Preserved tattoos on ancient mummified human remains reveal that tattooing has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years. In 2015, scientific re-assessment of the age of the two oldest known tattooed mummies identified Ötzi as the oldest example then known. This body, with 61 tattoos, was found embedded in glacial ice in the Alps, and was dated to 3250 BCE. In 2018, the oldest figurative tattoos in the world were discovered on two mummies from Egypt which are dated between 3351 and 3017 BCE.
Ancient tattooing was most widely practiced among the Austronesian people. It was one of the early technologies developed by the Proto-Austronesians in Taiwan and coastal South China prior to at least 1500 BCE, before the Austronesian expansion into the islands of the Indo-Pacific. It may have originally been associated with headhunting. Tattooing traditions, including facial tattooing, can be found among all Austronesian subgroups, including Taiwanese Aborigines, Islander Southeast Asians, Micronesians, Polynesians, and the Malagasy people. Austronesians used the characteristic hafted skin-puncturing technique, using a small mallet and a piercing implement made from Citrus thorns, fish bone, bone, and oyster shells.
Ancient tattooing traditions have also been documented among Papuans and Melanesians, with their use of distinctive obsidian skin piercers. Some archeological sites with these implements are associated with the Austronesian migration into Papua New Guinea and Melanesia. But other sites are older than the Austronesian expansion, being dated to around 1650 to 2000 BCE, suggesting that there was a preexisting tattooing tradition in the region.
Among other ethnolinguistic groups, tattooing was also practiced among the Ainu people of Japan; some Austroasians of Indochina; Berber women of Tamazgha (North Africa); the Yoruba, Fulani and Hausa people of Nigeria; Native Americans of the Pre-Columbian Americas; and Picts of Iron Age Britain.
Giolo (real name Jeoly) of Miangas, who became a slave in Mindanao, and bought by William Dampier together with Jeoly’s mother, who died at sea. Jeoly was exhibited in London in 1691 to large crowds as a sideshow, until he died of smallpox three months later.
In 1566, French sailors abducted an Inuit woman and her child in modern-day Labrador and brought her to the city of Antwerp in the Dutch Republic. The mother was tattooed while the child was unmarked. In Antwerp, the two were put on display at a local tavern at least until 1567, with handbills promoting the event being distributed in the city. In 1577, English privateer Martin Frobisher captured two Inuit and brought them back to England for display. One of the Inuit was a tattooed woman from Baffin Island, who was illustrated by the English cartographer John White.
Perhaps the most famous tattooed foreigner in Europe prior to the voyages of James Cook was the “Painted Prince” – a slave named “Jeoly” from Mindanao in the Philippines. He was initially bought with his mother (who died of illness shortly afterwards) from a Mindanaoan slave trader in Mindanao in 1690 by a “Mister Moody”, who passed Jeoly on to the English explorer William Dampier. Dampier described Jeoly’s intricate tattoos in his journals:
He was painted all down the Breast, between his Shoulders behind; on his Thighs (mostly) before; and the Form of several broad Rings, or Bracelets around his Arms and Legs. I cannot liken the Drawings to any Figure of Animals, or the like; but they were very curious, full of great variety of Lines, Flourishes, Chequered-Work, &c. keeping a very graceful Proportion, and appearing very artificial, even to Wonder, especially that upon and between his Shoulder-blades […] I understood that the Painting was done in the same manner, as the Jerusalem Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment.— William Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World (1697)
Jeoly told Dampier that he was the son of a rajah in Mindanao, and told him that gold (bullawan) was very easy to find in his island. Jeoly also mentioned that the men and women of Mindanao were also tattooed similarly, and that his tattoos were done by one of his five wives. Some authors believe him to be a Visayan pintado, if he indeed came from Mindanao as he claimed. Other authors have also identified him as Palauan due to the pattern of his tattoos and his account that he was tattooed by women (Visayan tattooists were male from the few surviving records; while Palauan tattooists were female), although this would conflict with his own admission that he originally came from Mindanao.
