Tattoo History: From Caveman to Modern Society

Tattoos have been around for thousands of years and have been used for various purposes, including expressing rank, designating slaves, and even isolating criminals.

According to certain evidence, tattooing may be traced back to the dawn of time.

Tattoos are now predominantly utilized as a form of self-expression in modern society, and they are widely accepted throughout Western culture.

The Meaning of the Word Tattoo

James Cook, a European explorer, coined the term tattoo, taken from the Polynesian word tatau, which means “correct or workmanlike.”

After his first expedition to Tahiti, James Cook took the phrase back to Europe. Before his use of the term “tattoo,” the art of tattooing was referred to as painting, scarring, or staining.

The First Tattoo Ever Recognized

The first known tattoos were thought to date from roughly 2000 B.C. in ancient Egypt for a long time.

Several female mummies, including Amunet, a Priestess, had tattoos on their skin, and carbon dating placed them alive between 2134 and 1991 B.C. That is, until 1991 when tzi the Iceman was unearthed near the Italian-Austrian border.

Tzi is 5,200 years old, according to carbon dating! That he lived somewhere between 3370 and 3100 B.C. Because of the placement and pattern of his tattoos, it is thought that tzi’s tattoos were intended to be therapeutic.

Dots and little crosses were tattooed around his lower spine, right knee, and ankle joints, prone to strain degeneration. This shows that they were used in the hopes of alleviating joint discomfort.

Other Cultures’ Tattoos

Ancient Egypt

Tattoos were nearly exclusively discovered on the corpses of women throughout the dynasty era in ancient Egypt (pre-332 B.C.).

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These tattoos are made up of a series of black dots on the tummy, breasts, and thighs. There are a variety of hypotheses as to why it was done this manner, including marking prostitutes, therapeutic purposes, and others believe it was used as an amulet during the difficult period of pregnancy.


Tattoos have been utilized for spiritual and ornamental purposes in Japan from the Jmon or Paleolithic times (up to 14,000 B.C.).

Before 300 AD, Chinese material describes how the Japanese used tattoos to show social divisions among themselves.

Tattoos were first employed to identify offenders at the beginning of the 17th century. Crosses on the arms to the Kanji for the dog on the forehead were among the tattoos.

Tattoos were initially employed by the Samurai to identify a deceased warrior, according to legend. A Samurai’s armor was valuable, and it was frequently stolen and sold for profit by other fighters or scavengers on the battlefield.

The Samurai were compelled to dissolve during the Meiji era (1873), and they were no longer permitted to carry their swords and armor. When they were forced to give up their armor, many Samurai got tattoos to indicate their actual origins.

After being dissolved, many Samurai went on to join Japan’s newly organized, western-style army, while others became professors and business entrepreneurs.

Many people turned to bandits and thieves in search of the authority they formerly possessed. When the Meiji government made tattooing illegal, many of these previously well-respected Samurais became criminals in the eyes of society.

After losing their authority and prestige, many Samurai joined the Yakuza, which was only a tiny organized organization of peddlers allowed by the government to carry a short sword, essentially becoming what is now known as the Japanese Mafia.

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Greece and Rome

Tattoos were widespread among some religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean area, which many feel contributed to the prohibition of tattooing in Leviticus.

Tattooing, on the other hand, was exclusively practiced by slaves throughout the Classical Greek period.

Tattoo Cultures from Other Countries

The tattoo history of many ancient societies is extensive; each culture employed tattoos for diverse purposes and performed the art, including varied pigment methods and instruments.

Tattoos in America

Tattoos were not as common in America’s early culture as they were in many other countries. In fact, in the early days of America, you would seldom see somebody with a tattoo.

The only time tattoos were widespread was among American mariners just after the Revolutionary War. To avoid being impressed by the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, the American sailors got tattoos.

The American government issued sailors protection papers to safeguard them from being imprisoned at sea and to verify their American citizenship; however, the descriptions of the sailors were sometimes vague, so British Navy officials ignored them.

To avoid this, sailors began to obtain tattoos to help them represent themselves more accurately on their protection papers. Tattoos like these were usually done aboard ships with a variety of inks, including gunpowder and urine.

Martin Hildebrandt, the first known professional tattoo artist in America, founded his tattoo studio in New York City in 1876.

During the Civil War, he gained popularity among both Confederate and Union troops and sailors.

He loved tattoos so much that he would travel from camp to camp to do them. This is thought to be the beginning of the long-standing habit of American military men obtaining tattoos while serving in the military.

Tattoos in the Modern Era

Tattoos have taken on a new meaning in western culture since the 1970s. Tattoos are no longer just for the rebels; they can now be seen in people from all walks of life.

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Tattoos used to be associated with a societal stigma, but that stigma has all but vanished. Tattoos are becoming a more acceptable aspect of modern life, with some even shown in art museums.

Tattoos are commonly utilized to represent anything in one’s life nowadays. People acquire tattoos for various reasons, including honoring the dead, honoring life, and even for no reason at all.

Even now, social movements centered on tattoos exist, such as the Project Semicolon campaign.

The Modern Tattoo Machine’s History

  • Electromagnetism, the foundation for all contemporary coil tattoo systems, was devised by a Danish inventor, Hans Christian Oersted, in 1820.
  • Thomas Edison invented the electric punch machine for making embroidered designs in 1876.
  • 1891– Samuel O’Reilly developed a twin coiled technique for tattooing skin based on Thomas Edison’s idea.
  • Charlie Wagner received the first tattoo machine patent in 1904. The invention was for a single-coil technique of moving the armature bar and an ink tube.
  • Percy Waters received a patent for the first double coil tattoo machine with a frame in 1929.
  • Carol Nightingale’s invention in 1979 made significant changes to the tattoo machine frame. In completely adjustable frame types and cutback machines, modifications are still employed today. Her design was also the first to have front and back-end spring apertures.