A Story of Ink: Where the Art of Tattooing Began

Tattoos have existed for thousands of years. As far back as the 4th millennium BCE, tattoos were being used for many reasons. Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy sports a whopping 61 tattoos which are presumed to have been, oddly enough — an ancient form of acupuncture used for pain relief!

Ötzi the Iceman’s Tattoos

In ancient Greece and Rome as well as East Asia, tattoos were a brand — if you were inked, you were most likely a criminal or an outcast. This use of tattoos continued till as recently as the 1940s; Nazis were still using branding as a prisoner identification system.

Auschwitz survivors Leon Greenman and Sam Rosenzweig display their identification tattoos

Closer to home, the art of tattooing can be traced back to 3000 years ago; Asian mummies with ink indicate that tattoos were a mark of social status, though some were also worn for decorative purposes. Over time, tattoos became a symbol of identity — those that could not afford expensive silk or jewelry found expression in ink. East Asian tattoos were often worn as talismans to ward off evil and they later developed into an art form that used a variety of colours in full body designs telling detailed stories. In places like Japan, these became associated with the Japanese mafia or ‘yakuza’, the most visibly inked members of society.

East Asian tattoo styles tell stories through detail and colour.

In China, tattooing is still tied to its history of being used as a brand, though this perception has changed over time. Minority groups like the Dai and the Dulong wear facial tattoos that once served the purpose of making women less desirable to attackers in the hopes of preventing abduction and sexual assault. In South Asia, the Apatani tribe, much like their East Asian counterparts, have women’s faces tattooed as a way of making them less appealing to rival tribes who might abduct them. In modern times, these tribal markings are seen as a sign of strength and courage, largely due to the painful process that goes along with getting inked.

Women from the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh with facial tattoos.

Further south, The Tamilian Toda tribe have tattoos that match the geometric patterns of their clothing.

A Woman from the Toda tribe displaying her tattoos and embroidered clothing.

South Asian tribal women continue to wear tattoos for many reasons, including to ensure safe passage into the afterlife, to symbolize their faith in magic, and even to mark tribal victories and commemorate important events. The art of temporary tattooing using henna is also widely practiced in south Asia and the middle east, and has gained popularity across the world. Henna designs are now a trend, even as a permanent tattoo!

A simple henna tattoo design.

Western tattoos and methods are extremely popular across the world now. Though different from ancient tattoos, they are definitely inspired by the same practices. British sailors often returned from their voyages sporting new ink, which made the art of tattooing gain popularity in Europe.

A tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey.

These sailors brought back designs and tattooing methods from across the globe, such as Asian styles of tattooing in the 1800s, and even brought Polynesian men back with them and introduced the sacred ritual of tribal tattooing into the Western world. This style of tattooing remains one of the most popular ones even today.

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson displaying his traditional Polynesian tattoo.

The expedition of James Cook is credited with coining the term ‘tattoo’ which derives from the Samoan word ‘tatau’, meaning ‘to strike’. Performed by highly skilled masters called ‘tufuga ta tatau’, Tatau is an extremely detailed and painful method of tattooing that can take weeks and sometimes even years to complete.

A Māori chief with a full-face tattoo, called Tā Moko, as seen by Cook and his crew.

As time went on, getting inked became popular with other sections of society including the rich and elite, changing how tattoos were perceived in Europe. This fascination began as early as the 1800s with the Queen’s grandson getting an East Asian dragon tattoo on his arm. Interestingly, the name ‘Britain’ comes from the Celtic ‘Pretani’ or ‘painted ones’, given to them by the Romans. After the Prince of Wales acquired a cross tattoo in the 1860s, ink was truly embraced in the West, and tattoo parlours began finding a place in big cities such as New York.

A European man gets a traditional Japanese tattoo done.

Before its acceptance in mainstream America, tattoos were seen as abnormal, and tattooed individuals were usually part of the circuses as ‘freak show’ acts. The ‘Painted Lady’, an act featuring a woman inked from head to toe was extremely popular, and played a big role in shifting the perception of ink as a high-class fashion accessory to something that belonged to the lower classes.

A woman with full-body tattoos getting inked in America.

But by the time tattooing took off in America with the opening of new shops, it had already become quite popular; men being sent to war were some of the first to get inked. For some, this was a symbol of good luck, for others a reminder of what they were really fighting for and everything they had left behind. Pinup girls, already a staple of morale building during the war, now found a place in ink. Nautical symbols, such as the anchor or steering wheels, became one of the most popular designs owing to inked sailors, and continue to be sought-after even today.

A classic Sailor Jerry pin-up featuring a steering wheel.
A modern anchor tattoo.

Even further back in the West, Native Americans were getting inked for pain relief quite like our European mummy from the start of this tale, and they used symbols associated with guardian spirits in their tattoos. Just like its Polynesian counterparts, this style used a detailed and painful poking method to create designs that told of a person’s unique story and journey.

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, a Maquas (or Mohawk) chief, displays his tattoos.

Later on, tattoos became a symbol of rebellion after the punk scene in Britain began boldly sporting ink, a practice that soon spread to the North American punk subculture. Ink, it would seem, was a great way to tell the world you would no longer be a slave to the establishment. Tattoos became the coat of arms for the marginalized groups, who proudly displayed their identities on their skin.

Punk style clothes, tattoos, piercings and attitude. Source: Wojcik (1995).

A growing art form, getting inked is at the forefront of modern self-expression with a history and legacy that lives on in the very skin of the inked. A revolution, a symbol of hope, a call to action, a message to yourself — a tattoo can be anything you want it to be. To get inked is to wear your heart on your sleeve — sometimes quite literally!

Anatomical heart-on-a-sleeve tattoo.

Jhaiho is a platform that connects you to tattoo artists in Bangalore. Did you find some inspiration in our post? Or perhaps you already have your design? Get on the Jhaiho WebApp to find your tattoo artist today!

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