History of Tattooing: Rituals and Rulers

History of Tattooing: Rituals and Rulers

Without a doubt, tattoos have been around for as long as we have had human history to keep track of. Although the art has been modernized through the invention of the motor (albeit, a small one), the art has remained mostly unchanged. What have changed throughout time are the styles, materials, and stigma attached to the art. We’re going to pay attention to that last bit today, tracking the purpose and reputation of tattoos as it spirals through a peculiar cycle.

Ötzi the Iceman

It is difficult to find information on ancient European tattoos due to their oral tradition of sharing information through different generations. This means that all information was passed through spoken word, rather than written down. This is part of the reason that Germanic languages emphasize rhyme so much—it’s easier to pass down information when it’s put into a rhyming scheme and meter. Some studies have even shown that the tradition of oral retelling is even more accurate than passing down information through scribes, since you only need to change one letter in a written script for a meaning to change, while the meaning of a spoken word only changes once a decade, at most. Unfortunately, spoken tradition does have one big disadvantage. If a culture is wiped out, then all of their information goes with them. This is the case with many European cultures, and the Celts especially.

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But, despite this bit of difficulty, we still have solid evidence of the importance of tattoos in European history. In 1991, two tourists in the Italian Alps discovered the body of a man who was stuck halfway inside a glacier. He was carefully removed from the structure and dubbed Ötzi the Iceman. His body tells us many things about the times he lived in—he was starving, sick, and ultimately killed by an arrow wound in his shoulder. He was also covered from head to toe in tattoos, with anthropologists counting as many as 61 across his entire body.

Finding them wasn’t easy. It was difficult to count them all, since the skin weathered significantly over the 5,300 years Ötzi was stuck in the glacier. And, let’s face it, he didn’t have anyone in the treacherous mountains there to apply sunscreen after he died. If you’re out in the sun for 5,300 years, it would be a miracle if anyone noticed that you had tattoos at all. Thanks to some modern technology that detected trace amounts of ink on the skin, scientists were able to image his original tattoos. Rows of lines, crosses, and dark bars covered his skin. They weren’t anything like those Celtic tattoos we associate with ancient Britain—these were wholly unique.

Some anthropologists theorize that the tattoos were used as a healing charm. Many of the tattoos overlap areas of his body that were afflicted by disease. Since this isn’t true for all of them, the theory isn’t set in stone, but it does match up with the traditions of many other regions in the world. The type of ink used also matches the standard ritualistic use of tattoos—all of his ‘inks’ were actually made of charcoal and soot that you would find in a bonfire.


Tattooed Vikings

Further north, we have more evidence that ancient Europeans sported tattoos with reverence. Writing and arithmetic originated in what we now consider the Middle East. Arabic and Sanskrit are some of the oldest languages in the world, and it was a speaker of one of these languages—Ibn Fadlan—who gave us evidence that the Vikings were prominently tattooed. He was a diplomat sent by the Caliph of Baghdad—yes, the same one we hear about today—to the Bulgars, in the Middle Volga area of Russia. This was back in AD 921, after the Roman Empire fell but before any of the countries as we know them today were founded in Europe. Ibn Fadlan encountered a group of people who called themselves Rus. They were Swedish Viking traders, who had brought slaves from the north to sell in places of wealth.

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Ship burial of a Rus chieftain as described by the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan


They were tattooed from head to toe, utilizing every last piece of their skin as a canvas. The tattoos were dark green and made up of trees, symbols, and knotwork that we have come to associate with the Celts, rather than the Scandinavians. Ibn Fadlan described the tattoos with the same word that he would use for mosque decorations. In other words, he saw them as holy and intricate artworks. Although he described the tattoos as green, it’s possible that they were just darkened blue tattoos, which we’ll get into later.

In the muggy, marshy areas of Europe, skin decomposes far too quickly to confirm the diplomat’s text. What we can confirm is that in the far north, in Siberia, a Scythian chieftain was found that was buried beneath the permafrost sometime around 500 B.C. They were able to confirm tattoos on him, just as they could confirm with Ötzi, and the Vikings were running around long after that. This practically confirms that the art was widespread throughout Europe.


Start of the Stigma

Now, those are just cultures that left no direct writings behind. There are many places in Europe that managed to receive that luxury, despite having no accessible writing scripts—all thanks to the Roman Empire. When the Romans invaded Britain, they reported back that Britons, Iberians, Gauls, Goths, Teutons, Picts, and Scots all had their own forms of tattoo art. Romans weren’t ecstatic about tattoos since it was a risky procedure and some of their biggest medical advances involved leeches, but they were intrigued enough by the art to write down what they saw.

