Inked Histories: Tattooing Around the World


Advertisement for a "tattooed lady" in a circus sideshow.

Advertisement for a "tattooed lady" in a circus sideshow.

Tattoos are painful (I know from firsthand experience.) They're sometimes regrettable. And yet, they've been part of our bodies for thousands of years. Why? Why do we ink our bodies? Why is it such an ingrained part of our history? Why is it forbidden to some? Why do so many cultures around the world tattoo?

A closer look at some of Iceman’s tattoos.  (Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

A closer look at some of Iceman’s tattoos. (Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

The History of Tattoos

Tattoos have been around as early as the Neolithic Period (and possibly as early as the Upper Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for tattoos are artistic depictions. Our first direct evidence for tattoos comes from 3000 BCE. Otzi the Ice Man, who lived sometime between 3370-3100 BCE, is a preserved early man found in Europe. His skin still has tattoos. Is it exciting or terrifying that your tattoos could last for 5,000 years? 

The word "tatau" comes from Samoan (a language of the Samoan people who live in the Pacific Islands). It was brought back to the Western World by James Cook. However, tattooing was not unknown to Western culture before this. It was known by other names. 

Tattooing Around the World

Tattooed Japanese man ca. 1875.

Tattooed Japanese man ca. 1875.


Ancient China. Peoples in Ancient China considered tattooing to be barbaric, a punishment and identity marker for slaves and criminals. The word "prisoner" was tattooed on the faces of those who committed crimes. Despite these outward signs of derision, many heroes in Ancient Chinese prose were tattooed. One story tells of a mother who tattooed a pledge on her son's back when he went away to the army. Southern China was closer to cultures that tattooed and was home to talented tattoo artists. People would come from Southeast Asia and India to be tattooed by artists here. 

Japan. In great contrast, Japan has been tattooing since the Paleolithic. Tattoos were indications of social status before the Meiji Era of Japan and before direct contact with Europe. Later influenced by westernization, tattooing sharply declined in Japan. From 1603-1868, tattooing was done only by prostitutes, manual laborers, and firemen to denote their status. Eventually, tattooing was banned for being barbaric, leaving heavily tattooed people in a state of limbo. Their very bodies became a crime. Some speculate that the yakuza (the Japanese mob) arose from this state of limbo. 

The Philippines. The Philippines were also once pro-tattoo. Tattoos were believed to be magical. They were also markers of rank and accomplishments. Christianization, however, put a damper on tattooing, spreading the idea that tattoos were heathen or lower-class. 

Taiwan. Facial tattoos are of significant cultural importance among the Atayel ethnic group in Taiwan. Men get their faces tattooed in a coming of age ritual. A man earned these tattoos by bringing back a human head, thereby proving he can protect his homeland. Women, similarly, had to prove they could weave to earn their facial tattoos. Only people with tattoos could marry and pass into the spirit world. Male tattoos were simple compared to those of women. Female tattoos could take up to ten hours to complete. Among the traditional Atayel people, only women were tattoo artists. 

Thailand. Still to this day, people in Thailand tattoo themselves with symbols for luck and protection. These tattoos must be given by monks or priests to be imbued properly. 

Myanmar. In Myanmar, one ethnic group, the Chins, had a significant tattooing practice. Boys were tattooed from their waist to their knees. In Burmese culture, boys had to enter temporary monkhood. The waist tattoos were usually done during or after this ordination. These tattoos were painful and were given over a period of 3-6 days. Boys used opium to endure the pain. Women in the Chin culture also tattooed, though their reasons were different. It is said that Chin women tattooed their faces around 15-20 years old to discourage kidnapping by invaders. However, traditional tattooing fell into decline when the Socialist party banned the practice. Later, as many Chins converted to Christianity, tattooing nearly died out. 

Tattooed Egyptian figurine. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tattooed Egyptian figurine. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Rome/Greece. In the Mediterranean, primarily slaves and criminals had tattoos. Tattoos were punishment for crimes. Romans tattooed soldiers and arms manufacturers to identify them. Religious tattooing was practiced in other Mediterranean regions, such as Egypt and Syria. Christianity may have forbidden tattooing (in Leviticus) to differentiate itself from these religious groups. 

Classical Persia. In Classical Persia, only slaves and prisoners of war were tattooed. Later, Islam would spread to the region. Some branches of Islam forbid tattooing. However, Islamic cultures in the Middle East have practiced tattooing alongside Islam with no issue. 

Ancient Egypt. In Ancient Egypt, very little evidence exists for tattooing of men. It is believed that there was religious significance to tattooing. Until 300-400 BCE, evidence only exists for tattooing on women. Women in Egypt were tattooed since at least 2000 BCE and may have been a signifier of a priestess or other religious figure. 

Tattoo on the mummified body of the Siberian Ice Maiden, image courtesy of the Siberian Times.

Tattoo on the mummified body of the Siberian Ice Maiden, image courtesy of the Siberian Times.


