The best way to understand something is to learn it’s history, the history of tattooing is quite long…there’s books or you can read from Wikipedia, so to make things simple here’s a brief history of tattoos:
It is arguably claimed that tattooing has existed since 12,000 years BC. The purpose of tattooing has varies from culture to culture and its place on the time line. But there are commonalities that prevail form the earliest known tattoos to those being done on college students on Telegraph Ave.

Tattoos have always had an important role in ritual and tradition. In Borneo, women tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. Throughout history tattoos have signified membership in a clan or society. Even today groups like the Hells Angels tattoo their particular group symbol. TV and movies have used the idea of a tattoo indication membership in a secret society numerous times. It has been believed that the wearer of an image calls the spirit of that image. The ferocity of a tiger would belong to the tattooed person. That tradition holds true today shown by the proliferation of images of tigers, snakes, and bird of prey.

In recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids (It undoubtedly started much earlier). When the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread as well. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia picked up and expanded the art form. Around 2000 BC tattooing spread to China.

History, tattoo, timeline

Here’s something history from different parts of the world:


The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan is found in clay figurines with painted or engraved faces representing tattoos. The oldest of these clay figurines have been recovered from tombs dated to 3,000 BC or indeed before this time. Numerous other such figurines have been found in various tombs dating from the 2nd and 3rd millennia BC. These figurines served as ‘stand-ins’ or substitutes for living individuals who symbolically accompanied the dead on their journey into the afterlife. It is commonly held that these tattooed marking held strong spiritual significance. The very first written record of the Japanese practicing the art of tattooing is found within a Chinese dynastic history compiled around 297 CE. The Japanese were interested in he art mostly for aesthetic or decorative uses – in contrast to their earlier spiritual significance. The Horis – the Japanese tattoo masters – were the undisputed experts of tattooing in their time. Their use of colors, perspective and imaginative designs moved the practice in a completely different direction. The classic Japanese tattoo is a full body suit.


From Southern China the practice spread along the silk-route. There have been a few periods in the history of the Far East when tattoos were accepted.

Tattooing was mostly associated with the lower classes or the underworld.

Though practiced in China for thousands of years, civilized and sophisticated Chinese showed nothing but disdain for it throughout this period. The practice become completely discredited after the Communist takeover in 1949. It was also held in contempt in Japan then greatly influenced by China in this regard.

This changed in the 18′th century when artists became interested in the art of tattooing. For a period tattoos were very fashionable particularly among workers. The Japanese tattoo style even became the international trendsetter. Prominent Westerners were attracted to the Japanese style and even traveled to Japan to receive the artwork. The introduction of the Japanese style to the west contributed greatly to the short-lived vogue of tattooing among the Western elite at the end of the 19′th century.

There are many parallels in the histories of tattooing in China and Japan. Firstly, both countries included peoples with rich tattoo traditions living beyond the direct influence of the center of power. In the 3′rd century CE, Chinese sources mentioned the Wa people who tattooed their bodies to ward off evil dragons.

Until recently, the women of the Ainu people who still live on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, had remarkable mouth tattoos. Tribes with their own tattoo culture have also long been a feature on the margins of the Chinese empire. Secondly, the practice of punitive tattooing, the public humiliation of offenders, occurred both in China and Japan. This punishment was essentially a life sentence as people marked in this way were condemned to a life on the margins of society. Thus a vigorous tattoo culture gradually developed within society’s underbelly. The third common factor was the boost that the art of tattooing received in both countries generated by the immense popularity of the novel Suikoden, in which the most important characters are tattooed.

In ancient China people lived according to strict Confucian moral codes. 500 years before the birth of Christ, Confucius preached that civilized people should honor and respect their parents and ancestors. Any mutilation of the body, a parental gift, conflicted with these basic tenets and brought shame upon the family and the community. Cultivated Chinese viewed tattooing, like eating raw meat and shaving body hair, as barbarous. These activities characterized wild, uncivilized tribes living beyond or on the borders of the Chinese empire. The first report of a tattooing culture appears in Chinese writings dating from around 200 BCE. It describes the Yue people who decorated themselves with mythical figures to protect themselves from dragons and sea monsters when fishing.

North America

Early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among Native Americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognized 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.

When and Where Were Tattoos First Performed?

Tattoos date back many thousands of years. In fact, we have firm evidence that tattooing is an ancient art, after discoveries of tattoos on mummified skin were found. The oldest evidence of human tattoos is believed to be from between 3370 BC and 3100 BC.