Most of the body art was done with something called woad, a distinctly blue type of ink. The celtic swirls and knots that we are all familiar with dominated the designs of the region, and most people who received tattoos ended up covering their entire body with this artwork. The swirls represent the passage of life. An unbroken knot is a continuous circle of life, while intricate line work might represent birth, death, or even rebirth depending on the patterns. Despite their popularity, they are hardly the only kind of tattoo that existed in ancient Europe.

Different tribes had different motifs, with the Picts including far more images of animals than the other tribes. These animal depictions are thought to be totems which granted the wearer certain mystical abilities. The Picts are not called by their tribe name, but by the nickname that the Romans gave them. Pictii means Painted, and we can see the same word root in the English word ‘picture.’ The Picts were unique in that they actually used their tattoos as a call sign—in other words, their name. Isidore of Seville noted that ‘they derive their name in their own language from their painted bodies, because these are marked with various designs by being pricked with iron needles with ink on them… The Picts are also thus named because of the absurd marks produced on their bodies by craftsmen with tiny pinpricks and juice extracted from local grasses.’

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Pictish Woman & Man Tattooed Source


While they were impressed, the Romans coined a very special word for tattoos—Stigma. The original latin meaning of the word simply meant mark or blemish. It could also refer to wounds of prisoners or brands of slaves. The latter interpretation is probably its real origin, since branding was the only form of tattooing that the Romans really practiced. The word’s association with disease and tattoos has given it the meaning that it has today. The word is so intricately entwined with tattoos that it has become part of what they are. A negative stigma—or, a negative association—with tattoos began the moment that Romans christened them as such.


Christianization and Taboo

Romans had a very peculiar way of conquering new territories. They would begin by sending their militia to found a settlement. On its own, that wasn’t terribly bad to any of the pre-existing tribes. Just one small settlement wouldn’t impact a whole community, and it opened up a trade route to a huge amount of different cultures. Romans built roads all throughout Europe and partially into Asia, and they had close contact with any country that knew of the Mediterranean Sea. That being said, a Roman settlement was very valuable to its surrounding neighbors. Once that was set, the military would expand and form another one, then another one. With Britain, they managed to build a few settlements before their funds ran out. Unfortunately, the funding for an all-out conquest of the islands was impossible, since the Byzantine Empire was nearing its end, and the islands that are Ireland today were putting up a huge fight against any kind of settlement on their territory. So, with any military take-overs being impractical, they moved into cultural assimilation.

The art of tattooing was associated with pagan religions. You could get a tattoo to heal a wound or to instill mystical powers. You could get a tattoo as part of a coming of age ritual. They were deeply ingrained in the culture of ancient Britain. The initial Roman settlers were tolerant of this pagan activity, but as time passed, they converted more and more citizens of the British Isles and started to discourage the art of tattooing. Local churches to kings and deities were converted to Christian churches wherever it was possible. No one likes giving up holidays when they leave a religion, so per tradition, pagan practices were to be converted to Christian practices. We can see an echo of this in today’s society—the holiday of Easter was originally dedicated to Eastre, the god of fertility. Christmas was originally called Saturnalia, while New Years was Sol Invictus.

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Pegan Tattoo – Source


Unfortunately, the practice of tattooing was especially problematic. There’s no two ways about it—it’s expressly forbidden in Christian scriptures. Leviticus 19:28 states that Christians should not, ‘cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.’ Even if you look into the context or etymology of the scripture, its meaning remains clear. The reason it rests in the bible is also due to the practices of pagans. It was customary for Canaanites—a society that frequently clashed with the Jews—to tattoo themselves for ritualistic purposes, especially mourning the dead. The bible verse references that directly. Egyptian women loved to tattoo parts of their body to give them more beauty and fertility. The old way of doing things was to abstain from enemy behavior entirely.

Where the Romans would normally just find an excuse to Christianize the art of tattooing—by, say, claiming that the marks represented solidarity with Christ—they were forced by their good book to stay true to their word. After repeated attempts to eradicate this pagan behavior, tattoos fell out of favor and became relegated to the lower classes—the thieves, beggars, and poor. Those who had them would be unable to obtain nobility or a new job, should there be an event that barred them from practicing their family trade.


Second Wind

The art languished in the region for centuries. Power traded hands many times, and the ancient pagan traditions and lore that once flourished in Europe became disoriented and scattered as fewer and fewer people were there to practice them. But this isn’t where the story ends. There were many places of the world where that stigma placed on tattoos by the Romans didn’t reach. In those places, the art persevered.

Let’s fast forward a little bit. It’s 1769, and Sir Joseph Banks is serving as a botanist for Captain Cook. Britain was looking to expand its power through new trade routes to the Eastern world, since the one that led to America didn’t exactly turn out too hot. They passed by many islands and Banks was careful to note the strange tradition of tattoos that seemed prevalent among the Polynesians. They had no idea why the Polynesians would want to get tattoos, which heretofore had been relegated to the lower classes in British society. He brought back the word ‘tattoo’ to England, but labeled the practice absurd.

