Tattoos : The Ancient Art of Tattooing

The Origins of Tattoos

Caught in a snowstorm while on a hunting trip in the mountains along the border between Italy and Austria, a Bronze Age man met his end. Little did he know that the discovery of his body in 1991, nearly 5,300 later, would thrill the scientific community, anthropologists and historians around the world by providing the oldest naturally preserved tattooed body every found. Named after the Otz valley where his body was found, Otzi the Iceman has 57 ‘carbon’ tattoos in the form of stripes or crosses.

Tattooing is one of the earliest visual art forms and has served as a means of self-expression for thousands of years. The process was probably discovered when ash or dirt became embedded in an open wound, leaving an indelible mark when healed. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means to mark something. The earliest known reference to the word was made by Joseph Banks, a naturalist aboard the Endevour, captained by Cook. Banks notes in his journal, “"I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly; each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition".

By the 1700s, the word tattoo was in use in Europe. The term and knowledge of the practice was probably reintroduced to Europe by sailors returning from Polynesia. Anthropologists argue that the desire to make permanent markings on the body has profound, aesthetic, spiritual, practical and universal origins. H.G Wells penned, “In all ages, far back in prehistory, we find humans have painted and adorned themselves”. Oscar Wilde observed, “One must be a work of art or wear a work of art”.

The Egyptians and Tattooing

  • The Egyptian mummy, Amunet, priestess of Hathor, the Egytian Goddess of love, was found in Thebes bearing tattoos on her lower abdomen, thought to be linked to fertility. Her body is between 4040-3994 years old.
  • All tattooed Egyptian mummies found to date are females. Statuettes known as ‘brides of the dead’ were decorated with similar designs and were buried with male mummies to arouse the soul’s sexual instincts upon resurrection.
  • From Egypt, the art of tattooing was passed on to Crete, Persia, Greece and Arabia.

The Art of Tattooing in Japan

  • Figurines called ‘dogu’ dating back 3000 years are the earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan.
  • They display similar markings to those found amongst the Ainu – the native people of Japan.
  • The Japanese later embraced tattooing and took the art form to new heights.
  • The Japanese bodysuit, a well known cultural icon, was developed in response to the restriction that the only people permitted to wear ornate clothing were royalty. In an act of protest, middle-class men adorned themselves with extensive, colorful tattoos.
  • The Tokyo Museum of Natural Art displays hundreds of tattooed skins, which were purchased under contract between collectors and the wearer prior to his death.

Japanese Bodysuit

Japanese Bodysuit