Since long ago, before we even had electricity to power the tattoo gun, permanent marking of flesh with meaningful patterning has been a part of human culture. “Otzi the Iceman”, dated 3300 BC, bore multiple tattoos, although there is a lack of available data concerning how he obtained them.
As time moved on, tattooing could be found throughout the world. It persisted as history marched on, waxing and waning, until it formed into the increasingly widespread subculture that exists in the Western world today.
Worldwide, ancient tattooing
There are accounts of tattooing in Europe, Asia, India and the Middle East from various periods. In Water Margin, one of the Four Great Novels in Chinese literature, which three characters were described as having tattoos covering almost the whole of their bodies. It has also been sighted as far and wide as Japan, Egypt and the Philippines.
More well documented nowadays is the tribal use of tattoos; primitive people marked themselves extensively to signify which clan they belonged to. This formed both a show of allegiance and an easy form of visual shorthand for fights. This form of tattooing survives, after a fashion, in modern urban gangs, with members being marked to show their membership.
British, upper-class tattooing
It was the tribal marks which led to the birth of modern tattooing. It had been absent from popular western culture for centuries, until explorers began to chart ‘new worlds’ such as Indonesia, China and the Americas. They saw the tattoos of the natives, and partook in the custom themselves.
The world ‘tattoo’ itself, from the Tahitian ‘tatau’, was introduced into the English language by such expeditions, and the practice spread from the sailors to the folks back home. Initially, arriving England the eighteenth century drew to a close, tattooing was largely the territory of the upper classes. From the gentry to the King, tattoos were common, as this strange, exotic, practise captured their imagination and became fashionable.
Modern, personal tattooing
Over in America, in the late nineteenth century, Samuel O’Reilly invented the rotary tattoo machine. It was based on the technology of Thomas Edison’s electric pen, which punctured paper with its needle point, and is very similar to the equipment used in modern tattoo parlours.
With this innovation, tattoos became more reasonably priced and readily available. This would lead to their falling out of fashion with the upper classes, but also led to the tattoo culture of the present day, where tattooing is present on the high street.
Body art has maintained its popularity among sailors, spreading across to soldiers, through various subcultures along the way, and now, at the end of the story so far, we reach a stage where having a tattoo is seen as acceptable for almost anyone, with talented artists able to capture almost any design you might imagine.