Tattoos hold a fascinating and diverse history that spans thousands of years and numerous cultures. People all over the world have used tattoos as a form of self-expression, as well as for spiritual, religious, or social reasons.
Early evidence of tattooing can be found in Japan’s clay figurines, dating back to 5000 BCE. The unofficial origins of Japanese tattooing, or Irezumi Tattoo, are traced back to around 5000 B.C.. However, the Irezumi style as we know it today only developed between the 17th and 19th centuries with the advent of printing techniques.
Otzi the Iceman, a Bronze-Age man from around 3300 BCE, was discovered with 57 tattoos on his mummified skin, many of which were located on or near acupuncture points. Some scientists speculate that these tattoos may indicate an early form of acupuncture.
Tattoos were also found on ancient Egyptian mummies, and were used in early Greek and Roman times to identify slaves and criminals. The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians, and the Romans adopted the practice from the Greeks. In more recent history, elaborately-tattooed mummies were found in Pazyryk tombs. They belonged to fierce horsemen and warriors who lived on the grass plains of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
- The origins
While the origins of tattooing are not entirely clear, anthropologists believe that the practice may have arisen from bloodletting, scarification rituals, medical treatment, or by chance. Charles Darwin once noted that every country in the world practiced tattooing or some form of permanent body decoration. Karl von den Steinen, a German ethnologist and explorer, believed that tattooing in South America evolved from the custom of decorating the body with scars. The evolution of tattoos is an interesting and diverse story.
Tattoos have taken on different meanings and forms in various cultures throughout history. For some, tattoos have been a way to mark important events or to express oneself artistically. Tattoos were often used as a symbol of social status or religious affiliation. The art of tattooing may have spread through migration and nomadic peoples.
While tattoos have gained more mainstream acceptance in recent times, they still carry a of stigma in some societies. The word “stigma” originates from a Latin word that means a mark or puncture, made by a pointed instrument.
Although the word “stigma” originally meant simply a “mark,” it later became synonymous with tattoos or brands on the body. In ancient times, scars and marks served as a form of identification in a world without social security numbers. Soldiers also used tattoos to distinguish themselves from the general population, as evidenced by Roman military manuals from the late fourth or early fifth century. According to these sources, soldiers received tattoos after completing their training, often on their hands, and the ink was supplied by leek juice.
Tattoos were also used in the ancient Near East to advertise mourning and religious affiliations. Despite the commonly held belief that tattooed Jews cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, there is evidence that tattoos were used among some Jews in the ancient Near East as a symbol of mourning for loved ones. In Late Antiquity, tattoos began to be used as a way to signify Christian identity. Although there is little direct evidence to suggest that this practice was an attempt to “reclaim” the imposed practice of tattooing Christians who were sent to the mines and inscribed on their foreheads, literary sources indicate that extreme Christian sects used tattoos to show their devotion. Victor of Vita, writing about the Vandal invasions in the 480s, reports that Manichaeans used tattoos to show their devotion.
Facial tattoos remained controversial in Roman society due to their historical association with slavery and convicts. Emperor Constantine outlawed facial branding and tattoos for slaves or convicts in an edict of 315/316 CE. Like today, facial tattoos could be both controversial and powerful symbols of identity.