Otzi the Iceman was discovered in September 1991. His nickname comes from the location he was found in the Otzal Alps. His body has naturally mummified and preserved, making him Europe’s oldest human mummy.

Otzi The Iceman

Otzi’s body has a total of 61 tattoos in various different locations, with the majority of these ink inscriptions located on his legs. Close examination of the markings on the mummy indicate that soot or fireplace ash were used to create the tattoos.

While Otzi may be evidence of the first tattoos known to mankind, other eras and ages throughout history reveal a long and rich history of tattooing. There is evidence of this from over 49 different location around the world, where tattooed mummies and remains have been discovered.

Locations, where ancient tattoos have been recorded on human remains, include: Alaska, Mongolia, Greenland, Egypt, China, Sudan, Russia, and the Philippines. All of these discoveries link to different periods of time throughout ancient history. Some of these date back to 2100 BC.

Ancient and Traditional Practices

As the first tattoos date back to ancient civilizations, the reasons behind the tattoos are fuelled by different theories. These theories reflect the location and the cultures of the civilizations themselves. Let’s take a closer look at some of these ancient civilizations and some theories about why they used to tattoo themselves.

History Of Tattoos

China & Asia

Some cemeteries across western China in the province of Xinjiang have revealed a number of tattooed mummies. Some mummies date as far back as 2100 BC, while others are considerably younger, dating to around 550 BC. Within ancient Chinese practices, tattooing was considered to be barbaric and was highly stigmatized.

Apo Anno, discovered in the Philippines & preserved for over 400 years
Ancient Chinese literature refers to folk heroes and bandits as having tattoos. It is also thought to have been fairly common for convicted criminals to be branded with a tattoo on their face. This tattoo was used to warn other members of society that this person could not be trusted.


There have been discoveries of tattooed mummies from ancient Egypt, which suggest that the practice here dates back to at least 2000 BC. Some theories indicate that the tattoos found on the mummies were for decorative purposes. Research by Daniel Fouquet suggests that, in ancient Egypt, tattoos may have even been performed as a medical treatment.

His examination of the different scars found on the mummified body of the priestess, Hathor, suggests that the markings could have been a treatment for pelvic peritonitis. Another interesting discovery about tattooing from ancient Egypt is that it appears this practice was only carried out on women.
This theory is supported by the fact that there is little to no evidence, either physical or artistic, that men received tattoos. This practice changed, however, during the Meroitic period, between 300 BC and 400 CE, when Nubian men received tattoos.


Tattooing has formed a part of Samoan cultural traditions for thousands of years. The history of tattooing in Samoa is a great example of how tattoos can form an integral part of social culture. It is even believed that the modern-day English word ‘tattoo’ may have originated from the Samoan word for tattoo ‘tatau’.

The tradition of giving and receiving tattoos by hand in Samoa has been practiced for more than two thousand years. The techniques and tools used for this traditional practice have hardly changed during this time either. The skill is taught and passed down from father to son.
The tool used to give the tattoos is handmade, from turtle shell and boar’s teeth. The process of receiving traditional tattoos takes many weeks to complete. Tattoo ceremonies are generally held to mark a younger chief’s ascension to a leadership role within society.

Once complete, the tattoos represent and celebrate dedication to the culture and great endurance. These tattoos are extremely painful to receive and the procedure comes with a great risk of infection. Unfortunately, those who are unable to endure the pain can be branded with the mark of shame.

Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome

Written records provide evidence of tattooing from the 5th century BCE in Greece. Tattoos during this era in Greece and Rome were used mainly on the outcasts of society. Criminals, prisoners of war, and slaves would be branded with their status.

A famous example of the use of tattoos by the Ancient Greeks was the Athenians tattooing owls onto the Samians after defeating them. Evidence shows the use of the verb ‘stizein’, which means to prick when referring to tattooing in their ancient literature.

Throughout Ancient Rome there is also evidence of soldiers as well as arms manufacturers getting tattoos. It is believed that this practice continued right through into the 9th century. Slaves were also marked with a tattoo in Ancient Roman times to show they had paid their taxes.

Popular Tattoo Styles Throughout Time

Tattoos were not very common or socially acceptable until the mid 20th century. Up until this time, they were reserved for a small population, mainly those in the entertainment industry. Fully tattooed people became a popular attraction in and of themselves.

Tattoos for Entertainment

One of the most famous tattooed people from the 1800s was John O’Reilly. His elaborate and complete body art made him a popular feature in dime museums and the circus, where his tattoos attracted and amazed the audience.