Dampier brought Jeoly with him to London, intending to recoup the money he lost while at sea by displaying Jeoly to curious crowds. Dampier invented a fictional backstory for him, renaming him “Prince Giolo” and claiming that he was the son and heir of the “King of Gilolo.” Instead of being from Mindanao, Dampier now claimed that he was only shipwrecked in Mindanao with his mother and sister, whereupon he was captured and sold into slavery. Dampier also claimed that Jeoly’s tattoos were created from an “herbal paint” that rendered him invulnerable to snake venom, and that the tattooing process was done naked in a room of venomous snakes. Dampier initially toured around with Jeoly, showing his tattoos to large crowds. Eventually, Dampier sold Jeoly to the Blue Boar Inn in Fleet Street. Jeoly was displayed as a sideshow by the inn, with his likeness printed on playbills and flyers advertising his “exquisitely painted” body. By this time, Jeoly had contracted smallpox and was very ill. He was later brought to the University of Oxford for examination, but he died shortly afterwards of smallpox at around thirty years of age in the summer of 1692. His tattooed skin was preserved and was displayed in the Anatomy School of Oxford for a time, although it was lost prior to the 20th century.
It is commonly held that the modern popularity of tattooing stems from Captain James Cook‘s three voyages to the South Pacific in the late 18th century. Certainly, Cook’s voyages and the dissemination of the texts and images from them brought more awareness about tattooing (and, as noted above, imported the word “tattow” into Western languages). On Cook’s first voyage in 1768, his science officer and expedition botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, as well as artist Sydney Parkinson and many others of the crew, returned to England with a keen interest in tattoos with Banks writing about them extensively and Parkinson is believed to have gotten a tattoo himself in Tahiti. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy that had acquired his position with Cook by co-financing the expedition with ten thousand pounds, a very large sum at the time. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Raiatean man, Omai, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. On subsequent voyages other crew members, from officers, such as American John Ledyard, to ordinary seamen, were tattooed.
The first documented professional tattooist in Britain was Sutherland Macdonald, who operated out of a salon in London beginning in 1894. In Britain, tattooing was still largely associated with sailors and the lower or even criminal class, but by the 1870s had become fashionable among some members of the upper classes, including royalty, and in its upmarket form it could be an expensive and sometimes painful process. A marked class division on the acceptability of the practice continued for some time in Britain. Recently, a trend has arisen marketed as ‘Stick and Poke’ tattooing; simple designs are tattooed either on oneself or by another person using ‘DIY’ kits that usually contain needles, ink, and often sample designs.
As most tattoos in the United States were done by Polynesian and Japanese amateurs, tattoo artists were in great demand in port cities all over the world, especially by European and American sailors. The first recorded professional tattoo artist in the US was a German immigrant, Martin Hildebrandt. He opened a shop in New York City in 1846 and quickly became popular during the American Civil War among soldiers and sailors of both Union and Confederate militaries.
Hildebrandt began traveling from camp to camp to tattoo soldiers, increasing his popularity and also giving birth to the tradition of getting tattoos while being an American serviceman. Soon after the Civil War, tattoos became fashionable among upper-class young adults. This trend lasted until the beginning of World War I. The invention of the electric tattoo machine caused popularity of tattoos among the wealthy to drop off. The machine made the tattooing procedure both much easier and cheaper, thus, eliminating the status symbol tattoos previously held, as they were now affordable for all socioeconomic classes. The status symbol of a tattoo shifted from a representation of wealth to a mark typically seen on rebels and criminals. Despite this change, tattoos remained popular among military servicemen, a tradition that continues today.
In 1975, there were only 40 tattoo artists in the country; in 1980, there were more than 5,000 self-proclaimed tattoo artists, appearing in response to booming popularity in the skin mural trade. Many studies have been done of the tattooed population and society’s view of tattoos. In June 2006, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology published the results of a telephone survey of 2004. It found that 36% of Americans ages 18–29, 24% of those 30–40, and 15% of those 41–51 had a tattoo. In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a telephone survey that found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26–40 and 10% of those 41–64 had a tattoo. They concluded that Generation X and Millennials express themselves through their appearance, and tattoos are a popular form of self-expression. In January 2008, a survey conducted online by Harris Interactive estimated that 14% of all adults in the United States have a tattoo, slightly down from 2003, when 16% had a tattoo. Among age groups, 9% of those ages 18–24, 32% of those 25–29, 25% of those 30–39 and 12% of those 40–49 have tattoos, as do 8% of those 50–64. Men are slightly more likely to have a tattoo than women.
