The Evolution of Tattoo Culture
For over 6,000 years, human beings have been tattooing their bodies. Tattoos have been used as status symbols and degrading marks, as images of respect and disrespect. icons of respect and images of disrespect. Forms of tattooing existed in ancient cultures stretching from China to Rome, Siberia to Polynesia, and from Europe to the Americas. They’ve instilled fear in enemies and affection in lovers for millennia, and now in the modern era the culture of tattoos is experiencing yet another transformation. It’s worth taking a look at where the history of tattoos began, where it is now, and where it’s headed.
“I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach”
Tattoos in Ancient Times
The oldest definitive proof of a deliberate tattoo dates back about 5,000 years to between 3351 and 3017 BC — the Predynastic period of ancient Egypt. Two mummies were found in March of 2018 with examples of “figural” tattoos, which are tattoos meant to represent real things, rather than just abstract symbols.
In ancient Japan, social class was distinguished by specific types of tattoos — it’s thought that many men displayed face tattoos of various types. Ancient Egyptians are also thought to have tattooed themselves as far back as 2000 BC, almost exclusively among women. These tattoos were applied using metal needles attached to the end of a wooden tool
But the Samoan people might be the most famous historical users of tattoos within their culture. In fact, the word tattoo comes from tatau, a Samoan word. Samoans continue to apply tattoos by hand to this day, marking the recipient’s growth from children to men and women.
Tattoos in America
So what about tattoos in more recent history, right here in the United States? We carry our own rich tradition of tattoos, and they’ve been used for a wide range of purposes — from basic practical use to the sheer beauty of body adornment.
Tattoos were used in the 1800s as a way for sailors to identify themselves as Americans and avoid being forced into service on British Navy boats. Tattoos served as a descriptive way that these sailors could prove their identities.
But by the late 1800s, tattoos were much more than a way to keep annoying British Navy captains from forcing you to work for them and the trend of tattoos as a form of self-expression continued to grow among sailors. They would mark their arms with symbols, names, and icons that meant something to them.
In 1846, a German man named Martin Hildebrandt showed up in Boston. He was America’s first professional tattoo artist, and he provided tattoos for soldiers during the Civil War on both sides of the conflict. In 1891, the first electric tattoo machine was invented based on an earlier invention by Thomas Edison.
As usual, people became comfortable with men wearing tattoos long before it was acceptable for women. For some time, the only tattooed women with visible tattoos were confined to circuses and dramatic stories of being ‘forcibly’ tattooed by Native Americans.
Tattoos in Recent History
Tattooing was still widely looked down on in the United States until the 1950s and 60s when hugely influential artists like Cliff Raven and Lyle Tuttle helped to bring tattooing slightly further into the mainstream.
By the 70s, having a tattoo was no longer considered a symbol of a lower-class or unnatural lifestyle. Men and women of all social classes, races, and age groups wore tattoos. In fact, Janis Joplin is quietly one of the most important figures in mainstream tattoo culture. She had a small wrist tattoo as well as a heart inked on her breast, and her status as an artist helped bring an air of artistry to the world of tattooing.
Tattoos became a symbol of revolution, a way of rebelling against the norm that was white, middle-class America in the 1980s. More people began to get tattoos in visible areas, almost as a challenge to the rest of the world. It was around this time that traditional tattoo artists were joined by a new wave of creatives, those who had received formal arts educations and channeled their artistic backgrounds into more complex designs than had ever been seen before.
Nowadays, tattoos aren’t just a sign of artistic rebellion. They’re accepted as mainstream, a form of self-expression that doesn’t restrict itself by class or social status. It’s estimated that one in five people have tattoos and nearly half of all millennials.
The spread of social photo sharing on sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit have led to increased interest in tattoo art, and visible tattoos are no longer considered a negative mark in job interviews and corporate positions. There are loads of reality TV shows following tattoo artists and tattoo studios (some of these shows are better than others.) And celebrities have made tattoos even more desirable than ever before.
Now that tattoos have gone mainstream, their next battle might be in the courts. Copyright law has become a major area of concern as tattoo artists’ work is spread and copied by other ‘artists’ through social media. While tattoos fall under the First Amendment rights of free expression, there’s almost no legal precedent determining who exactly owns the right to a tattoo.
This might be the next area where tattoo culture breaks ground in the future.