History of Tattoos (2020 MUST READ)

Photo by @atc_tattoo

Tattooing is a common way of expressing art in the modern world. For those who can't stand the pain, they prefer wearing clothes embedded with tattoo drawings.

Though tattoos are associated with young, they originated from our ancestors. The way of applying tattoos may have changed, but the fact remains that the history of tattoos is wealthier than we'd want to think.

See that person in your neighbourhood with a sailor tattoo, he/she has something in common with the Otzi mummy and several other mummies across the world. The design and method of application are different, but both portray how far tattooing has come along.

Here, we will focus on where tattoos originated and how the practice of tattooing has evolved over time. Another thing we will look at is the societal attitude towards tattooing in the early days as well as in the modern world. Let's dive in.

Where Did Tattooing Originate?

Tattoos date back to over 12,000 years ago. It is evident that this form of art is incredibly old as they are seen on mummified skin. One example and the oldest evidence of the existence of tattoos in the mummy discovered on the Italian and Austrian border. The mummy has 61 tattoos believed to be from between 3370 BC and 3100 BC.

Otzi-the man discovered on the Italian/Austrian border in 1991, was naturally mummified without the knowledge of other people .The mummy has tattoos all over his body with the most concentrated in his leg. Close examination of the mummy also proves that the tattoos on the body were applied using soot or ash.

Otzi may be the oldest mummy with tattoos, but there are mummies across the world, showing the rich history of tattoos. Some of the locations include Egypt, China, Greenland, Sudan, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, and Alaska.

Discoveries from these locations link to various times throughout ancient times. Some even date back to 2100 BC.

Ancient Practices

Although tattoos date back to prehistoric civilization, the reasons driving the existence of newly skin tattoos you see today are based on several theories. These theories show the location and cultures of societies in question. Here are some of the notable civilizations with a history of Tattooing.


Recent discoveries on tattooed mummies in ancient Egypt, show the oldest tattoos date back at least 2000 BC. It is believed that the tattoos on the mummies were either done for decorative purposes or medical treatment. According to Daniel Fouquet, his examination of priestess Hathor suggests that the markings on the mummy could be a result of pelvic peritonitis treatment. Other findings also show that these types of markings were done on female bodies.

But, things change when you look at mummies dating back to 300 BC and 400 CE during the Meroitic era when Nubian men used to get tattooed.


A cemetery in Xinjiang province, China, was discovered to contain mummies with tattoos on their skin. Most researchers believe the tattoos were done at around 2100 BC, while others estimate 500 BC. As per the earliest Chinese practices, tattooing was barbaric, and those with tattoos were stigmatized. In fact, tattooing was common only among criminals and was used as a label to warn society members against the person tattooed. 

Greece and Rome

Records have it that tattooing in Greece and Rome existed since the 5th century BCE, where it was inserted on outcasts of a given society, including criminals, slaves, and prisoners. A good example showing the existence of tattooing is when Athenians applied tattoos on Samians after defeating them in war. The practice may have passed through the 9th century when Romans marked slaves with tattoos as evidence they had paid tax.


Samoa is a good example of how tattooing forms an integral part of social culture. In fact, it is believed that the modern name tattoo is derived from Samoan original phrase tatau. The community has retained its traditional mode of giving and receiving tattoos as it is passed from father to son. They have also upheld the use of their standard tools made from turtle shells as well as boar's teeth. The process takes several weeks and is done on a young chief graduating to a greater role in society. It's worth noting that the tattooing process is painful, and those who fail to endure it are shamed.

Tattoos through 20th century

History of tattoos

Photo by @txh_59

It is in the 20th century that tattooing grew in popularity. The art, ink, and everything surrounding tattooing evolved. Let's take a closer look.

The 1910s

During the beginning of the 20th century, tattoos were popular among sailors. They symbolized the profession of sailor and personal experiences. If, for example, a sailor crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came back home, he earned himself the swallow tattoo. Another example is the dragon tattoo that sailors were given after docking in china port.

The 1920s

In the 1920s, the history of the tattoo went a notch higher. Females ventured into cosmetic tattoos since they could not afford everyday makeup. Common trends marked on the female body included the lip liner and eyebrows. As tattoos were still unacceptable, a female had to conceal them. 

The 1930s

Then came social security numbers in the 1930s. As people were required to memorize their identification, most resorted to tattooing their skin to easily access it when need arose. These people, however, were not subjected to stigmatization as those who applied tattoos for decorative and reasons. Thus, theories have it that only sailors, performers, and criminals did not hide their tattoos. In the same decade, Albert Parry released a book portraying the tattooing process was sexual, and therefore, it is understandable why having a tattoo was still a taboo. 