Sailor being tattooed by fellow sailor aboard USS New Jersey in 1944
Richmond, Virginia has been cited as one of the most tattooed cities in the United States. That distinction led the Valentine Richmond History Center to create an online exhibit titled “History, Ink: The Tattoo Archive Project.” The introduction to the exhibit notes, “In the past, western culture associated tattoos with those individuals who lived on the edge of society; however, today they are recognized as a legitimate art form and widely accepted in mainstream culture.”
Since the 1970s, tattoos have become a mainstream part of Western fashion, common between all genders, among all economic classes and to age groups from the later teen years to middle age. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. The tattoo has undergone “dramatic redefinition” and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression.
As of 1 November 2006, Oklahoma became the last state to legalize tattooing, having banned it since 1963.
Protection papers were used by American sailors to prevent themselves from being taken off American ships and impressed into the Royal Navy. These were simple documents that described the sailor as being an American sailor. Many of the protection certificates were so general, and it was so easy to abuse the system, that many impressment officers of the Royal Navy paid no attention to them. In applying for a duplicate Seaman’s Protection Certificate in 1817, James Francis stated that he ‘had a protection granted him by the Collector of this Port on or about 12 March 1806 which was torn up and destroyed by a British Captain when at sea.’ One way of making them more specific was to describe a tattoo, which is highly personal, and thus use that description to identify the seaman. As a result, many of the later certificates carried information about tattoos and scars, as well as other specific information. This also perhaps led to an increase and proliferation of tattoos among American seamen. Frequently their ‘protection papers’ made reference to tattoos, clear evidence that individual was a seafaring man; rarely did members of the general public adorn themselves with tattoos.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tattoos were as much about self-expression as they were about having a unique way to identify a sailor’s body should he be lost at sea or impressed by the British navy. The best source for early American tattoos is the protection papers issued following a 1796 congressional act to safeguard American seamen from impressment. These proto-passports catalogued tattoos alongside birthmarks, scars, race, and height. Using simple techniques and tools, tattoo artists in the early republic typically worked on board ships using anything available as pigments, even gunpowder and urine. Men marked their arms and hands with initials of themselves and loved ones, significant dates, symbols of the seafaring life, liberty poles, crucifixes, and other symbols.”
Because these protection papers were used to define freemen and citizenship, many black sailors and other men also used them to show that they were freemen if they were stopped by officials or slave catchers. They also called them “free papers” because they certified their non-slave status. Many of the freed blacks used descriptions of tattoos for identification purposes on their freedom papers.
Fred Harris, Tattoo Studio, Sydney, 1937
Branding was used by European authorities for marking criminals throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The practice was also used by British authorities to mark army deserters and military personnel court-martialed in Australia. In nineteenth century Australia tattoos were generally the result of personal rather than official decisions but British authorities started to record tattoos along with scars and other bodily markings to describe and manage convicts assigned for transportation. The practice of tattooing appears to have been a largely non-commercial enterprise during the convict period in Australia. For example, James Ross in the Hobart Almanac of 1833 describes how the convicts on board ship commonly spent time tattooing themselves with gunpowder. Out of a study of 10,180 convict records that were transported to then Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) between 1823 and 1853 about 37% of all men and about 15% of all women arrived with tattoos, making Australia at the time the most heavily tattooed English-speaking country.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were tattoo studios in Australia but they do not appear to have been numerous. For example, the Sydney tattoo studio of Fred Harris was touted as being the only tattoo studio in Sydney between 1916 and 1943. Tattoo designs often reflected the culture of the day and in 1923 Harris’s small parlour experienced an increase in the number of women getting tattoos. Another popular trend was for women to have their legs tattooed so the designs could be seen through their stockings.
By 1937 Harris was one of Sydney’s best-known tattoo artists and was inking around 2000 tattoos a year in his shop. Sailors provided most of the canvases for his work but among the more popular tattoos in 1938 were Australian flags and kangaroos for sailors of the visiting American Fleet.
In modern day Australia a popular tattoo design is the Southern Cross motif, or variations of it. There are currently over 2000 official tattoo practitioners in Australia and over 100 registered parlours and clinics, with the number of unregistered parlours and clinics are estimated to be double that amount. The demand over the last decade for tattoos in Australia has risen over 440%, making it an in demand profession in the country.