The surprising history of tattooing

While we might marvel at how tattoos have gone mainstream, in many parts of the world they always were. And for much, much longer than you would have thought. From Samoa to Siberia, the world has a long history of inked skin. What’s surprising is the number of different things it has signified and symbolised across time and geography: from criminality to high social ranking, protection to freakishness.

Photos of Iceman's tattoos

The first tattooed human: ‘Frozen Fritz’

The first solid proof we have of tattooed skin comes from the 3rd century BC, when an intriguing character now known as Ötzi the Iceman had a very bad day in the German Alps. His remains were incredibly well preserved in the frozen environment, and he was found to have 61 simple tattoos on his body (and ibex meat in his belly). Due to their placement in the same areas where there’s evidence of joint degeneration (Ötzi was 45 when he died, positively ancient for the time), experts speculate that the tattooing may have been a therapeutic treatment similar to acupuncture. Whether effective or not, it did little to save poor Ötzi from being shot with an arrow and left to perish in the snow.

More inking with purpose

There’s evidence of tattooing from ancient China and Japan, to Greece and Rome. And Egypt too – but only for the ladies. The placement of tatts on mummies leads experts to suspect they too had a serious purpose, acting as a kind of protective amulet during pregnancy and childbirth. As the belly swelled, patterns of tattooed lines on the lower abdomen would have created a kind of symbolic safety net, shielding the unborn baby from the world.

Ancient Egyptian women aren’t the only ones who found ‘practical’ uses for tattooing. The facial tattoos of Burma’s Chin women were traditionally for their own protection;
the idea was to make them undesirable, so they wouldn’t be summarily carried off by horny princes – who were totally allowed to do this under feudal law.

Photo of legs tattooed with traditional Samoan designs

Why modern tattooing is for lightweights

South Pacific tribal tattooing is one of the world’s most imitated – there must be a million regretted tramp stamps out there carrying a melancholy whiff of Polynesian design. In Samoa, hand-applied, ceremonial tattooing has been an unbroken tradition for over 2000 years, with the skin art signifying rank and leadership. For men, thick black designs cover large areas of the body; women escape with lighter designs. Because this is no casual trip to your local tattoo parlour: ink made from burnt candlenut shells is punctured into the skin by comb-like cutting instruments made from tortoiseshell, tapped with a small mallet. Traditional Samoan tattooing was extremely painful, took days, and carried a risk of death by infection.
Māori facial tattoos – or moko – are another example of the tribal tradition. Contrary to their trajectory in the Western world, in Aotearoa it was only the highest ranked people who were tattooed. Originally applied using a chisel made from albatross bone (does it get any more hardcore?), the practice of moko took a hit in early colonial times when a macabre trade grew in mokomokai.
If you’re eating, stop. The heads of people with moko were traditionally boiled or steamed, then dried in the sun, and kept by family or displayed as tribal war spoils.
When the Musket Wars started and Western fascination sparked a trade in these icky artifacts, things turned bad (although arguably they weren’t great to begin with): as they became currency, a spike in production was the inevitable result. Enough said. Not the finest hour in the history of tattooing.

Sailor Jerry flash sheet

Tattooing goes viral

It was via the South Pacific that tattooing became whatever the 18th century version is of ‘hip’ was. When Captain Cook and his crew returned from their southern explorations, they returned with the word ‘tatau’, tales of tattooed ‘savages’, and many of them sporting their own, like a bunch of blokes who had too much to drink on a footy trip. They were the first tattooed sailors, beginning a long tradition of well-worn designs: anchors, swallows, pin-up girls (which are, of course, back in ironic vogue).

As has always been the case, the upper classes saw what the lower classes were doing, decided it was cool, and started copying. High society – including Kings George V (Japanese dragon) and Edward VII (Jerusalem cross) and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (another dragon), all got inked. But they didn’t show them off in that 19th century
version of Facebook, their official court portraits.

Photo Nora Hildebrandt

Tattooed freaks or the first hipster chicks?

As countless sailors, soldiers, criminals and assorted lowlifes (and the higher classes – but secretly) got tatts, it was still seen as a dude thing, beyond the pale for the fairer sex. Hence the appearance of ‘tattooed ladies’ – sideshow ‘freaks’ who made a living from their extravagantly inked bodies. Nora Hildebrandt was America’s first, touring with Barnum and Bailey’s circus throughout the 1890s. She claimed to have been held captive and forcibly tattooed by Native Americans; actually she was the daughter (or wife) of New York City’s first professional tattoo artist. There was shock value in the spectacle (also: perving at near-naked female flesh) and people could buy souvenir photos of the women to take home – the 19th century version of getting Instagram followers.

Have we reached peak tattoo?

The modern tattooing renaissance began in the 1950s. Tatts became directly identified with the counterculture in the 1960s and 70s and remained relatively marginal until
around the 2000s, when they exploded and became a necessary part of the millennial uniform. Will peak tattoo pass, or is it here to stay? The procession of tattoo-regret reality TV shows – Tattoo Nightmares, Tattoo Fixers, Bad Ink, etc – and development of more sophisticated removal techniques perhaps point to some bad individual choices, but with almost a third of Australians aged 22-36 tattooed, and 1 in 5 overall (almost 1 in 4 women), tattoos have become a mainstream fashion accessory. The only question is, which particular style of tattoo will become the next must-have body adornment.
Albatross-bone moko, anyone?

Most recent