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Body Art History

A brief history of tattoos

The word tattoo is said to has two major derivations- from the Polynesian word ‘Ta’ which means striking something and the Tahitian word ‘Tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’. The history of tattoo began over 5000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them. Tattoos are created by inserting coloured materials beneath the skins surface. The first tattoos probably were created by accident. Someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire. Once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently.

Despite the social sciences’ growing fascination with tattooing, and the immense popularity of tattoos themselves, the practice has not left much of a historical record.

Bronze Age

In 1991, a five thousand year old tattooed man; ‘ötzi the ice man’ made the headlines of newspapers all over the world when his frozen body was discovered on a mountain between Austria and Italy. This is the best preserved corpse of that period ever found. The skin bears 57 tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15 centimetres long above the kidneys and numerous parallel lines on the ankles. The position of the tattoo marks suggests that they were probably applied for therapeutic reasons (treatment of arthritis).

Pazyryk Culture

In 1948, 120 miles north of the border between Russia and China, Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko began excavating a group of tombs, or kurgans, in the high Altai mountains of western and southern Siberia. Mummies were found that date from around 2400 years ago. The tattoos on their bodies represent a variety of animals. The griffins and monsters are thought to have a magical significance but some elements are believed to be purely decorative. Altogether the tattoos are believed to reflect the status of the individual.


Written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to Egyptian tattoo have virtually been ignored by earlier Egyptologists influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium. Today however, we know that there have been bodies recovered dating to as early XI dynasty exhibiting the art form of tattoo. In 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, at Thebes who lived some time between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. This female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body – grouping dots and/or dashes were aligned into abstract geometric patterns. This art form was restricted to women only, and usually these women were associated with ritualistic practice.

The Egyptians spread the practice of tattooing throughout the world. The pyramid-building third and fourth dynasties of Egypt developed international relations with Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia. By 2,000 BC the art of tattooing had stretched out all the way to southeast Asia. The Ainu (western Asian nomads) then brought it with them as they moved to Japan.


The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan is found in the form of clay figurines which have faces painted or engraved to represent tattoo marks. The oldest figurines of this kind have been recovered from tombs dated 3,000 BC or older, and many other such figurines have been found in tombs dating from the second and third millennia BC. These figurines served as stand-ins for living individuals who symbolically accompanied the dead on their journey into the unknown, and it is believed that the tattoo marks had religious or magical significance.

The first written record of Japanese tattooing is found in a Chinese dynastic history compiled in 297 AD. The Japanese were interested in the art mostly for its decorative attributes, as opposed to magical ones. The Horis – the Japanese tattoo artists – were the undisputed masters. Their use of colours, perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole new angle. The classic Japanese tattoo, is a full body suit.


From southern China the practice spread along the silk route.


In pacific cultures tattooing has a huge historic significance. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skilful tattooing of the ancient world. The Polynesian peoples believe that a person’s Mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo. The vast majority of what we know today about these ancient arts has been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies. Elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, renewed, and embellished throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.

In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or ‘Tatau’, by hand, has long been defined by rank and title, with chiefs and their assistants, descending from notable families in the proper birth order. The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key 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 first Europeans who set foot on Samoan soil were members of a 1787 French expedition. They got a closer look at the natives and reported that ‘the men have their thighs painted or tattooed in such a way that one would think them clothed, although they are almost naked’. The mythological origins of Samoan tattooing and the extraordinary cross-cultural history of Tatau has been transported to the migrant communities of New Zealand, and later disseminated into various international subcultures from Auckland to the Netherlands. The Hawaiian people had their traditional tattoo art, known as ‘Kakau’. It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being. Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men’s arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, and wrists and sometimes on their tongue. The arrival of western missionaries forced this unique art form into decline as tattooing has been discouraged or forbidden by most Christian churches throughout history.

New Zealand

The Maori of New Zealand had created one of the most impressive cultures of all Polynesia. Their tattoo, called ‘Moko’, reflected their refined artistry – using their woodcarving skills to carve skin. The full-face Moko was a mark of distinction, which communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. It recalled their wearer’s exploits in war and other great events of their life.


