How Tattoos Have Evolved Throughout History

By Ellen Kershner on March 9 2020 in Society

Tattoos are now mainstream and popular with adults of all ages. Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash
  • There is evidence of tattoos going back more than 5,000 years, with some of the earlies ones estimated to be from 3370 and 3100 BC.
  • Romans marked slaves to indicate that their taxes were paid.
  • The oldest human mummy in Europe was discovered in 1991 in the Otzal Alps in Italy.

Tattoos have returned to the mainstream over the past decades and can be seen on people of all ages. Their history dates back thousands of years, and they have evolved to become part of today’s status quo. The story of tattoos starts in ancient times.

The First Known Tattoos

There is evidence of tattoos going back more than 5,000 years, with some of the earliest ones estimated to be from 3370 and 3100 BC. Researchers believe that ancient Egyptians practiced tattooing as far back as 2000 BC, and it is thought that tattoos were used for decoration and possibly medical treatments. Researcher Daniel Fouquet theorized that the practice was only used on women’s skin back then, as there is no evidence that it was done on men until many years later, in 400 CE.

Mummification was also practiced in ancient China and Asia. In the Xinjiang province, mummies dating from 2100 to 550 BC had tattooed skin. During this time though, the markings were thought to be barbaric. The Chinese literature of this time period described bandits with tattoos, and it is also thought that criminals had their faces tattooed to identify them as untrustworthy. Samoans have practiced the art for over 2,000 years, using tools such as boar’s teeth and turtle shells.

Rome and Greece

It is not surprising that these cradles of civilization also have their places in tattooing history. In ancient Rome dating back until the 9th century, Romans marked slaves to indicate that their taxes were paid. Arms manufacturers and soldiers also had tattoos.

There are also records going back to 5th century BCE Greece that show proof of tattooing, mostly on prisoners of war, slaves, and criminals. One of the best-known examples of this followed a battle involving ancient Athenians vs. the Samians (those living on the island of Samos in Greece). After the Samians were defeated, the Athenians tattooed them with images of owls.

The Iceman

The oldest human mummy in Europe was discovered in 1991 in the Otzal Alps in Italy. Nicknamed the “Iceman,” his body has 61 tattoos all over his body. Most are on his legs, and it is thought that either fireplace ash or soot was used to create them.

Many Years Later

After their original heyday, tattoos became less popular and socially unacceptable. A few people in the entertainment industry gained notoriety, performing in circuses and sideshows in the 1800s. In the early 1900s, they began to appear on sailors. In the 1920s, women began having makeup tattooed on the faces to save money on makeup. They were also used to number concentration camp victims during the Holocaust.

As the decades passed, tattoos became more mainstream. Celebrities were seen sporting them, and the art soon trickled into the general population. People began copying tattoos that their favorite musicians and movie stars sported.

The 2000s

Celebrities still influence tattoo trends. Some that stand out are “tramp stamps,” stars, features, flowers, and infinity symbols. Although the history of tattoos seems to have originated in the East, it only gained traction in the Western world over the past fifty years.

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