Tattoo History: From 5000 B.C. to the 21st Century

By | October 25, 2013

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Tattoo history and the art of tattooing extends all the way back to approximately 5000 B.C., and some tattoo historians argue it originated earlier than that. Wanting more extensive information on tattoo history?.

The earliest recorded tattoos were found on Egyptian mummies dated around 2000 B.C. The body art consisted of dots and dashes in geometric patterns usually found on women.

Tattoo History: Cultures

The English use of the word “tattoo” originates from the Polynesian words “tatau” or “tatu” which means “to mark something”.

Tattooing has been a part of many past and present cultures with many forms and represented different meanings:

• African – scarring tattoos (no ink)
• Ainu (Asia) – social status
• Borneo – skill, spirituality
• Celtic – knot work, spirals, life’s journey
• Dayak – respect and status
• Egyptian – ritualistic
• European – family crest, world travel
• Greek – spy communication
• India – strength
• Indonesia – being strong or powerful
• Japanese – decorative, colorful, full body tattoo
• Middle Eastern – worship of a deity
• Native American – status(men)marital status(women)
• New Zealand – facial tattoo (Moko)
• North American – military(sailor), grouping(biker’s, gangs),criminals
• Polynesian (Samoa) – tatau, community, family, rank
• Polynesian (Hawaiian) – kakau, health, spirituality
• Roman – marked slaves and criminals

Tattoo History: 1300 – 1700 A.D.

Between 1300 to 1600 A.D. the art of tattooing for the most part disappeared from the western hemisphere. The decline stemmed back to the 8th Century when the Catholic Church prohibited tattooing that continued into the 14th Century.However, body art tattoo became popular in the Japanese culture. Extremely colorful and intricate tattoo body suits were the fashionable tattoo design among the middle class.

Around the end of the 17th Century tattooing again became popular in the west. William Dampher, an explorer, who brought with him a tattooed Polynesian Prince to London, charged money for people to see the Prince. This led to the art’s resurgence in popularity, even among royalty and British elite.

Even though tattoo art was growing, it was still not an overwhelming success as it was in the Japanese and Polynesian cultures, due to the process being painful and slow. It was done by inserting ink underneath the skin one puncture at a time.

Tattoo History: 19th Century

In the late 19th Century tattooing evolved from the one puncture at a time process to inserting the ink with an electric tattoo machine. In December of 1891, Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine which he took from a earlier version created by Thomas Edison. He also opened up the first tattoo parlor in the United States located in New York City (Port of Chatham).Tattooing became all the rage and tattoo shops were started all over the country.

Tattoo History: 20th Century

Between the 1920’s and 1940’s (World War I & II era) tattoos became a standard among the men in the military, especially sailor’s. They would get tattoos that showed their travels around the world and military insignia.

Tattoo Conventions in the later part of the century became extremely popular. These conventions allowed artists to share ideas as well as show off their skill as an artist.

Tattoo History: Today

In the late 1990’s enthusiasm about tattoo body art increased. People wanting to get a tattoo gained popularity and grew by “leaps and bounds”. People from all walks of life are frequenting tattoo studios on a regular basis. Business professionals, athletes, teachers, and celebrities are all getting inked, shedding the belief that the only people with tattoos were bikers, gang members, criminals,and sailors.

Tattoo Enthusiasts like you and I, and our passion for tattooing, is why the art is one of the popular forms of expression in the world today.

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