Written by Etta Coleman
Permanently inscribing ink into the flesh is an act that has been practised for thousands of years in communities across the globe. Charles Darwin hypothesised that there was no country in the world which does not practice tattooing in some form. The meaning, purpose, and style of tattooing has widely varied throughout history, such as it remains today. Questions abound regarding the origin of this practice and the use it had in ancient societies.
The advent of tattooing likely occurred by accident. Various medical practices documented from remote areas of the world discuss the practice of rubbing various substances (such as tree sap, herbs, and even soil) into open wounds in order to heal them, to prevent further bleeding, or to darken the eventual scar. After the practice of depositing pigments beneath the skin became more widespread, inks were made from combinations of soot, oils, and other pigments. The oldest known evidence of tattooing to date is exemplified on Ötzi, the 5,200-year-old ‘ice man’ who was found preserved in an ice cap near the border of Italy and Switzerland. His tattoos were small, seemingly random marks above joints and other sites of skeletal tension. This contributes to the idea that tattooing was meant to be therapeutic or medicinal rather than decorative.
Tattooing was widespread throughout the ancient world. For example, Scythian groups utilised the practice, exemplified by another set of ice-preserved mummies – one of a young man and another of an older woman. Both had tattoos on their upper bodies which depicted animals and mythical scenes. According to Herodotus, this was a mark of high status among the Scythians. Groups in ancient Britain were also tattooed as a status marker, including imagery of animals and beasts amongst their adornments. This led to the name ‘Picti’ being given to some northern tribes by the Romans.
Tattoos are also present on the mummified skin of many ancient Egyptians and are almost exclusively found on women during the Middle Kingdom period (2160-1994 BCE). Black ink seems to have been the standard, and the patterns take the form of dot clusters and other abstract patterns that are concentrated around the stomach, thighs, and breasts. Because of this utilisation of space, the application of tattoos in ancient Egypt is suggested to relate to childbirth and pregnancy, and possibly took the form of wards in order to keep the woman healthy and safe. The Inuit are known to have used a yellow pigment alongside that of dark black; Nubian tattoos featured a blue ink; and Libyan tattoos were typically black but used a distinct geometric style as opposed to the abstract dots and lines of Egypt and Nubia.
In several Indigenous cultures in South America, tattoos have been found on mummified remains that replicate the geometric pattern of animals present on pottery and textiles. These tattoos may also have associations with childbirth and fertility, as they are often concentrated around the pelvis and torso. There are also examples of facial tattooing in these groups.
Extensive tattooing was, and still is, practiced among many Indigenous cultures in North America. These marks are generally not confined to any part of the body but are nevertheless placed intentionally in regions including the face, arms, and hands. Each tribe has particular designs which are important, meaningful, and sacred to them. It is not possible to detail all of these tattoos and to do justice to the meaning behind them here (for further reading, resources have been placed at the end of this article).
Much like language, cultural practices, and architecture, tattooing was diffused throughout the world by the migration of people from one sedentary group to another or by nomadic groups. It is conjectured that Romani peoples were skilled tattooists who brought the art form from the Near and Middle East into northern and eastern Europe. The Scythians, mentioned above, may have been responsible for the diffusion of tattooing into eastern Europe at the beginning of the Christian period as well. When European sailors reached the Caribbean, they were seemingly eager to collect tattoos from the Indigenous peoples, whose ancient designs and practices were then popularised throughout western Europe.
While many examples of ancient tattoos are positively received today, and sometimes are even seen to be therapeutic, many were not meant to be viewed in this way. Mummies uncovered from 1200 BCE in China possessed tattoos, some of them extensive. However, written sources of the period explain that only criminals were tattooed, and that the permanent marks were a way of distinguishing those who had committed a crime from those who had not. The Classical Greeks and Romans also utilised tattooing as a form of punishment in order to denote a lower-status person or to mark enslaved people with the purpose of preventing their reintegration into society if they were able to escape. The word ‘stigma’, which is used today to refer to social exclusion or disgust, is indeed the Latin word for a mark or puncture inflicted by a pointed instrument, otherwise known as a tattoo. This linguistic link between social exclusion and the word ‘tattoo’ exemplifies the treatment of those marked with tattoos during the Classical period and beyond. This behaviour marked the beginning of a social stigma surrounding tattoos which still pervades modern society, although it can be said that this view has been shifting significantly in recent years.
Today, tattooing continues to be a deeply personal, cultural, and sometimes taboo practice for many people across the world. Many communities practice tattooing in the same way that they have done for thousands of years, carrying on a cultural tradition. Others have developed the practice into something that would be unrecognisable to their ancestors, but which stand as testament to contemporary art. Whether traditional, innovative, or a mix of both, tattoos and their history are complex and intriguing, universal and unique.
Darwin, Charles, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Thomas R. R. Stebbing. 1885. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. (pp. 368). London: John Murray.
Deter-Wolf, Aaron, and Carol Diaz-Granados. Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tatoo Traditions of North America. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014.
Lineberry, Cate. “Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, January 1, 2007. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/.
Olson, Amy. “A Brief History of Tattoos.” Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Collection, April 12, 2010. https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/W9m2QxcAAF8AFvE5.
Wallace, Antoinette B. “Native American Tattooing in the Protohistoric Southeast.” Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America (2013): 1-41.