The History of Tattooing as an Art Form

You could be forgiven for thinking that the form of body ornamentation known as “tattooing” is a modern phenomenon.

Over the last few decades, we have seen manifestations of the tattoo gravitate from the arms and chests of members of our armed forces and those considered outcasts from society onto the more delicate skins of our nation’s youth, as militaristic and rebellious emblems have been replaced by devils, dolphins, daggers and damaged and broken hearts.

Tattoo design is becoming an increasingly sophisticated discipline and is now considered by many of its practitioners to be a new branch of fine art. Once banished to the fringes of society, the tattoo artist is now an integral part of contemporary popular culture and their acceptance into the mainstream is beyond doubt.

Tattooed Victorian Woman

What was once considered a “black art” is now a highly regulated industry, staffed by accredited practitioners many of whom have formal art & design based qualifications. However, the debate as to whether or not it is correct to consider tattooing as an art form, looks set to rage on for some time. What is beyond dispute is the depth and duration of the history and heritage that make up the lineage of tattooing.

The History of Tattooing as an Art Form

The origins of the tattoo

The term, “tattoo” dates back approximately 12,000 years and has its origins within the Tahitian culture and means “to mark”.

The practice of tattooing is referenced in source materials from ancient Egypt, and as the influence of the Egyptian empire spread throughout Asia and Europe, it manifested itself in Greece, Arabia and Persia before surfacing in China in approximately 2000 BC.

Tattooing had a variety of purposes, as evidenced by the discovery of a corpse found frozen in glacial ice in the Otztal Alps between Italy and Austria. Dated to approximately 3255BC, the body bore dozens of inked lines, marks and scores etched into areas of skin associated with joints and the spine. This suggests that these were intended to serve a medical as opposed to an ornamental function.

The history of tribal tattooing

Where the Romans used tattoos specifically to identify those considered slaves and criminals, the Polynesians and Ainu people of Northern Japan marked social status in general with tattoos; for example, married women and females of a marriageable age were designated with tattoos.

The Polynesians made visual distinctions between tribes and other communities with tattoos and this developed into the highly distinctive Moko style, which is still used in modern day New Zealand.

Intriguingly, The Greeks ranked their spies with tattoos, although given the supposedly clandestine nature of their work, this might have been counter-productive.

Not all tattoos were designed to call attention to themselves and their host. Some tattoos were intended as subtle marks of beauty, and some cultures continue to carry forward traditions of tattooing that stem back for thousands of years. For example, the tribal women from the Republic of Mali in West Africa, who tattoo their gums to show their age and marital status.

Gang Makeover

Gang Makeover by dopenesspix

The criminal world of tattoos…

For many, the appeal of the tattoo goes far beyond the decorative or cosmetic. For gang members and those associated with other forms of criminal activity, including incarceration in prison, body art is a very serious form of expression and is indicative of status, allegiance and affiliation. For this sub culture, the tattoo is symbolic, filled with meaning for those who can decipher its coded messages.

A prime example of use of tattoos by gangs is the Japanese Yakuza, an organised crime collective which dates back centuries, members of which can be identified by their full body tattoos known as “Irezumi”. Typically these are applied manually with a single needle and therefore their acquisition is both labour intensive and painful.

Similarly, in American and Russian prisons, where tattooing is strictly prohibited and equipment is by necessity homemade, tattoos have become a complex means of communicating history, heritage and status through an elaborate system of symbols.Typically, different designs depict the prisoner’s gang affiliation and/or significant life events while in the prison system. Fellow inmates can deduce a peer’s entire criminal past and current standing by reading their body art.

In penal sub cultures, tattoos are inked into the skin using a variety of makeshift implements ranging from pen nibs and paper clips to the sharpened end of a metal guitar string. The process is painful and dangerous and implies that the recipient is capable of enduring the discomfort involved. Infection is common…

Tattoos in the 1960s

The 1960s marked a pivotal point in the history of the tattoo. An American artist named Lyle Tuttle did much to highlight the profile and upgrade the social standing of the tattoo by practicing his craft on several celebrities of the time. This included the musicians Cher, Janis Joplin, film actor Henry Fonda and guitarist Paul Stanley.

When he was asked what made tattooing gain in popularity during his early career, Tuttle replied:

“Women’s liberation! One hundred percent women’s liberation! That put tattooing back on the map.”

“With women getting a new found freedom, they could get tattooed if they so desired. It increased and opened the market by 50% of the population – half of the human race! For three years, I tattooed almost nothing but women. Most women got tattooed for the entertainment value … The women made tattooing a softer and kinder art form.”

Tattoos in the present

Moving forward several decades, tattooing is no longer considered the preserve of underground, male dominated subcultures and with tattoo design becoming ever more sophisticated and innovative, the tattoo has become widely acceptable. However, having gained acceptance, the tattoo has lost much of its ability to unsettle.

Where once the viewer reacted to the tattoo with shock, today that reaction is more likely to involve a critical examination and evaluation of the artwork.

Having been part of the universal culture for thousands of years, tattooing as an art form is unlikely to die out in the foreseeable future. Despite repeatedly falling in and out of mainstream fashion, its enduring popularity seems set to continue as each generation adopts the practice… albeit to a greater or lesser extent.

As tastes and techniques change and develop, the tattoo appears to have the ability to adapt to the needs and aspirations of each new wave of youth culture. Few fashion phenomena can make that claim.

Seven serious facts about tattoos….


Prior to the latter part of the 19th century, tattooing was strictly a manual process. However, in 1891 the electrically powered rotary tattoo machine was invented by New Yorker Samuel O’Reilly. O’Reilly based his invention on Thomas Edison’s autographic printing pen, essentially an engraving tool.


While on the subject of machine generated tattoos, it’s interesting to note that such devices use a solid needle to puncture the skin anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times per minute.


Tattoos are actually optical illusions. Although the artwork appears to lie on the surface of the skin, the aforementioned solid needle injects an insoluble ink into the second layer. However, the vibrancy of the colours used makes the tattoo appear to be part of the surface layer of the owner’s skin.


Bizarre uses for tattoos number one …. We’ve already mentioned that the ancient Greeks ranked their spies using tattoos but during the 6th century BC, the tyrant Histiaeus attempted to instigate a revolt by shaving the head of a trust slave, tattooing a secret message on his newly bald pate and then waiting for his hair to grow back before sending him off on his mission. Histiaeus was later beheaded by the Persians.


Bizarre uses for tattoos number two … discounts on fast foods. This doesn’t apply everywhere but if you happen to be in the area of Ohio in the mid-western United States, head for the Melt Bar and Grill where for the price of having their logo tattooed on your skin you will receive 25% discount on their products for life.


The tattoo is also branching into the mainstream, with a huge upsurge in the popularity of cosmetic tattoos; a form of permanent make-up. Procedures include shading in eyebrows, tracing the outline of lips, and administering eyeliner.


There is a downside to having a tattoo. Removal. The process can be costly, prolonged and painful. Always, always, always take advice and do your research before committing to something you might regret in the longer term.

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