Would you believe it if we told you humans have used tattoos for at least 5,200 years? Well, it’s true and there is proof! Two tourists discovered a 5,200 year old mummy while climbing the Ötztal Alps on September 19th, 1991. The mummy received the nickname Ötzi (“The Iceman”).
The tattoos discovered on Ötzi’s body are the oldest we know about. His tattoos pre-date the previous earliest known use of tattoos by 2,000 years! The age of his tattoos isn’t the only interesting thing about them. Ötzi’s tattoos don’t seem to be used as art, but rather as a medical aid. The tattoos covered his joints, and according to scientists he had joint problems, and he may have used the tattoos for pain relief similar to acupuncture.
Ötzi tells us tattoos have been apart of our history for at least 5,200 years! There are also numerous other mummies that have tattoos.
If you’re looking to learn more about Ötzi and other tattooed mummies like him Cate Lineberry wrote a great piece about the mummies on smithsonianmag.com
The Ancient and Mysterious History
In terms of tattoos on actual bodies, the earliest known examples were for a long time Egyptian and were present on several female mummies dated to c. 2000 B.C. But following the more recent discovery of the Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 and his tattoo patterns, this date has been pushed back a further thousand years when he was carbon-dated at around 5,200 years old.
Now that we know just how long tattooing has been around, let’s talk about a couple different cultures histories with tattoos. Starting with Japan.
Japan’s history with tattoos
The traditional style of Japanese tattooing is called Irezumi.
Tattoos have also been used for reasons not as innocent as Ötzi’s reason for having tattoos. Some cultures like Japan who originally had a spiritual and decorative purpose for tattoos slowly turned tattoos into a negative thing. Japan was originally open to tattoos, until the Kofun period, when they started branding criminals with tattoos.
This was the start of the prejudice against tattoos in Japan. Tattooing wasn’t as big as it was before in Japan, and with criminals being marked with tattoos, tattoos became linked to criminals. The biggest blow to Japan’s tattoo culture was the complete banning of tattoos in 1946 to make a good impression on the West. It didn’t completely kill the culture, the culture just went underground. Though at this time, the link between criminality and tattoos became much stronger in Japan.
During this time the Yakuza advanced the Irezumi style, and started strategically tattooing their bodies so they could hide them if they needed to. You’ll notice “blank” spots on bodies with large Irezumi tattoos.
The banning was overthrown by occupation forces in 1948 but the damage was done.
The stigma remains but it has been dying down recently, though some places like bath houses still ban people with tattoos from their establishments. The younger generations are not nearly as prejudice thanks to Western media influence.
We got some history about a culture with a negative attitude towards tattoos in general. We’re going to flip it around, and learn a little about a culture who has had a positive attitude towards tattoos, the Polynesian tribes.
History of tattoos in tribes
Polynesian tattoos (or tatau) are still applied by hand, as they were 2000 years ago. The infection rate from these tattoos is high, and the pain overwhelming, but denying the tattoo could have you marked as a coward. These tattoos are used to denote rank and status in these tribes. Big extravagant affairs would take place and the tattoo process itself could take months.
Most of us have seen an imitation, or have an imitation of these tribe’s tattoos, these type of tattoos are known as tribal tattoos, and are one of the most popular among men.
There’s more than one tribe and pbs.org has a great article about them if you want to learn more about the history of these tribal tattoos.
The Beginning: Tatau in Samoa
The legacy of Polynesian tattoo began over 2000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them. Once widespread in Polynesian societies across the Pacific Ocean, the arrival of western missionaries in the 19th century forced this unique art form into decline. Despite the encroachment of Christian religious beliefs that vilified tattooing as unholy, many Polynesian tattoo artists maintained their vital link to their culture’s history by preserving their unique craft for generations.
Quite a difference between Japanese and Polynesian culture, huh? Let’s move onto an additional resource if you want to learn more.
Additional information about the history of tattoos in different cultures
We’ve gone through a lot but if you are left wanting more, here’s a great article on rosettastone.com’s blog that lays out some more cultural tattoo history in a nice short article.
The Cultural History of Tattoos
Having a tattoo has become so common that according to a 2013 statistic, 36% of people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo; between 26 and 40 years of age, 40%. It used to be that tattooed people would’ve more likely found themselves in company with military personnel and bikers, or even in carnival circles. Many people today who get a tattoo—or those cringing about their kids getting one—may not realize what a profound cultural and historical place tattoos have held through history and around the world.
Until next time, thanks for reading!