Borneo is one of the few places in the world where traditional tribal tattooing is still practised today just as it has been for thousands of years. Until recently many of the inland tribes had little contact with the outside world and as a result, they have preserved many aspects of their traditional way of life, including tattooing. Borneo designs have gone all around the world to form the basis of what the western people call ‘Tribal’.

India & Thailand

Hanuman in India was a popular symbol of strength on arms and legs. The mythical monk is still today one of the most popular creations in Thailand and Myanmar. They are put on the human body by monks who incorporate magical powers to the design while tattooing. Women are excluded because monks are not allowed to be touched by them and because Thai’s believe women do not need the extra boost as they are already strong enough on their own.


In Africa, as darker skin does not suit the coloured tattoos, they have developed another technique -scarification (this is not really tattooing, but it is related to tattooing). Made by lifting the skin a little, and making a cut with a knife or some other sharp thing then rubbing in sand or ashes to make raised scars. In patterns on the body, it can be felt like Braille lettering. These patterns often follow local traditions.

Ancient Greece & Rome

The Greeks learnt tattooing from the Persians. Their women were fascinated by the idea of tattoos as exotic beauty marks. The Romans adopted tattooing from the Greeks. Roman writers such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed. A legal inscription from Ephesus indicates that during the early Roman empire all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words ‘tax paid’. Greeks and Romans also used tattooing as a punishment. Early in the fourth century, when Constantine became Roman emperor
and rescinded the prohibition on Christianity, he also banned tattooing on the face, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators. Constantine believed that the human face was a representation of the image of god and should not be disfigured or defiled.

The Celts

The tribal peoples who moved across western Europe in times around 1200 and 700 B.C. They reached the British Isles around 400 B.C. and most of what has survived from their culture is in Ireland, Walesand Scotland. Celtic culture was full of body art. Permanent body painting was done with woad, which left a blue design on the skin. spirals are very common, and they can be single, doubled or tripled. Knot work is probably the most recognized form of Celtic art, with lines forming complex braids which then weave across themselves. These symbolise the connection of all life.

Step or key patterns, like those found in early labyrinth designs, are seen both in simple borders and full complex mazes. Much in the way that labyrinths are walked, these designs are symbolic of the various paths that life’s journey can take.

Central & South America

In Peru, tattooed Inca mummies dating to the 11th century have been found. 16th century Spanish accounts of Mayan tattooing in Mexico and central America reveal tattoos to be a sign of courage. When Cortez and his conquistadors arrived on the coast of Mexico in 1519 they were horrified to discover that the natives not only worshipped devils in the form of statues and idols, but had somehow managed to imprint indelible images of these idols on their skin. The Spaniards, who had never heard of tattooing, believed it was the work of Satan!

The sixteenth century Spanish historians who chronicled the adventures of Cortez and his conquistadors reported that tattooing was widely practised by the natives of central America.

North America

Early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among native Americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognised by their tattoos. Among the Ontario Iroquoians, elaborate tattoos reflected high status. In north-west America, Inuit women’s chins were tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity.

The first permanent tattoo shop in New York city was settled up in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing military servicemen from both sides of the civil war. Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattooing machine in 1891.


During the time of the old testament, much of the pagan world was practising the art of tattooing as a means of deity worship. A passage in Leviticus reads: ‘ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you’. (19:28) This has been cited as biblical authority to support the church’s position. Biblical scholar M.W. Thomson suggests, however, that Moses favoured tattoos. Moses introduced tattoos as a way to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.


The Viking’s, the Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided and colonized wide areas ofEurope from the late eighth to the early eleventh century. The Norsemen used their famed long ships to travel as far east asConstantinople and theVolgaRiver inRussia, and as far west asIceland,Greenland, andNewfoundland. This period of Viking expansion is known as the Viking Age, and forms a major part of the medieval history ofScandinavia, theBritish IslesandEuropein general. At some point in history the Vikings met the Scythians. The Scythians themselves had been all the way to Europeto plunder and ravage. The Scythians’ way of seeing things influenced the way the Vikings worked their crafts – and tattoos.

