Tattoos are an art form that involves inserted pigment into the skin to change its color permanently.
The art of making tattoos is tattooing.
Tattoos fall into three broad categories:
• purely decorative (with no specific meaning)
• symbolic (with a specific meaning pertinent to the wearer)
• pictorial (a depiction of a specific person or item)
The word “tattoo”, or tattow in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Samoan word tatau, meaning “to strike”.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as “In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu.” Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring or staining.
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 BC.
In 2018, the oldest figurative tattoos in the world were discovered on two mummies from Egypt which are dated between 3351 and 3017 BC.
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 BC, 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 Greeks and Romans are also known to have tattooed their slaves and criminals so they could be easier to identify if they escape.
In 316 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine bans the practice of facial tattooing. His rationale is that man has been created in the image of God, and so to defile the face is to disgrace the divine.
In 720 body art goes out of fashion in Japan when officials begin using tattoos to punish criminals. This lasts until the 17th century, when tattooing is replaced by other punishments. Decorative tattoos quickly become fashionable once more.
In 922 while visiting what is now Russia, Arab diplomat Ahmad Ibn Fadlan encounters a group of heavily tattooed traders from northern Europe. Ibn Fadlan describes the tattoos as dark green lines and pictures, extending from the tip of each man’s toes to his neck.
As reports and images from European explorers’ travels in Polynesia reached Europe, the modern fascination with tattoos began to take hold. Although the ancient peoples of Europe had practiced some forms of tattooing, it had disappeared long before the mid-1700s. Explorers returned home with tattooed Polynesians to exhibit at world fairs, in lecture halls and in dime museums, to demonstrate the height of European civilization compared to the “primitive natives” of Polynesia. But the sailors on their ships also returned home with their own tattoos.
New York City is considered the birthplace of modern tattoos because it’s where the first professional tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt set up shop in the mid-19th century to tattoo Civil War soldiers for identification purposes, and it’s where the first electric rotary tattoo machine was invented in 1891,
inspired by Thomas Edison‘s electric pen.
The World War II era of the 1940s was considered the Golden Age of tattoo due to the patriotic mood and the preponderance of men in uniform. But would-be sailors with tattoos of naked women weren’t allowed into thenavy and tattoo artists clothed many of them with nurses’ dresses, Native-American costumes or the like during the war.
By the 1950s, tattooing had an established place in Western culture, but was generally viewed with distain by the higher reaches of society. Back alley and boardwalk tattoo parlors continued to do brisk business with sailors and soldiers. But they often refused to tattoo women unless they were twenty-one, married and accompanied by their spouse, to spare tattoo artists the wrath of a father, boyfriend or unwitting husband.
In 1961, New York City bans tattooing, fearing a potential hepatitis B epidemic. The New York City Council lifts the ban in 1997. Three months later, the first annual New York Tattoo Convention is held in the city.
In 2006, scientists at Harvard University develop an erasable tattoo ink. Though it won’t wash off in the shower, the ink’s structure makes it easier for lasers to remove tattoos. Erasable tattoo ink gains popularity among those who stencil their sweetheart’s name on their bicep, as the design is less regrettable after a breakup.
Today, New York City is home to two separate exhibitions on the history of the art. Tattooed New York, from which the fact above is drawn, documents 300 years of tattooing at the New-York Historical Society. At the same time, with The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo, the South Street Seaport Museum dives into the maritime origins of tattoos by showcasing the life of the sailor and sideshow star Gus Wagner, whose 800 tattoos earned him the title of the most tattooed man in America at one point and who was one of the first sailors to see that there was money to be made in tattooing.
The world record holder in number of tattoos is Gregory Paul McLaren whose skin is 100% covered with tattoos. After him comes Tom Leppard born 1934. His skin is covered with tattoos “only” 99.9%.
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 most effective way of tattoo removal today is laser removal. Laser breaks large pigment particles into smaller so a body can absorb them and rid of them in a natural way.
George C. Reiger Jr has a special permission from Disney to have tattoos of their copyrighted material – namely Disney’s characters. He has over 1,000 Disney tattoos, which includes all 101 Dalmatians.
Today, at least one fifth of adult United States has at least one tattoo.