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In the last 25 years the popularity of tattoos has exploded worldwide. Was it once an oddity to see a tattoo on the human skin I, today it is almost a rarity to see unmarked skin. But the ancient art of body inking actually has been around for quite a long time.

Embellishing the skin with permanent tattoos is an ancient practice which can be traced back thousands of years and to many different cultures of the ancient world. Historically humans all over the world have been adorning their skin for a variety of reasons; to mark their social status, in religious rites, to beautify, for protection, to give oneself magical powers, to heal illnesses or to relieve pain. Often the body art was – and still is – used by various tribes in ignition rites, to mark coming of age or to commemorate other significant milestones in life.

The name tattoo derives from the Samoan word Tatau, which means to strike in. Inspired by the tribal tattoos, the sailors on Captain James Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific revived the art of needling the skin in Europe. But tattoos were for a long time only seen on coalminers and sailors. This probably has to do with the dangerous nature of their jobs; the tattoos were applied as som form of talisman to keep them safe.


The oldest tattoo has been found on the European Iceman Mummy ” Oetzi” from the bronze age. The tattooed man, roughly 5,500 years old, was found 25 years ago in the Tyrolean Alps. The Iceman is the oldest known human to have medicinal tattoos preserved upon his mummified skin. On the remains of a Siberian princess named Ukok, found in the ice 19 years ago in the Altai mountains in Siberia, intricate tattoo patterns have been found as well. In her case the tattoos marked her status in life, which was confirmed by the objects, animals and warriors who were buried next to her as well, to safeguard and ease her journey into the afterlife. But it has not only been the markings that confirm their history. Tools that were used to create tattoos have been found at various sites.

1 Tattoo Rituals Blog
Tattoos on wrist and fingers found on the mummified body of Siberian princess Ukok.

The Practice

Tattoos found on mummified remains showed evidence of soot or ash from burnt plant material to create the markings and. This black ash would be rubbed into the punctures or patterns created with needles made from animal bones. In ancient Asia the tattoos were needled with bamboo sticks. If you consider how old the art of tattooing is, then it is rather remarkable that the art has not evolved a lot from its origins thousands of years ago.

Protection tattoos

The Nubians who lived south of Egypt only used tattoos on females and in ancient Egypt the markings of dotted patterns around the abdomen were also exclusively found on women. It is believed that these tattoos functioned as a talisman to safeguard women during pregnancy and childbirth. In India the dot on the forehead resembling a black mole was tattooed to ward of the evil eye.

Status tattoos in the world

Among Greeks and Romans the use of tattoos, or stigmata marks as they were called, showed that someone belonged too a religious sect. Additionally  they were used to mark slaves and criminals, the latter obviously not a very desirable version to have.

The ancient Scythians and Thracians on the other hand used the body art as a testimony of high birth, to show off their nobility.
In Japan the Samurai picked up the art of inking after being forced to disband their original function as warriors. Being stripped of their armor, the Samurai adopted the tattoo as a means of replacing the armor.

In ancient China the tattoo, or Wen Shen was considered a barbaric practice and certainly not a beautifying element. They are mentioned in ancient Chinese literature when speaking of bandits and criminals. It was apparently common practice to tattoo the word prisoner on convicted criminals’ faces.

In Papua New Guinea girls received their first tattoo at age 5. Then each year they were embellished with new body arts. At age 21 the young women would get a large V-shaped tattoo across their chest to mark them eligible for marriage.

Maori tattoos

The indigenous people of New Zealand, The Maori tribe, consider the face as the most important body part. The facial tattoos, or moko as they are called, are marks of high status. Each tattoo was and is unique and individually designed. The facial tattoo of men conveys specific information about status, rank, ancestry and ability, thus it could be considered a person’s passport of some kind. The Maoris receive their tattoos at different stages of life, as a rite of passage or to make men look more desirable and attractive to the opposite sex. Maori women on the other hand only have tattoos around the nose and lips for beautifying purposes. And for cosmetic reasons apparently as Maori women claim it prevents the skin from wrinkling helping them to stay looking young.

MAori Tattoo Rituals Blog

Healing tattoos

In addition to all these purposes we conclude with the healing aspect of some rituals involving tattoos. Many believe that acupuncture actually finds it roots in the practice of tattooing. On a Peruvian mummy that was over 2500 years old, scientist found intricate circle patterns around the neck and back at locations where according to TCM (traditional Chinese Medicin) many important needle points for relieving pain are located as well.

modern day tattoos

So tattoos have been around for many millennia and by the look of it, will be staying for many more to come. Be it as a mark of individuality as is nowadays often the case in western society, as a branding that you belong to a specific group or to commemorate a special occasion or event. Receiving a tattoo is a near spiritual ritual that requires the endurance of physical pain in exchange for a mark of beauty. You could almost state that the human body has become a living canvas where where you leave your personal imprint to testify to the beauty of your life.

Este post también está disponible en: Inglés Alemán

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