The History of Tattooing

The population of those with inked or colored skin is growing by leaps and bounds. In recent years, tattooing has become much more mainstream. But what is a tattoo? Where did they begin?

Tattooing is the process by which colored dyes or inks are inserted beneath the surface of the skin with some type of sharp tool. In today’s western world, tattoos are most often done with a motorized needle. In other countries, however, tattoos are inflicted on a person with a homemade instrument, by hand, over a period of several days, sometimes months. In such cultures, the art of tattooing has not changed for thousands of years.

Archaeologists have reported finding tools they think were most likely used for tattooing in many digs all across the continent of Europe. The objects are round an flat. They are made of clay and have openings at the top where needles made from bone are inserted. They were probably used as a source of pigment and a reservoir, and the bone needles were used to apply ink to the skin. Engraved figures of clay and stone from the same era have been discovered with these instruments. It is thought that these engravings represented tattoos.

In 1991, the oldest known tattooed man was discovered. He was a mummy from the Bronze Age, which was more than 5,000 years ago. It is hypothesized that the man was caught in a snow storm while hunting. There were a bow and arrows, a bronze ax, and flint found with the body, frozen inside a glacier. Among the Bronze man’s tattoos are “a cross on the inside of the left knee, and six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys.” These tattoos are thought by experts to be either ornamental or, perhaps, to represent social status or magical meaning.

The History Channel online encyclopedia states that tattoos were being inked into Egyptians’ skin as early as 2000 B.C. According to Dr. W.D. Hambly, author of The History of Tattooing And It’s Significance, published in 1925, there is archaeological evidence which indicates that tattooing could have begun several hundred years earlier than 2000 B.C. Made in Egypt between 4000 and 2000 B.C., Egyptian female clay figurines which have markings by puncture tattoo have been discovered. Two of these tattooed dolls are on display in the museum at Oxford University.

From Egypt, the art of tattooing spread around the world. The 3rd and 4th Dynasties were the golden age of Egyptian pyramid-building. The massive tombs still
standing at Giza were constructed during this time. During this time, between 2800 and 2000 B.C., the art of tattooing began to spread across the globe, to Arabia, Greece, Persia, and Asia.

The types of tattoos and instruments used in their application vary from culture to culture, as does the meaning. In the early days of tattooing, most of the time tattooing or scarification was applied to indicate a person’s social status within a tribe. A tattoo could indicate a person’s high ranking social status in one culture, or one’s a low societal ranking in another culture. Tattoos have been used throughout history to show religious affiliation and loyalty, and since the time of the first tattoo there have been those who were inked for merely decorative purposes.

Tattooing is an invasive, painful procedure that can result in serious health problems if not done correctly. If done by an inexperienced and ill-prepared artist, a tattoo could spell death for someone in the form of AIDS or hepatitis. If done correctly, however, a tattoo is priceless, a personalized piece of art that lasts a lifetime.

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