John O’Reilly was known as the “Tattooed Irishman” and he had a variety of intricate tattoos covering his whole body. One of the earliest mentions of O’Reilly’s tattoos was in an article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The issue, released on February 22, 1887, highlights his performance at a boxing match. They mention his tattoos are “hideous” and a reflection of his “barbarious practices.”

Emma de Burgh

Emma de Burgh was a famous tattooed lady in the entertainment industry in the late 1880s. She worked alongside her husband, and both were tattooed by the same artist as John O’Reilly. De Burgh and her husband also became very popular performing in the sideshow world within Europe.

They appeared in Berlin, Germany in 1891 and continued to amaze the European crowds for some years after. The design of their tattoos had many religious connotations, including links to the Last Supper and The Calvary.

Tattoos Through the 20th Century

Throughout the 20th century, popular styles of tattoo have evolved and changed. To examine the evolution of ink in more detail, we’ve broken it up into decades. Let’s take a closer look at the style evolution of tattoos in western culture over the last hundred years.

Tattoos in the 1910s

At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of tattoos were found on circus performers or sailors. Tattoos were used to tell someone’s personal story, as well as their professions. For example, it was common for a sailor to have an anchor tattoo.

Within the sailing community, tattoos also became a mark of belonging. Young sailors would be tattooed after joining, almost like an initiation ceremony, to welcome them on board.

From here, the tradition continued to grow and had somewhat more of a practical purpose. Many of the tattoos were used for identification purposes if sailors fell overboard or drowned.

Seamen would get tattoos from the different ports that they sailed to. The tattoos symbolized the different destinations as well as the length of their journey. A turtle tattoo would mean that a sailor had crossed the equator and a swallow tattoo symbolized a journey of 5,000 miles.

Tattoos in the 1920s

Throughout the 1920s, cosmetic tattoos became very popular among women. Many would get popular makeup trends tattooed on their faces, as makeup was too expensive to buy. Common makeup tattoos included eyebrows and lip liner.
Traditionally designed tattoos were still less common throughout society and were not very socially acceptable. It was still mainly the so-called outcasts, such as circus performers, sailors, and criminals, who sported tattoos. As tattoos were so socially unacceptable, most women would keep their cosmetic tattoos a secret.

Tattoos in the 1930s

Social security numbers appeared in the 1930s and everyone was told to memorize their personal number. Many resorted to tattooing their social security number onto their body so they would always have access to it.

However, tattoos were still not socially accepted. Those who got a social security number tattoo did so more out of necessity rather than desire. Those with a social security tattoo were not viewed in the same way as people with more decorative and personal tattoos. Tattoos were still only accepted on performers, sailors, and criminals. Not on upstanding members of society.

The 1930s saw new theories across society, that linked tattoos with repressed sexual desires. Albert Parryreleased a book, arguing that the whole process of getting a tattoo is essentially sexual. With literature like this circulating, it is no surprise that tattoos were taboo throughout this decade.

Tattoos in the 1940s

The 1940s saw the birth of the iconic ‘Sailor Jerry’ style of tattoo, created by Norman Keith Collins. He added color to tattoos by creating his own pigments and adding them to his tattoo designs. The classic designs of this decade feature bold motifs and plenty of colors.

Thematically, tattoos in the 40s were mostly centered around nautical or military motifs. There was also an increase in patriotic tattoos, due to WW2. The war saw an increase in women to the workplace as well as an increase in women getting tattoos.

This fundamental shift in tattoo design saw tattoo acceptance rise. Increased popularity meant that decorative ink came out of the shadows and was sported far more than in previous decades. Many of the Sailor Jerry style tattoos are classic and timeless, with people still choosing similar designs in the present day.

Tattoos in the 1950s

Throughout the 1950s, tattoos became a reflection of masculinity. While it became trendy, especially among ‘bad boys’ to have tattoos, there was still a negative social stigma around tattoos. Those with tattoos were more likely to be labeled as criminals or thugs.

Society had shifted backward slightly, and tattoos once again were seen as the mark of the outcast. For those who continued to get inked, the trend of nautical tattoos continued throughout the 50s. The decade also saw an increase in the popularity of chest tattoos.

Tattoos in the 1960s

Tattoo parlors in New York were blamed for an increase in hepatitis throughout the 1960s. While this may or may not have been true, it certainly created a negative stigma around the tattoo industry. This meant a lot of people steered clear of getting tattooed throughout this decade.