Siberia and Eastern Europe. The Scythian Culture of Siberia and Central Asia has some of the most impressive preserved tattoos from ancient times. The Siberian Ice Maiden has significant tattoos on her body. It is believed that the people of the Pazyryk culture used tattoos as markers of identity. 

Germanic/Celtic/Nordic Peoples. These groups are the only early European peoples for which we have evidence of tattooing. Western and Central Europeans didn't appear to have significant tattooing practices. Even for these peoples, most of our evidence comes from secondhand accounts and artistic depictions. We have no direct evidence that any of these people tattooed. People from other cultures recorded Vikings having tattoos, but this could have been temporary paint. 

Maori Woman in the 19th Century, showing off moko tattoos.

Maori Woman in the 19th Century, showing off moko tattoos.


Polynesia has some of the richest tattooing traditions in the world. This is where we get the word for tattoo. The exploration of Polynesia is what brought tattooing back into popularity in the Western World. 

Maquesas Islands. Both men and women receive their tattoos as symbols of lineage, denoting rites of passage, and marking accomplishments. 

Maori. The Maori have some of the most unique tattooing traditions of any culture - moko. Rather than administered by needles, the skin is carved by chisels. This leaves grooves in the skin. Moko were tattoos on the face, denoting high status. It was a rite of passage and to make people more sexually appealing. Men had full face tattoos. Women only had their lips and chins tattooed. Tattoo artists were considered sacred. Today, moko has experienced a resurgence as a marker of cultural identity. 

Samoa. There are two types of tattooing in Samoa - pe'a for men, malu for women. Pe'a is a tattoo which goes from the waist to the knees. The process is extremely painful and can take anywhere from a week to years to complete. If one does not complete a tattoo for reasons of money or pain, it is a mark of shame. Those without tattoos are called "naked." The family joins the tattooed person to offer words of encouragement through the process. Malu is a smaller tattoo on the backs of thighs of women. It used to only be worn by the chief's daughters after they reached puberty, but later many other women practiced Malu. 

This pot depicts a woman with ornate tattoos on her body, arms, and face; filed teeth, and a deformed head. It dates to AD 1300 - 1520.  Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz

This pot depicts a woman with ornate tattoos on her body, arms, and face; filed teeth, and a deformed head. It dates to AD 1300 - 1520.

Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz


Southeast U.S. Tattoos were a maker of rank and accomplishments. They could be blue or red and were given to males and females. If an individual had tattoos they were not entitled to, they must get them removed. 

Mesoamerica. There has been much debate as to whether groups like the Aztecs tattooed or painted their bodies. Spaniards who came in contact with the Aztecs say they tattooed, but most of our evidence is secondhand. It is fairly certain, however, that other groups, such as the Huastec, tattooed. 

This young Fulani woman has "tchoodi," a tattoo around her lips that makes her more attractive to men.

This young Fulani woman has "tchoodi," a tattoo around her lips that makes her more attractive to men.


Unfortunately, little research has been done on tattooing in Africa (outside of Egypt). It seems that while present, scarification (the process of making cuts on the skin to create patterns of scars) was more prominent among most ethnic groups in Africa. Scarification was believed to cure disease, protect against evil, reflect personality, social status, and tribal identity. In some groups, such as the Hausa, tattoos came from scarification. Ash or charcoal is rubbed into the wounds to stall healing and create a more raised pattern. This had the side effect of creating tattoos. This process is called cicatrization. For cultures like the Fulani, mothers and grandmothers made small incisions on a child's lips and face. 

A "tattooed lady" in the early 20th century.

A "tattooed lady" in the early 20th century.


Tattooing was reintroduced to the Western World by sailors to Polynesia. In America, sailors initially used tattoos as a means of differentiating themselves from others on their I.D. cards. Later, they began to use tattoos as a means of self expression. In Britain, tattooing was associated with sailors and the wealthy. Sailors received tattoos on their journeys and only the wealthy could afford the expensive process of tattooing outside of those voyages. The idea of tattoos being a marker of wealth began to die out in the late 19th century. Heavily tattooed women "tattooed ladies" became featured in circuses. Until the 1920s, these women were popular sideshow acts. 

Today, 23% of American women are tattooed, compared to 19% of men. It is the first time in U.S. history women have outnumbered men when it comes to tattoos. Despite the historic forbidding of tattoos in Christianity, many Christians today use tattoos to identify themselves with their faith. 

Reasons for Tattooing

If there is one singular word to sum up all the reasons behind tattooing, it would be "identity." They can denote status, group affiliation, or accomplishments. Many people tattoo for aesthetic purposes. Some women in the Western World practice tattooing as permanent makeup. Some people use tattoos to cover up scars, stretch marks, or other flaws. They can be an indication of spiritual devotion or loyalty to one's family. They can be done for luck, for protection, or for an expression of individuality.