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Brief History of Tattoos

Updated on September 2, 2015

The earliest known tattoo was found on an Egyptian mummy’s hand and dated to have been done about 9,000 BC. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian "tatu" which means "to mark." It is an apt description since in many cases they were used as a mark by various cultures for many different purposes.

· Indicate someone’s profession

· Protection from illness

· Status in society

· Membership in a clan or society

· Espionage. Greeks spies used it to identify themselves and their rank.

· Romans marked criminals and slaves.

· Religious and ceremonial rites

· Danes, Norse, and Saxons had family crests tattooed on family members.

The Japanese also used tattoos to identify criminals. First offenses were marked with a single line across the forehead. A second offense got the offender an arch and a third, another line. These three marks together read “Dog.” Eventually, the practice came into its own as an art form.

The Japanese body suit, a tattoo which covered the larger part of the body, originated around 1700. Some say it was a way to identify those afflicted with consumption. Others believe it was because the rank and file commoners were not allowed to wear expensive, fine clothing. That was reserved for royalty. So, they adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. At the time the art of tattooing was still being laboriously done without the benefit of more modern instruments and could take a decade to complete.

In centuries past it is said women on the small island of Okinawa had their bodies tattooed to protect themselves from pirates. Pirates frequently invaded their country and took women to be sold into prostitution. Pirates found massive tattooing on women to be repulsive, thus lowering their value on the market.

It wasn’t until 1891 Samuel O'Riely patented the first electric tattooing machine and made the process more affordable. Up to that time fashionable tattooing had generally been an indulgence of the socially elite. Now, the masses could easily get them, it was no longer appealing to the wealthy.

Once considered a fine art form, by 1900 tattooing had become regulated to seedier parts of town and traveling circuses. However, it was still popular with sailors and servicemen, since one could usually tell at a glance where they had been.

It was about this time, Chatham Square in New York City became the birthplace of American style tattoos. It was a seaport and entertainment center. Samuel O'Riely, along with his apprentice Charlie Wagner, set up a business there. After O'Reily's death in 1908, Wagner opened a supply business with Lew Alberts, a wallpaper designer.

Although tattooing was still not popular across the country, it thrived at Chatham Square, in ways that would seem absurd today. For example, some artists tattooed their wives with examples of their work, making them mere walking advertisements. Cosmetic tattooing, blush for cheeks, colored lips, and eyeliner also became the fad.

Tattoos usually reflected the times. For instance, when World War I began designs changed to exhibit patriotism, bravery and other wartime sentiments.

After World War II, tattoos became associated with bikers, Juvenile delinquents and street toughs, perhaps due to the influential cinematic industry. Also, in 1961 there was an outbreak of hepatitis caused by unsterilized tattoo machines. Although most shops had sterilization machines, few used them. Newspapers carried horror stories of blood poisoning and other diseases attributed to tattoos. Eventually the New York City government instituted a health code that effectively shut down them down and making them illegal. Those who had abided by the law moved to Philadelphia and New Jersey where it was still legal.

Today, tattooing is viewed as a respectable fine art form. It has become a fashion statement not only enjoyed by celebrities, but the common man as well.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      The plane boss, the plane!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Excellent history! I enjoyed learning about how the tattoo came about.