However, the 60s saw an increase of tattooed idols in the media, with famous musicians like Janis Joplin going under the needle. Celebrities flocked to Lyle Tuttle, who was one of the best and most reputable tattoo artists at the time.

Patriotic tattoos dropped in popularity, thanks to the Vietnam war. The classic skull and crossbones designs become particularly popular, especially among bikers.

Tattoos in the 1970s

The 1970s saw tattoos really becoming more mainstream and popular. No longer were they reserved for the outcasts of society, now regular people wanted to get them too. Peace symbols and messages of peace were particularly popular in this decade.

The 70s also saw a new style, with detailed and intricate designs, gaining popularity. Full sleeve tattoos and bodysuits began emerging on young people engaged in the counterculture.

Tattoos in the 1980s

The decade of rebellion that was the 1980s saw tattoos get bigger and brighter still. Bold black outlines, Celtic knots, and colorful motif designs rose in prominence. The music scene also impacted the flourishing tattoo industry, particularly rock and roll.

Many people would get inked after being inspired by their favorite rock star’s tattoos. By the 80s, society was finally on board and tattoos were, at last, socially acceptable—for most people anyway. Because stigmas dropped away, more and more ‘regular’ people got tattoos.

Tattoo in the 1990s

Just like in the 1980s, celebrities played a big part in the main tattoo trends of the 90s. One of the most iconic and popular tattoo designs of the 90s was Pamela Anderson’s barbed-wire armband. Other popular designs from this decade include tribal designs, Chinese letters, as well as tattoos of the sun.

Questions about the West’s use of tribal and traditional tattoo designs started being asked across the world. The rise of digital communications enabled global debates about ethics and appropriation.

Tattoos in the 2000s

The beginning of the 21st century saw lower back tattoos increase in popularity. The so-called “tramp stamp” became one of the most fashionable places for women to get tattoos. Butterfly and Yin-Yang symbols also gained traction.
Celebrities continued to steer tattoo trends of tattoos throughout the ‘noughties’. Star tattoos rose in popularity, largely thanks to the singer, Rihanna.

Tattoos in the 2010s

So far, the 2010s have seen trends related to both the design and the placement of tattoos. Small tattoos in unusual places, like the fingers or behind the ears are now very popular. Many people are opting for quirky and creative designs.

How Long Do Finger Tattoos Last

One of the most popular designs for a small finger tattoo at the moment is a novelty mustache. Other popular trends include the infinity symbol, feathers, and the ever-popular tribal tattoos.

Tools Used to Create Tattoos Through Time

Not only have social perceptions and popular designs changed over time, so too have the tools and inks used to give tattoos. Prior to modern-day tattoo guns, tattoo tools were made out of a variety of different materials.
The tattoo tools used in Polynesia require two people to make a tattoo. These tools consist of a simple chisel and a hammer. The tattoo artist makes a series of little cuts in the skin. The ink is then hammered directly into the skin where the cuts have been made. This method is commonly known as ‘Stick and Poke‘.

Similar techniques are seen in tribal communities, where the culture of tattoos reflects a right of passage. Ancient Egyptian tattoo needles were thought to be made from bronze. Needles came in different sizes, in order to create both intricate and basic designs.

The first tattoos used homemade inks. These inks were likely made from ash or soot, mixed with oil or breast milk. Samoan tattoo ink is traditionally made from the candlenut which is left to smolder on a hot fire. Soot is then collected from the burning nut and mixed with sugar and water.

Modern Day Tattoo Equipment

The tattoo guns that are used today came from more humble beginnings in 1891. The first electric tattoo machine was patented by Samuel O’Reilly. The design was based on a modified version of the electric pen, created by Thomas Edison. The arrival of the electric tattoo machine saw a steady increase in the popularity of tattoos.

Inks used in the guns were created using geological or mineral sources. Black ink was made using iron oxide or carbon, and cinnabar was used to make red. Different shades of orange, red, and yellow were made using different cadmium compounds.

Recent, modern technology has seen a shift away from mineral-based pigments. Organic pigments are now more commonly used. Modern-day inks also contain a variety of fillers, binding agents and preservatives.


Tattoos are an inherent part of some cultures. In the Western world, it has taken time for decorative ink to become socially acceptable. It’s really only in the last fifty years that tattoos have become popular and mainstream.

The evidence of tattooing in ancient civilizations is fascinating. Tattoos from these past civilizations tended to have links to medical healing, as opposed to the cosmetic value that they have today. There is still so much waiting to be discovered and found out about the history of tattoos.