The oldest known evidence of people having tattoos are clay figures of warriors with characteristic tattoos on their faces. They were found in tombs in Japan and date back to 5,000 BC.
The oldest known human with tattoos is Otzi, the Iceman. His mummified corpse was found in an Alpine glacier on the border of today’s Austria and Italy. Otzi lived in the Bronze Age, around 3,300 BC. His body is covered with 57 tattoos located mainly in places known to today’s acupuncture. It is very possible that Otzi’s tattoos were done therapeutically to alleviate his illnesses, including arthritis. Otzi’s tattoos are mostly lines along the joints and point patterns.
Other early examples of tattoos come from ancient Egypt. Many mummies dating back to the 21st century BC have tattoos. Tattoos were also known in ancient Persia, Greece and Rome. They were used to mark slaves and criminals to prevent them from escaping.
A very interesting discovery was finding a mummy of a young maiden known as Princess Ukok in Siberia. The woman’s arms, fingers and legs are covered with tattoos of mythical and realistic animals. Princess Ukok was buried in the mound, wearing traditional Pazyryk clothing, accompanied by two warriors and six horses. Princess Ukok is the oldest known mummy with figurative tattoos. The woman’s tattoos have many details and are the most complicated ones among other ancient tattoos revealed so far.
A very interesting design, including many symbols, is presented by Samoan tattoos. The word “tattoo” has its roots in the Polynesian word “tatau”. It comes from the sound of the tattoo tool poking the skin. Traditional Samoan tattoos symbolize belonging to a community, social status, courage and fortitude. Tattoos are being made during a special ritual and all the symbols must be earned by the right conduct.
It was travelers who brought tattoos to the old continent and to North America. In the 19th century, a tattoo could be brought back from an exotic journey. The first tattooed person to join a circus troupe in Europe was French deserter Jean Baptiste Cabri, who had previously lived in a community on one of the Pacific islands. His tattoos meant he was fully accepted by the island community. Tattooed people were presented as an oddity in circuses, gathering crowds of spectators. Tattoos have been rare in Europe and North America until then. Over time, the sight of tattooed men became more and more commonplace for viewers, so tattooed women became popular, and later on also entire families.
Recently, tattoos have been experiencing a renaissance, becoming socially acceptable and no longer evoking negative emotions. Until recently, they were associated with a stay in prison and the criminal world. None other than my own dad, seeing my first forearm tattoo, asked me how long I had been in prison. – Only 3 hours, Dad! That’s how long the session lasted, which I remember very fondly.