The 1940s

The 1940s is the year that saw to the rise of tattoos, with even women flaunting their tattoos while at the workplace. Most tattoos copied the iconic sailor jerry style, which means they were centered on military and nautical designs. These designs saw popularity in acceptance of tattoos, increasing the demand for decorative ink. Notably, these designs are still popular even today.

The 1950s

The history of tattoos in this decade took a step back, contrary to how it had grown in acceptance the previous decade. It became a masculinity identity among bad boys, yet those with tattoos were still considered as criminals. Nautical tattoos remained popular with those wanting the tattoos to get them on the chest. 

The 1960s

During the 1960s era, all tattoo parlors in NY were attributed as the cause of an increase in hepatitis. While there is no evidence whether this is true, the number of people wanting tattoos decreased—those who continued to apply tattoos on their skin, however, preferred skull and cross bone designs. The popularity of patriotic tattoos declined following the Vietnam War.

The 1970s

It's safe to say that in 1970, having a tattoo was no longer seen as a taboo. Besides bike riders, sailors, and performers, regular people also wanted to have a tattoo. Peaceful messages and images particularly became popular.

What's more, detailed and intricate designs popped up, new styles such as full sleeves and bodysuits also became popular among young people. 

The 1980s

The impressive thing about this decade is how the music industry influenced the popularity of tattoos. If you saw your favorite rock band with a tattoo, you'd look for a tattooist to duplicate the same tattoo on your skin. Stigmatization of people with tattoos finally dropped, marking a new beginning for the history of tattoos. 

The 1990s

Similar to the 1980s, celebrities propelled the popularity of tattoos. One of the most iconic tattoos of that decade is a barbed wire design around the wrist, particularly the one on Pamela Anderson's hand. Other techniques included Chinese letters, sun tattoos, and tribal. Considering the same decade saw the popularity of digital communication, people started discussing the appropriation and ethics of the west in regards to tattoos.

History of tattoos

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Jumping into the 21st century

Thanks to songbirds such as Rihanna, the history of tattoos was no longer a story. It gained its position in the modern world, with women placing the tattoos on the lower back or is commonly known as a tramp stamp position. Tattoos such as butterfly, star, and yin- yang grew in popularity.

The history of tattoos continues to record new and creative designs, while the placement of these designs has increased. Today, you can place a tattoo behind an ear, on a finger, and other unusual places. 

Jews and What the Bible Says About Tattoos

One of the many verses in the book of Leviticus, "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves," is an illustration of what the bible has to say about tattoos. According to

Harvard Divinity School, there is no specific reason why Jews banned tattoos even though they feel they used to apply them on their skin. But, it might be possible Jews banned tattoos from differentiating themselves from Babylonians and Egyptians. An inkless skin was a way of identifying themselves as a different group from the rest who used to draw tattoos.

What's worse, in concentration camps, Nazis used to insert number tattoos on Jews, violating their religion and bodily anatomy. So there is no way Jews would go ahead and insert tattoos on their body as it would be controversial.

The situation has, however, changed as illustrated by many young Jews with tattoos. In fact, some add the number from concentration camps as a way of remembering what their relatives went through.

But, there still exist not so severe consequences such as not getting buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have body art.

How Were Tattoos Done in Ancient Times?

The process of applying tattoos in ancient times was long and painful. People in ancient times had to ensure the longevity of a tattoo by adding soot, earth, powdered charcoal, and other substances.

For instance, Karl Von Den Steinen, who was an explorer and German ethnologist, believed that South Americans inserted tattoos on their skin by decorating scars. If, for example, someone had a wound, he/she would rub plant sap to prevent bleeding. This discoloration of the body then resulted in what they regarded as a tattoo.

When you cross to Africa, we learn from David Livingstone that Africans used to introduce black substance under their skin that resulted in scarring.

New Guinea pygmies applied herbs on their wounds or infections, leading to permanent scarring. Still, on the same note of warriors, apache from North America rubbed earth into their battle wounds to make them more prominent so that they could flaunt them in their village. These pieces of evidence show that various communities used unique substances to instill tattoos on their skin. 

What is the Purpose of Tattoos? 

Tattoos have had their share of misunderstanding since the beginning of time, as illustrated above. To recall one situation, anyone in ancient china who had a tattoo was deemed a criminal. Tattoos, therefore, have had various purposes throughout the history of tattoos. For example, the Jews in concentration camps were given tattoos as a way of violating their bodies and marking them. Today, a relative of the Jews would add the number tattoo on their skin in memory of what their ancestors went through in concentration camps.

Sailors, on the other hand, put tattoos on their skin to celebrate milestones, to be a means of identification if they fell overboard and after docking in various ports. Today, youth apply similar tattoos as sailors in the past, even though they are not sailors themselves. In this case, the tattoo serves as a decorative.

