Skin Art: History of Tattooing

Curious about tattoos? We've got the scoop. Learn about this history of tattoos

Tattoos have a long and colorful history

We know that people today use tattooing as a means of expressing ideas and emotions that are important to them. It seems that this form of body art has served humans as a means of personal expression—and probably much more—since we first learned that pushing pigments below the skin’s surface left permanent marks.

While tattooing had probably occurred even long before, the earliest known signs of ancient ink comes in the form of Otzi, the Iceman. The mummified, 5,300 year old human remains were discovered in 1991. The near perfectly preserved remains were in a glacier in the Italian Alps. This ancient man’s body sported a total of 61 tattoos. Analysis shows that his tattoos were formed by puncturing the top layer of the skin and rubbing in wood ash. Otzi’s tattoos are simply individual series of horizontal and vertical lines. Interestingly, except for some tattoos on his chest, all of the Iceman’s tattooed lines were placed over joints. Further research showed that this ancient man suffered from degenerative joint disease, leading researchers to speculate that the tattoos had some medical purpose, and probably were also cared for medicinally afterwards with plant and animal oils, as the remains of medicinal plants were found along with the tools carried by this ancient human. These salves are the predecessor to the lotions we use today to care for tattoos

Ancient Tattoo Traditions

Tattoos have a long history, not only of personal expression, but also of simple adornment, expressions of love, religion and sometimes even of punishment. For instance, in ancient China, folklore indicates that tattoos were meant for bandits and criminals. Some criminals had their faces tattooed after a crime as a warning to others that a person was not to be trusted.

Tattooing in ancient Egypt appears in its earliest stages to have been mainly performed on women, with three female mummies sporting tattooed designs. The placement of these tattoos at the tops of the thighs, breasts, and radiating dots on the abdomen possibly indicates a ceremonial or religious protection for child-bearing.

Most early Egyptian tattoos were black or gray, made from ash or charcoal, but some female mummies found just to the south of Egypt near Kubban, were adorned with blue tattoos, some in the same series of dots over the abdomen that were found in the Egyptian mummies.

Early Egyptians used many skincare products including plant oils, and presumably would have cared for their new tattoos in order to preserve them with the best lotion for tattoos at that time which probably would have been made with frankincense and myrrh oils which, along with tattoo implements, have been found in tombs.

The ancient Britons were also tattooed, with the Picti tribe actually given the name because it means, “Painted People.”

Among both the Ancient Greeks and Romans, tattoos were mainly given to mark a person as belonging to a specific religious sect, or in some cases to mark someone as a slave.

Tattoos in the 18th and 19th Centuries

While it’s clear that ancient Europeans were often tattooed, in later centuries, tattoos went out of favor until reportedly some sailors picked up the idea of sporting tattoos after seeing them on Polynesians. In fact, the name “tattoo,” comes from the Tahitian word for body art, “tatau.” Tattoos were mainly associated with sailors in Europe for a very long time, although King Edward VII was tattooed with a cross while on a trip to Jerusalem, and George V was tattooed while in the Royal Navy, sparking a Royal tattoo trend among the upper classes. At that time, the best lotions for tattoos and after care were mineral-based oils and petroleum jelly as well as plant oils with antimicrobial properties such as tea tree oil.

Today’s Tattoos and Aftercare

While for centuries tattoos were most commonly associated with sailors, circuses, or ruffians, around the early 1980’s tattooing began to be more popular in the US and Europe as a means of self-expression and became much more socially acceptable.

Tattooing for women was frowned upon until recent decades, with 19th century women actually unable to be tattooed in any reputable tattoo establishment unless they were married and accompanied by their husbands to grant permission.

Beginning in the 1970’s with the feminist movement, women began being more comfortable seeking body art in the form of tattoos for personal expression, but it wasn’t until the early 1990’s when the numbers of women seeking tattoos exploded as an important part of pop culture.

Today’s skin artists are thorough at explaining important aftercare procedures following a tattoo session, and tattoos should be protected and moisturized during the critical healing process with the best lotion for tattoos available today.

Resources— AuthorityTattoo.com, DiscoverMagazine, Smithsonian.com, HistoryExtra

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