The History of Tattoos

28 January 2022

The History of Tattoos  

A study conducted in 2015 found that in Britain a fifth of all adults had a tattoo in some form. It’s fair to say that tattoos haven’t always been as popular as they are nowadays though – often stigmatised in the present day, they were seen as even less socially acceptable during various parts of the 1900s.  

Despite this, many of our ancestors– particularly those that were seafarers- may have had tattoos of their own. Often these tattoos held sentiment to the owner, representing their story, who they are as a person, and where they have been.  

Ancient origins of tattoos 

The earliest evidence we have of tattoos dates to around 5000 BCE. This evidence comes from clay figurines that were found in tombs in Japan, which had tattoo-like markings and engravings on them. 

Despite this, the first physical evidence of tattoos we have comes from a mummy named Ötzi the Iceman, who dates to around 3370 BCE. He had 61 tattoos in total, and it’s safe to presume that the art of tattooing originates much beyond his existence. 

We have evidence that many ancient societies from all around the globe performed tattooing. Some include: 

  • Greeks and Romans – would use tattoos to mark slaves and criminals, or to denote being in a particular religious sect. 
  • Egyptians – would use tattooing for religious reasons, the majority of which have been found on female Egyptian mummies. 
  • Māori – would use tattoos to portray ancestry, ability, feats etc. 
  • Japanese – Ainu women had mouth tattoos, Uchinanchu women had hand tattoos called ‘Hajichi’.

Ainu Woman with mouth tattoos

Modernisation of tattooing in the western world 

Developed in 1875 and patented in 1876, Thomas Edison was responsible for creating the forefather of the modern-day tattoo machine – the electric pen. Originally intended to be used as a device that would enable the user to create a stencil for the copying of documentation, the design was taken and modified by a tattooist by the name of Samuel O’Reilly in 1891 – whose design is still highly popular to this day. 

As many explorers traversed new lands and discovered new Indigenous cultures in regions such as North and South America, Pacific Islands, New Zealand etc, they discovered that many of the tribal communities held traditions of tattooing for various purposes. 

Adventurers like Captain Cook often documented the styles and designs of the tattoos, often with artists taking impressions of the artwork. Along with this, many sailors that took part on these grand adventures to far distant lands chose to get tattoos by the native people as a lifelong souvenir of their journeys. Some of the voyages would even bring back home tattooed natives. 

These tattooed natives and sailors alike influenced the rich and royal back home in the European countries, with many of the elite deciding to get some tattoos for themselves. Of note, King George V was so impressed with the tattoos owned by a native brought back by Captain Cook, he decided to get a few of his own: a Cross of Jerusalem on his chest, and a dragon on his forearm. 

Tattooing through the 1910s-1950s 


During this period, most tattoos could be found on sailors and circus performers/carnival workers. Along with this, most tattoos were either job related (for example the age-old tradition of a sailor having an anchor tattoo) or were used to tell part of the owner’s story (for instance, sailors would get swallows to show they had travelled 5000 miles; circus performers would get tattoos to create fake narratives to give depth to their circus performances etc). 


With the rapid growth of the Hollywood film industry and the use of makeup in the films that drove its expansion, many women wanted to replicate similar looks – however, makeup was highly expensive during these times. The alternative option that many women turned too was to have cosmetic tattoos that imitated makeup trends. 

Those that had non-cosmetics tattoos during this period remained as mostly circus/carnival workers, sailors, and outcasts. 


Again, tattoos where mostly popular with sailors, circus workers and outcasts during the 30s, however, with the introduction of Social Security Numbers in America specifically, many chose to get their unique number tattooed to help them remember it.

man with tattoos


With the 40s came innovation in tattoo styles. Norman Keith Collins (who is often referred to as Sailor Jerry) was one of the people most responsible for adding more colour to tattoos in western world, as he created his own pigments at the time. 

With the midst of WW2 taking place during this decade, many in the western countries decided to get patriotic tattoos – both men who went to war, and women who helped bolster the workforces back at home.

man with tattoos


With WW2 concluding in the mid-1940s, and the return to a more normal, reserved lifestyle, there was a waning interest towards tattoos. Despite this, sailors, gang members, bikers, and ‘delinquents’ continued to get tattooed during this time.


It was during the 1960s that Janis Joplin, the popular singer-songwriter, got her two tattoos. This influenced societal views on tattoos, as prior to this no major celebrities in the limelight had tattoos – or at least visible ones. Along with this, the 60s also saw a great change with the civil rights and women’s rights movements. This gave a resurgence to the tattoo industry, with many choosing to get tattoos related to their cause – and some in rejection to normal views.


Following on from the 1960s, the 70s saw a rebirth in tattoo culture, with many choosing to get larger pieces – be it sleeves, or even whole bodysuits. Tattoos began to get more complex, with fine art starting to influence many tattoo artists’ work during this decade – a stark contrast to the fairly simplistic styles of the previous decades.


It’s fair to say the 80s were a decade of self-expression – and with this came the ever-increasing popularity of tattoos. During this time period, many counter-culture subcultures began to rise in prominence – especially the punk community. In an act of rebellious self-expression, many members of these subcultures would get tattoos relating to their beliefs, morals, and motives. Tribal tattoos also saw an explosion in the west during this decade. Finally, during this time, many celebrities and musicians began sporting visible tattoos, bringing them to the limelight much more so than in the previous decades.

From the 1980s to the present day, tattoos have become ever-increasingly popular year on year, with musicians, athletes, actors, and many others in the spotlight sporting them. Often used as a form of self-expression and fashion, much of society’s views nowadays on permanent body art are more carefree – however, there is still a stigma towards them from some members of society. Regardless of opinion, it looks like they are here to stay!

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