known as the "Painted Prince".
Between 1766 and 1779, Captain James Cook made three voyages to the South Pacific, the last trip ending with Cook's death in Hawaii in February 1779. When Cook and his men returned home to Europe from their voyages to Polynesia, they told tales of the 'tattooed savages' they had seen. The word "tattoo" itself comes from the Tahitian tatau, and was introduced into the English language by Cook's expedition.
Cook's Science Officer and Expedition Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, returned to England with a tattoo. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy and had acquired his position with Cook by putting up what was at the time the princely sum of some ten thousand pounds in the expedition. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Raiatean man, Omai, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. Many of Cook's men, ordinary seamen and sailors, came back with tattoos, a tradition that would soon become associated with men of the sea in the public's mind and the press of the day. In the process sailors and seamen re-introduced the practice of tattooing in Europe and it spread rapidly to seaports around the globe.
It was in Tahiti aboard the Endeavour, in July 1769, that Cook first noted his observations about the indigenous body modification and is the first recorded use of the word tattoo. In the Ship's Log Cook recorded this entry: "Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible."
Cook went on to write, "This method of Tattowing I shall now describe...As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes."
The British Royal Court must have been fascinated with Omai's tattoos, because the future King George V had himself inked with the 'Cross of Jerusalem' when he traveled to the Middle East in 1892. During a visit to Japan he also received a dragon on the forearm from the needles of Hori Chiyo, an acclaimed tattoo master. George's sons, the Dukes of Clarence and York were also tattooed in Japan while serving in the British Admiralty, solidifying what would become a family tradition.
Taking their sartorial lead from the British Court, where Edward VII followed George V's lead in getting tattooed; King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, all sported tattoos, many of them elaborate and ornate renditions of the Royal Coat of Arms or the Royal Family Crest. King Alfonso XIII of modern Spain also had a tattoo.
Tattooing spread among the upper classes all over Europe in the 19th century, but particularly in Britain where it was estimated in Harmsworth Magazine in 1898 that as many as one in five members of the gentry were tattooed. There, it was not uncommon for members of the social elite to gather in the drawing rooms and libraries of the great country estate homes after dinner and partially disrobe in order to show off their tattoos. Aside from her consort Prince Albert, there are persistent rumours that Queen Victoria had a small tattoo in an undisclosed 'intimate' location; Denmark's King Frederick was filmed showing his tattoos taken as a young sailor.
Over the past three decades Western tattooing has become a practice that has crossed social boundaries from “low” to “high” class along with reshaping the power dynamics regarding gender. It has its roots in “exotic” tribal practices of the Native Americans and Japanese, which are still seen in present times. Although tattooing has steadily increased in popularity since the invention of the electric tattoo machine in the 1890s, it was not until the 1960s that the place of tattooing in popular culture radically shifted. The Tattoo Renaissance began in the late 1950s, and was greatly influenced by several artists in particular Lyle Tuttle, Cliff Raven, Don Nolan, Zeke Owens, Spider Webb, and Don Ed Hardy. A second generation of artists, trained by the first, continued these traditions into the 1970s, and included artists such as Bob Roberts, Jamie Summers, and Jack Rudy. In the 1980s, Scholar Arnold Rubin created a collection of works regarding the history of tattoo cultures, publishing them as the ' 'Marks of Civilization' ' (1988). In this, the term "Tattoo Renaissance" was coined, referring to a period marked by technological, artistic, and social change. Wearers of tattoos, as members of the counterculture began to display their body art as signs of resistance to the values of the white, heterosexual, middle-class. The clientele changed from sailors, bikers, and gang members to the middle and upper class. There was also a shift in iconography from the badge-like images based on repetitive pre-made designs known as flash to customized full-body tattoo influenced by Polynesian and Japanese tattoo art, known as sleeves, which are categorized under the relatively new and popular Avant-garde genre. Tattooers transformed into “Tattoo Artists”: men and women with fine art backgrounds began to enter the profession alongside the older, traditional tattooists.