NPG 5868; Sir Joseph Banks, Bt by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Sir Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1771-1773

Of course, there’s more to the story than that, but what’s important here is that Captain Cook’s crew were far away from the British Isles, and no amount of fussing over the holy book would reach them in this place. So they decided to get their own tattoos. They brought back their tattoos from halfway across the world and wore them with pride. After all, Polynesian tattoos were associated with power and wealth, rather than criminals. They had every reason to be proud.


Wealthy Icons

These tattoos started a trend that swept through the ranks of the Royal Navy. It became customary for sailors to get tattoos, with up to 90% of them wearing one by the start of the 19th century. Several different types of tattoo styles cropped up, now with a nautical theme. Turtles, dragons, anchors, sharks, and fish adorned sailors returning to shore. Since the Royal Navy was considered the strongest branch of the English military of the time, it started to become popular among the nobles. In 1862, the Prince of Wales received a Jerusalem Cross tattoo on his arm. King Edward VII had himself inked late in his life with several different designs. He encouraged his sons to get tattoos from a master while visiting Japan, and the two Dukes returned with fanciful sleeves—and a surprise. They had both stopped in Jerusalem to get a cross from the same artist who had tattooed their father!

The art of tattooing was now far removed from its pagan roots. It was considered a fashionable trend or temporary fad, depending on who you were speaking to, even after the ‘fad’ had been around for more than one hundred years! The first British tattoo shop was founded in London in roughly 1898. The demand for high-quality art and sterile environments in which to get tattooed was in high demand.

A man named George Burchett aspired to become a tattoo artist from a young age, and his arrival to the tattoo revolution was only delayed by the year of his birth. He enlisted in the Navy purely to learn about tattoos at the young age of 13. After twelve years of service, he started his own shop and gained such a reputation that he gathered a fortune and became known as the King of Tattoos.

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George tattooing his brother Charles


New Technology

New technology revolutionized the popularity of tattoos. No longer did you have to use a sketchy method of pricking your skin with bones or needles and dirty inks in order to wear a tattoo. No longer did you need to be wealthy to ensure that medical complications would not kill you where you stood. The motor was invented, and along with it came sewing machines and technologies involving needles.

As long as someone had access to electricity, they could quickly contrive a tattoo machine gun. The other essentials of the machine were common and could be easily acquired or manufactured. It was a sterile, precise way of giving tattoos that made it easily accessible to people within the Western world. The easy cleanup and fast speed of these machines made it much easier to start a tattoo shop. The sterile environments and lowered pain threshold made it more appealing to those in the middle class. Tattoos as a fashion took off among every caste and class around the world, and this time, they were here to stay.

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Samuel O’Reilly first Tattoo Gun Patent


Turning the Tide

There is currently a wide acceptance of tattoos among the occupants of the British Isles. The negative stigma that was attached to it by the Romans lingers only in the hearts of doting parents who don’t want their kids to be ‘that person with the tattoo.’ While tattoos remain associated with groups of violent gangs, someone with a tattoo is far more likely to be a fan of the art form rather than a criminal. If people see a tattooed person on the street and do a double take, it’s probably to look at the image in detail. Due to the ancient association with criminals, though, tattoos are not appreciated in professional settings if you are anything short of royalty. It’s unfortunate, but true. Thankfully, this stigma seems to be disappearing as time goes on, with more and more employed people of the middle class getting tattoos as time passes.

Gone with the taboo are also the ancient traditions associated with tattoos. No one gets a tattoo to gain insight, fertility, luck, grace, or power. They get a tattoo because it’s pretty or it looks cool. These traditions—which are even older than the taboo against tattoos—only live on in the voices of the few, scattered throughout Europe in places where Christians could not mute their voices or burn their records.

One thing has remained unchanged, despite the thousands of years that have passed since the art was first practiced in the region: People still use it to honor the dead and respect the world around them. Tattoos of animals and scriptures are common, and while we know that they don’t instill mystical powers in modern times, they still show a reverence for the creatures and stories of the world around us. Even more common are tattoos of family members, deceased or not. These tattoos show extreme dedication to family ties, something which is mentioned as far back as tattoos are mentioned in all written records. Without any stigma or stories or classes attached, tattoos are meant to show respect to the world around us. This is something that has never changed, and will never change.

If you enjoyed this article on the history of tattooing, feel free to check out our other articles in the series. InkDoneRight also has many articles on tattoo designs, including Polynesian tattoos and Sailor Jerry tattoos that were mentioned in this article. We also have interviews and tattoo meaning catalogues that you might enjoy. As always, thanks for reading!


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