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Tattoo History Overview

This may come as a surprise, but tattoos are not a modern, Western-culture invention. In fact, there’s evidence that humans from many different cultures were tattooing each other as far back as 5,000 years ago! This article is a brief tattoo history overview, looking at tattoos across cultures from ancient to modern times.

Earliest Evidence of Tattoos

In 1991, a body was discovered buried in the deep snow of the Otzal Alps. He was over 5,000 years old and his body (remarkably preserved) was covered in 57 tattoos. Affectionately named Otzi the Iceman, he is Europe’s oldest human mummy and is the earliest record of human tattooing.


Other tattooed mummies and human remains have been discovered in 49 different places around the world, including Egypt, Mongolia, Sudan, China, and even Alaska.


Why Did Ancient Cultures Tattoo?

Though we don’t have all the answers as to why certain cultures throughout time have practiced tattooing, some reasons have been uncovered. For instance, in Samoa where tattooing has been practiced for over 2,000 years, the tradition of giving and receiving tattoos is an important part of their society marking a young man’s ascension to a position of leadership.


Other reasons for early tattoos include religious ceremonial practices, a form of medicine like acupuncture (this was likely part of the Egyptian tattooing practice), a way to mark slaves and lawbreakers, initiations into society, and a sign of nobility or wealth.


Tattoo Taboos in Modern Times

In modern Western culture, tattoos were uncommon and seen as socially unacceptable until the mid 20th century. Up until this time, tattoos were only seen on a very small portion of the population, namely sailors, soldiers (this was rare, though), and exotic entertainers. During the 19th century, fully tattooed people like the famous fighter John O’Reilly and Emma De Burgh became popular entertainment attractions people would flock to see for their so-called “hideous” tattooed skin.


The Rise of the Modern Tattoo

It wasn’t until WWII, with the creation of the iconic “Sailor Jerry” tattoo by Norman Keith Collins, that tattoos become somewhat popular and widespread. But still, it was mainly soldiers and sailors who got them and the artwork centered almost exclusively around nautical or military themes. They were still not widely accepted or applauded in Western society.


In the 50s and 60s, an aggressive, leather-jacket-wearing, biker-gangs-and-convicts counterculture movement adopted tattoos as a way to stand out against the rest of society. Quite clearly getting ink was still not socially acceptable.


By the 70s and 80s, more and more people were getting tattoed to show their disdain for cultural conformity. Tattoo designs widened to express varied emotions and symbols of the punk culture aesthetic.

Tattoos Today

Finally, with the dawn of the 21st century, tattoos had become quite popular for men and women alike, no longer a symbol of cultural rebellion so much as a personal expression or aesthetic statement. As the 21st century progresses, we see tattoo designs broadening and placement varying, with everyone from popular celebrities to neighborhood baristas touting leg, face, neck, and full arm tattoos featuring intricate artwork and minimalist designs.


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