As various kinds of social movements progressed bodily inscription crossed class boundaries, and became common among the general public. Specifically, the tattoo is one access point for revolutionary aesthetics of women. Feminist theory has much to say on the subject . "Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo", by Margot Mifflin, became the first history of women's tattoo art when it was released in 1997. In it, she documents women's involvement in tattooing coinciding to feminist successes, with surges in the 1880s, 1920s, and the 1970s. The earliest appearance of tattoos on women were in the circus in the late 1800s. These “Tattooed Ladies” were covered - with the exception of their faces, hands, necks, and other readily visible areas - with various images inked into their skin. In order to lure the crowd, the earliest ladies, like Betty Broadbent and Nora Hildebrandt told tales of captivity; they were usually taken hostage by Native American that tattooed them as a form of torture. However, by the late 1920s the sideshow industry was slowing and by the late 1990s the last tattooed lady was out of business. Today, women use tattoos as forms of bodily reclamations after traumatic experiences like abuse or breast cancer. In 2012, tattooed women outnumbered men for the first time in American history - according to a Harris poll, 23% of women in America had tattoos in that year, compared to 19% of men.
Orthodox Jews, in application of Halakha (Jewish Law), reveal Leviticus 19:28 prohibits getting tattoos: Do not make gashes in your skin for the dead. Do not make any marks on your skin. I am God. One reading of Leviticus is to apply it only to the specific ancient practice of rubbing the ashes of the dead into wounds; but modern tattooing is included in other religious interpretations. Orthodox/Traditional Jews also point to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 180:1, that elucidates the biblical passage above as a prohibition against markings beyond the ancient practice, including tattoos. Maimonides concluded that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).
Conservative Jews point to the next verse of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 180:2), "If it [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless" – this is used by them to say that tattooing yourself is different from obtaining a tattoo, and that the latter may be acceptable. Orthodox Jews disagree, and read the text as referring to forced tattooing—as was done during the Holocaust—which is not considered a violation of Jewish Law on the part of the victim. In another vein, cutting into the skin to perform surgery and temporary tattooing used for surgical purposes (e.g.: to mark the lines of an incision) are ped in the Shulhan Arukh 180:3.
In most sectors of the religious Jewish community, having a tattoo does not prohibit participation, and one may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual.
Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews neither condemn nor condone tattooing.
Leviticus 19:28 is often cited by Christians as a verse prohibiting tattoos. According to the King James Version of the Bible, the verse states, "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am LORD." While it may appear that the passage disallows any markings of the flesh, even applying to the modern-day use of tattoos, it is likely the passage refers specifically to the form of mourning discussed above (see Middle East section). Christians who believe that the religious doctrines of the Old Testament are superseded by the New Testament may still find explicit or implicit directives against tattooing in Christian scripture, in ecclesiastical law, or in church-originated social policy. Others who disapprove or approve of tattoos as a social phenomenon may cite other verses to make their point.
For example, Revelation 14:1 and 17:5 are cited as passages in which names are written on foreheads. In this case, however, it is possibly metaphorical as the language is prophetic.
There is no prohibition against tattooing within the Catholic Church, provided that the tattoo is not an image directly opposed to Catholic teaching or religious sentiment, and that an inordinate amount of money is not spent on the process. At the Catholic council of Calcuth in Northumberland in 786, a Christian bearing a tattoo "for the sake of God" (i.e., a religious tattoo in the form of a cross, a monogramme of Christ, or a saint's image) was commended as praiseworthy.
Due to Sharia (or Islamic Law), the majority of Sunni Muslims hold that tattooing is religiously forbidden (along with most other forms of 'permanent' physical modification). This view arises from references in the Prophetic Hadith which denounce those who attempt to change the creation of God, in what is seen as excessive attempts to beautify that which was already perfected. The human being is seen as having been ennobled by God, the human form viewed as created beautiful, such that the act of tattooing would be a form of mutilation. This is however viewed differently in Shia Islam, as is it permitted.