The Vikings left few written records behind-but their surviving artwork shows they had many important designs and symbols. The original meaning of most Viking symbols remains a mystery to this day. Viking symbols range from complex knot work designs to ancient pictograms like crosses, swastikas and triskeles.


Explorers returned home with tattooed Polynesians to exhibit at fairs, in lecture halls and in museums, to demonstrate the height of European civilization compared to the ‘primitive natives’. After captain cook returned from his voyage to Polynesia tattooing became a tradition in the British navy. By the middle of the 18th century most British ports had at least one professional tattoo artist in residence. In 1862, the prince of Wales, later to become king Edward VII, received his first tattoo – a Jerusalem cross – on his arm. He started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when he was tattooed before ascending to the throne. In 1882, his sons, the duke of Clarence and the duke of York were tattooed by the Japanese master tattooist, Hori Chiyo.


In the 18th century, many French sailors returning from voyages in the south Pacific had been tattooed. In 1861, French naval surgeon, Maurice Berchon, published a study on the medical complications of tattooing. After this, the navy and army banned tattooing within their ranks.

18th Century Onwards

The navy Sailors on their ships returned home with their own tattoos – usually of a very basic style that only uses a minimum amount of details making the tattoos look quite two dimensional and flat. This often gives a cartoonish feeling and typical motifs would be flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names.

The Prison

In prison, the tattoo came to symbolise what these men desire in their souls: autonomy and identity. The ultimate symbol for gang members are their gang tattoos, getting a permanent mark is a sign of showing total commitment to the gang. These tattoos can reveal lots of things, like, who you are/what gang you’re in/ what your beliefs are (racist etc..), what you have done, where you have been, how many years you have been in jail (also referred to as ‘dead time’) and even things like how many you have killed. Known symbols include teardrops under the eye as well as spider webs on the elbows and a crown of thorns for lifers. Russian criminal tattoos are amongst the most symbolic.

The Circus

The popularity of tattooing during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century owed much to the circus. When circuses prospered, tattooing prospered. For over 70 years every major circus employed several completely tattooed people. Some were exhibited in sideshows; others performed traditional circus acts such as juggling and sword swallowing.

Modern Day

Modern tattooing and tattoo studios have evolved from the 18th century studios that flourished in many European ports. Generations of tattooist have developed and refined the tattoo machines, inks, designs, techniques and standards of hygiene into the world wide industry we know today.

A Brief History Of Body Piercing In The UK

It would not be possible to cover every aspect of the history of body piercing amongst tribal peoples in the space available, but I have included some examples as a way of illustrating its origins and how we in an industrialized society are adorning ourselves in ways that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Human beings, all human beings throughout history have never been happy to leave alone the bodies they were born with. Whether we are applying make up, painting our nails, restricting our waists with corsets, making piercings, stretching piercings, tattooing or scarifying the skin, filing teeth, dieting or deliberately fattening ourselves, growing or shaving off body hair, tanning or bleaching the skin, tottering about in high heels or squeezing ourselves into tight jeans, we are all in some way concerned with some form of body modification.

In our industrialized society much of this is considered frivolous. People in more so called primitive societies consider that decorating their bodies is of vital importance to signify their status within the tribe or to signify a rite of passage into a new era of their lives, i.e. puberty, warrior, married, elder, or to wear talismans to ward off bad spirits or be used in rituals.

In our society whilst we have distinguished ourselves from our ‘primitive’ fellow humans by extraordinary technological advances, we are still dependant upon body decoration to fulfil ourselves as social animals.

In traditional or tribal societies, body decoration is also used as a symbol of the continuity of a particular way of life. I believe that the increase in popularity of tattooing and piercing in the last 25 years is a reaction to the disposability of fashion and consumerism. Style is replacing fashion and the social groups or tribes are denoted less by religious or cultural similarities and more by their style.

