The Oldest Form of Art: History of Tattoos

The Origins of Tattooing History

Did you know that the first tattoo dates back to the 4th millennium BC? The scientists claim the analysis of mummified skin undoubtedly proves ancient people used tattooing as an art form. The Ötzi Iceman had more than 60 marks similar to tattoos on his body, the majority on his legs.

Would you like to learn more about the history of tattoos? Here is an overview of the techniques, styles, and meanings of tattoos throughout history!

How Tattooing Changed Over Centuries

Soot is a carbon-based pigment that looks similar to ink once applied to the skin. The scientists are sure that soot and fireplace ash were the “ink” used by ancient men. It’s impossible to know which tools served to apply these materials to the skin. We can only assume tattoo artists applied soot on a sharp tip and then put it on someone’s skin.

Ancient Egyptians used bronze to make tattoo needles. That ensured they could make needles of different sizes, depending on the tattoo requirements. The Polynesian cultural tattoos were done using a mallet and tattoo comb to apply the design to the person’s skin. Polynesian tribes are famous for their large and complex tattoos. It’s why the process often took months of day-long sessions until the tattoo was complete.

Maori tribes started by making deep skin cuts, which was extremely painful. They used stone, shark teeth, or bone to make chisels. They would get ink on them and tap into the cuts. The trickiest part was the risk of infection. Tattoo stylists recommended regular saltwater bathing to minimize the infection possibility.

Native Americans were famous for their colorful tattoos. They used plants, berries, and different minerals as natural dyes, which was a step forward in the tattoo design.

Tattoo Meanings in Different Cultures

We can see tattoos in different cultures, and their meanings vary significantly. This topic is something that could be discussed for days. However, here is a short overview of what tattoos mean in different cultures:

  • Ancient Egypt. In this culture, some believe tattoos have protective properties. Females often got tattoos since this culture believed they might have therapeutic effects. Pregnant women had tattoos on breasts, thighs, and abdomen as they believed this provided pain relief.
  • Samoa. This culture primarily reserves tattoos for men. The pe’a, traditional Samoan male tattoo, spread from the torso to the lower part of the body. A man would show his dedication to the tribe but also exhibit pride and rank with this tattoo. Due to its size, the process of getting pe’a was extremely painful. Other men willingly helped the person who was getting tattooed until they completely recovered.
  • Japan. Tattoos used to be illegal in Japan, which is why many consider them offensive today. It’s partly because Yakuza gang members often tattoo themselves, so the Japanese connect this art form to crime.
  • Asia. Many Indian areas had specific cultural traditions that included tattooing. Some even used face tattoos to show their tribal dedication, while women tattooed flowers to get ready for life and motherhood.
  • Africa. You’ll find many tribal tattoo techniques throughout Africa. Today, this art form is popular in the Sub-Saharan area, while you won’t find it that common in the part of the continent where the majority is Islam followers.
  • America. Native Americans tattooed symbols for spiritual reasons. They believed it offered protection but also served to connect with their spirit animals.

Today, we see people mix different styles and choose tattoos based on their personalities. Some only go for aesthetic effect, while others show a trait of their character or another thing they find important. Either way, it’s clear that tattoos have become an individual thing.

Modern Day Tattooing

The tattoo history says the first electric gun for tattooing was made by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891. He made a small change to the previously invented electric pen. O’Reilly put tattoo needles on top but used a similar DC motor mechanism. These guns could spin up to 50 times per second, and other stylists soon made improvements.

In 1979, Carol Nightingale made an adjustable tattoo machine. You could set the desired force, depth, and speed. It allowed for more creativity to stylists and completely changed the history of tattoos. Today’s machines utilize electromagnets as an alternative to the rotary system.

What Do People Tattoo These Days?

We are living in modern times where most cultures offer a huge amount of freedom. That means you are free to choose the location and size of your tattoo. Face tattoos are still not that frequent, but primarily because they are more painful.

In the last decade, we saw unusual tattoo placements becoming more popular. You can go for a small finger tattoo that includes a tribal or another symbol. Some people also choose a snowflake or another important symbol for them and put it behind their ears. It’s convenient since it’s easier to hide and show as you see fit.

Flower tattoos are popular, especially among females. Characters and symbols from various mythologies are another common inspiration. You shouldn’t hesitate to check different types and styles and pick one that fits your preference.

How Does the Future of Tattooing Look?

Here are the latest breakthroughs in the tattoo industry:

  • Using digital technologies. Apps and tools like Apple Pencils are likely to change tracing paper and lightboxes in the coming years.
  • Augmented reality. The AR technology allows you to see what the tattoo would be like even before you get it. It ensures the tattoo looks just the way you want. For stylists, it minimizes the risk of the client not being satisfied with the outcome.
  • Tattoos that fade over time. A subdermal tattoo technology is only in the initial development stage. The idea is to offer a realistic tattoo that’s a temporary option. That indicates it fades over time and disappears naturally.

Tattoo stylists use a mix of binding agents, fillers, and other materials to make ink. You’ll even find organic ink, and we are looking forward to what the future holds. Either way make sure to choose a trustworthy tattoo shop and get inked by skilled tattoo artists.



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