In summary, tattoos served the following purposes;

- mark people for punishment
- relieve chronic problems
- to show ranks and accomplishments
- endow someone with magical properties
- To mark criminals and slaves so that they could easily be identified when they escaped.

    And in the modern world, people apply tattoos for some of the following reasons:

    To honor a loved one

    Families, especially military-based families, inscribe tattoos on their bodies in memory of a loved one. In some cases, people take the handwritten message of a loved one and have its script into a tattoo. Interestingly, people add some ash from the burned body of their loved one before inserting a tattoo on their skin.

    To identify themselves

    People get a tattoo of things that they can identify with.


    Adding a full tattoo sleeve is a way of showing your style. As there are many tattoo designs, you can choose one to represent your stylish nature.

    To make money

    Some people get a tattoo because they make money from them. For example, one lady got a casino logo on her forehead and earned $15,000.  

    Prison and gangs

    You must have seen films where gangs have similar tattoos. These are called prison and gang tattoos common among gangs and prisoners who want to affiliate themselves with each other on the streets. 

    Covering a scar

    Another reason to get a tattoo is to cover up a scar. If, for example, you get a mastectomy, you may prefer to add a tattoo on your breast to cover the scar.

    Other reasons include adding humor to an unfortunate situation as they help you in the healing process. While the reasons people get tattoos are many, one thing remains constant- tattoos are permanent and thus best to carefully decide whether you need one on your skin.  

    Why Are Tattoos Bad?

    The decision to get a tattoo is personal but also one that deserves lengthy consideration about the short and long term effects of getting the tattoo. Suppose you get a tattoo of the name of your boyfriend and later break up. In a worse scenario, the tattoo is slightly above your bikini area or your breast. Are you going to get another boyfriend with the same name or what?

    Of course, tattoos are beautiful, and if you choose the best colors, they complement your skin. But, sometimes, having a tattoo is a bad idea.

    See if you embarrassed yourself years ago when you went for prom, it's hard you regret it now. But, having a permanent mark on your skin can make you regret having made the decision.

    Here are reasons you should hold off getting a tattoo


    Someone will look at you and think, "mmh how cool." another, however, may look at you and attribute certain specific things depending on the design of the tattoo. People have an automatic and subconsciously stereotyping others based on their tattoos. In fact, some employers may decline to give you a job because they find you indecent. So unless you're capable of blocking negative things directed to you in regards to tattoos, hold off the thought of getting a tattoo.

    Your skin is not ready

    How long do you take before a scar on your skin heals? What type of ink will a tattooist use? If a question pops up, it's important to find its answer. If your skin takes a long time before healing and you want a tattoo across your back, think again. Although tattoos large to fit your entire back are done in segments allowing one part to heal before continuing with a tattoo drawing, it's important to think of possible consequences. Ask the tattooist the type of ink they use and find whether it has ingredients you're allergic to, find out the hygiene levels of the tattoo shop and how long your skin takes to heal.

    You expose yourself to bacterial infection

    If you go to an amateur tattooist who doesn't observe hygiene and skin needs, you risk getting infections. In one BMJ Case Reports, a man got a tattoo on his leg and later swam through the Gulf of Mexico. He was infected with bacterium Vibrio vulnificus, suffered skin necrosis & later septic shock and died two months later. Although he had a chronic liver problem, the bacterial infection deteriorated his health. The man may have exposed himself to Gulf of Mexico water, increasing his venerability before his skin healed but would from tattooing generally leave you exposed to infections.  

    May complicate medical procedures

    Have ever been to a hospital and while answering one of their document came across whether you have a tattoo question? MRIs are the last thing you'd think about when getting a tattoo. But, it's an important factor as it influences medical decisions when you need MRI treatment.


    If, for example, you use metal-based ink to insert a tattoo on your skin, it will react with magnetic resonance images examination. One footballer sustained a burn on his tattoo after an MRI on his pelvis. It feels like a burning sensation following an electromagnetic reaction of the tattoo ink has iron oxide.

     Drystone Tattoo T-Shirts

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    What is the Alternative?

    When you choose not to have a tattoo on your skin but still want to wear them, having one embedded on sweatpants, hoodie, a t-shirt is a good idea. You get to slay in your jeans and shirt without necessarily exposing your skin to infection.

    Furthermore, if you don't want to wear a tattoo anymore because it lost its significant meaning, you can lend someone the hoodie with the tattoo and get a different design.

    Yes. The freedom of choosing whether to wear the tattoo or not is on your fingertips, and you can change your mind about it without having to go for tattoo laser removal. You also have a wide range of options, from which you can choose the design of the tattoo you want on your hoodie.