The pioneer of body piercing in the UK was a gentleman who worked under the name of Alex Sebastian, now sadly deceased. During the 1950′s Mr. Sebastian was working in what was then British Guiana. One day he came across a couple of field hands who had gold rings in their nipples. This was unusual as it was not the local custom. Intrigued he made some enquiries and was introduced to a local man who performed such piercings. The piercings were done and healed without any problems. Upon returning to England Mr. Sebastian experimented on himself, performing other piercings. Gradually people noticed these piercings and began to ask if he would perform these piercings on them. He became a tattooist and one of the country’s first and most respected body piercers.

The origins of nipple piercings can be traced back to the Romans. Pierced nipples were sported by proud Roman centurions as a sign of their virility and courage, the practice was also common amongst Victorian society girls to enhance the size of their nipples.

Navel piercing was a sign of royalty to the ancient Egyptians and was something denied to commoners, hence a deep navel was prized amongst the Egyptian elite. The Prince Albert piercing through the penis, called a dress ring by Victorian haberdashers, was originally used to firmly secure the penis in either the left or right trouser leg during that eras craze for extremely tight crotch binding trousers.Prince Albert himself was rumoured to wear such a ring. Today its function is erotic as is the Dydoe, a male genital piercing of more modern origin. Other erotic male genital piercings are the Apadrayvia and Ampallang. The origins of these can be found in the Karma Sutra, the ancient Hindu book about love and social conduct, and practised as a right of passage into puberty by the Dravidson people of southern India, though not thought to be commonplace.

Other male genital piercings have their origins as a means of chastisement. The Frenum of European origin, and the foreskin, which was performed on some Roman slaves, though both are now performed as erotic piercings. To celebrate the coming of manhood some Arab youths would have a piercing on the left side of the scrotum, near the base of the Penis called a Haffada, believed to prevent the testis from ever returning to the body. This practice was brought to Europe by French Legionnaires from North Africa, usually pierced on the left and sometimes the right as well.

Female genital piercings, the Clitoris and the inner and outer Labia, are a more modern development and are done primarily for erotic reasons. Though there are examples of Labia piercings being used as a means of chastisement amongst some African tribes this practice is dying out.

Ear lobe and ear rim piercings can be found in most tribal cultures, ear lobe stretchings can be found amongst the people of Northern India, Burma, ancient Egyptian culture (the mask of Tutankhamen has a stretched ear lobe) and African tribes in and around what is now Kenya. Ivory ear plugs are worn by African Samburu warriors whereas the Masai and Pokot peoples wear many rings in stretched ear lobes; this was also common practice with some of the plains tribes in North America.

The African Dogon, Kudi and Lobi peoples perform ear, nose and lip piercings on girls to enable them to wear ornaments as women that will enhance their features, to show tribal identity and to protect them from bad spirits, believed to enter the body through these orifices. Nose piercing is also widespread in parts of India. This practice was popular amongst the Mughals and indicates whether a woman is single or married.

Lip plugs are worn by African Pokot girls when they are married; this is also practised amongst Turkama men and women. Amongst some Amazonian tribes lip plugs on men denote their status, elders are valued for their wisdom and have bigger plugs or plates inserted every year.

More modest lip or labret piercings are worn by the Nunivak tribes in North America. The women would wear beaded ear pendants or rings with flat pieces of walrus ivory and coloured cloth in Labret and Septum piercings for ceremonies. Silver jewellery was worn in the septums of the Clayoquot tribes further south for status.

Septum piercings are also still worn by the tribesmen in parts of Papua New Guinea, often adorned with plant stems and bone jewellery. Other piercings such as the eyebrow, tongue and ear piercings, such as the tragus, anti-tragus and rook, are modern piercings developed in the west.

There is today a greater awareness and appreciation of tribal societies and a desire to blend some of their rituals into our own society, but as tattooing and piercing has become more popular in the west, ancient tribal customs are dying out in traditional third world societies as they take on western standards.

It could be that as we no longer fear these peoples, their body decoration does not represent a threat. We can accept their body decoration rather than feel repulsed and threatened by it. There is an exchange of body decoration going on; the increase in popularity is beyond fashionable as body art is more permanent than disposable fashion.

Jared Sanders 2012 ©