Tattooing is an ancient art that has been practiced all across the globe, including Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines and the Andes, since Neolithic times. To date the oldest tattoo on human skin has been discovered on the body of Otzi the Iceman, dating to between 3370 and 3100 BC.
Called pachakutharathu in Southern India and godna in Northern India, permanent tattoos were very common before 1980. Many tribal populations have used tattoos as cultural symbols.
In Egypt tattoos were mainly found on women, indicating status. They were used for healing, religion and even as a form of punishment.
In the literature, tattoos in ancient China were used to depict bandits and folk heroes as tattoos considered a barbaric practice. As late as the Qing dynasty, which ruled until 1912, it was commonplace to tattoo characters such as “prisoner” onto the face of convicted criminals. Additionally, although it was relatively rare, tattoos were also sometimes put onto slaves in order to mark ownership.
Since pre-Hispanic colonization of the Philippines tattooing has been a part of Filipino life. It was used to show rank and accomplishments. Additionally, some believed that tattoos had magical qualities. Since tattooing was believed to be something special and important to the Filipinos, it was a widespread tradition.
The earliest evidence of tattooing in Europe dates back to approximately 50,000 years ago. These early tattoos are parallel lines that go across the shoulder on one person and down both arms and across the torso and chest of another person. Otzi the Iceman is the most famous proof of European tattooing that dates from the 4th millennium BC. Studies have found that Otzi had 61 carbon-ink tattoos consisting of 19 groups of lines and simple dots on his lower spine, left wrist, behind his right knee and on his ankles. While we aren’t positive as to the meaning of these tattoos, it has been argued that these tattoos were a form of healing because of their placement.
During the American Revolution to avoid impressment by British Navy Ships, sailors used government issued protection papers to establish their American citizenship. However, these papers were so general and easy to forge that officers started not to pay attention to them. Therefore, sailors began tattooing themselves as a more effective way to describe themselves on their papers. During this period tattoos weren’t popular throughout the rest of the country.