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Tattooing: What, Where, When and Why

Updated on January 19, 2013
Illustration by Alceu Arasaki
Illustration by Alceu Arasaki

Tattooing is the process of injecting a permanent dye under the skin to form a picture or design is called tattooing. The word 'tattoo' derives from a similar sounding word in the Polynesian language.

Tattooing was practiced by the Egyptians as early as 2000 BC. Many people adopted the practice for adornment. The earliest known reference to tattooing is in the Bible. It was forbidden to the Israelites in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:28). In ancient times, it was regarded as a barbaric custom and it was rare in Europe until the nineteenth century.

The natives of Africa and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, however, regard tattooing as socially and religiously significant. Color tattooing became highly developed among the Maoris of New Zealand and was popular in China, India and Japan.

It is now performed by pricking vegetable coloring matters into the skin by an electrically-driven needle.

The History of Tattooing

No one knows where or when the practice of tattooing started, but some Egyptian mummies show blue tattoo marks under the skin.

Some races have a long-established tradition of using tattooing as decoration. The Indians of Central America depicted their gods decorated with intricate black designs and some North American Indians used blue geometric designs.

When the islands of the Pacific were first explored in the sixteenth century, the Polynesians were found to be elaborately tattooed with blue and black designs usually of animals and fishes. Europeans saw their first tattooed people in the eighteenth century. Japanese tattooists were recognized as the most skillful and delicate. They used fine needles, while other people had used shallow cuts or pricks into the skin. The electric tattooing needle was patented in 1891 and is still in use.

Tattooing in the nineteenth century was usually performed in a religious design. It was meant to ward off the devil and help prevent misadventure. By the 1880s tattooing was regarded as a personal but very popular art form, with even members of royalty being tattooed. Traditionally, tattooing is associated with sailors. Long sea voyages gave the sailors plenty of time to experiment with designs on themselves and on others.

Decoration is probably the most common reason for tattooing, although various peoples have tattooed themselves for magical protection against illness or bad luck, or to denote rank and status.

Tattoos can show high rank, as in Maori culture where only important people are tattooed, or low rank (the Romans tattooed their slaves) or even criminal status - both the USA and Russia have marked their prisoners in the past.

Self-tattooing was also common among prisoners. The most representative designs were usually patriotic, showed some emotional attachment to a person, recalled heroic and mythical figures or depicted religious figures and symbols. Tattoos were sometimes used as a means of identification for members of a secret sect.

How Tattooing Works

Tattooing is the method of decorating the skin with colored pigments. A sharp instrument, usually an electric needle, is introduced into the skin, which it punctures according to a selected pattern. Pigments are then rubbed into the punctures, producing a dull red or deep blue design. Primitive people often slash the skin and introduce irritants into the wounds, which, when healed, leave pronounced scars.

Because of complaints by health authorities that contaminated tattooing needles spread infectious diseases, particularly hepatitis, can cause poisoning and has been implicated in skin cancer, the practice was outlawed in some places. And sometimes restricted to persons over 18. Tattooing can be risky business and is best done by a trained person with the right tools.


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