5,000 Years of Tattoo:

5000 Years of Tattoo 1
5,000 Years of Tattoo:
Marking Skin in the Ancient and the Contemporary Worlds
Abstract: The theme for this Capstone Humanities class was “Rites of Passage.” In this paper, I
compared the functions tattoo served ancient or indigenous peoples, with the functions tattoo
serves contemporary Americans. Contrary to what the title suggests, I was not able to cover all
5,000 years of tattoo history in detail: rather the point of the title was to underscore the fact that
tattoo has a continuous history running over 5,000 years. The paper relates examples, beginning
with the first discovered tattoo up to the contemporary era, of the way tattoos function as a rite of
passage for people of vastly different time periods.
Course: HUMN 2440
Semester/Year: Spring 2010
Instructor: Jennifer Sheridan
5000 Years of Tattoo 2
5,000 Years of Tattoo:
Marking Skin in the Ancient and the Contemporary Worlds
In 1991, the frozen, naturally mummified body of an Ice Age man was discovered in the
Alps. He was named “Ötzi” after the Ötz valley where he was found. Ötzi was later carbon-dated
to be over 5,000 years old. He was surprisingly intact. He wore dressed furs and carried beads on
a rawhide string. He also carried a number of tools, some finely fashioned. He had arthritis in his
joints, high cholesterol deposits in his arteries― and he had 57 tattoos (“Ice Mummies”). Not
only is he the earliest human specimen ever found, he is also proof that the art of tattoo stretches
back into pre-history.
Why would ancient or indigenous people choose to undergo such a painful (and
sometimes scary) procedure? What function did tattoo provide? Former editor and writer for
both Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic Cate Lineberry thinks tattoo evolved
independently over almost every continent as a “permanent way to place protective or
therapeutic symbols upon the body, [and also] as a means of marking people out into appropriate
social, political or religious groups, or simply as a form of self-expression.” Since in recent years
tattoo has become more accepted in contemporary society and seems to be growing in
popularity, there must be some benefit from having a tattoo that would cause contemporary
people to voluntarily undergo such a painful and permanent experience. It seems that, while
contemporary people who tattoo do find the designs beautiful, there are often additional reasons
why they choose to tattoo, and they are happy to share those reasons and their experiences online
on the many Web sites devoted to the art of body ink. They may get a tattoo to convey a change
in status, to show allegiance to a family or a group, to honor a family member, to promote
5000 Years of Tattoo 3
healing, or as a form of self-expression that sets themselves apart from others. Curiously, these
reasons are similar to the motivations of ancient and indigenous people to tattoo.
Tattoos Mark Initiation Into a New Status Group
Oceanic scholar Juniper Ellis says tattoo historically worked throughout all the South
Pacific islands and island groups to enforce an existing social hierarchy, in as much as
individuals were expected to comply, and the designs marked the individuals’ lineage and/or
status within the community (35). In virtually all Oceanic cultures, tattooing marked the passage
into full adulthood. Females were tattooed to announce their puberty, and thus their
marriageability. In Tahiti, as in most locations in Oceania, girls are not considered women,
“being only Counted as Children till they have their Tattowing [sic] done” (Journal of James
Morrison qtd. in Ellis 102). Tattoo historian Steve Gilbert explains that in Samoa “a young man
who was not tattooed was considered to be still a boy. He could not marry; he could not speak in
the presence of grown men, and he was obliged to perform menial tasks” (48).
While contemporary Americans usually do not tattoo at puberty, the incidence of college
students getting a tattoo is growing, though there are no definitive national statistics on this
trend, as current studies have been few, and regional. The reoccurring reason given in such
studies for getting a tattoo was to “express myself” (Armstrong, et al. “College Tattoos”).
Motivation is additionally often divided by gender: more females get tattoos they perceive as
“beautiful,” and males more often get tattoos to mark group identity (Horne, et al.). Says
researcher Myrna Armstrong: “Tattoos are popular with college students because the skin image
provides strength in their own identity and image . . . Tattoos allow them to exert more of their
own persona” (Armstrong, et al. “College Students”). And since the legal age for tattooing in
most states is 18, college students may feel they no longer need the approval of their families to
5000 Years of Tattoo 4
get one; that a tattoo is a symbol of independence, and by getting one they mark their changing
The Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand) showed changing status with tattoo in an
unmistakable way. They tattooed designs on the face, called moko, on both males and females. In
females, the moko was usually limited to the mouth and chin. The male full facial moko on Maori
warriors was very striking. It was an announcement of warrior status: moko proclaim brave deeds
and the inherent right of the bearer to wear the tattoo. Since warriors went into battle naked, the
hereditary designs additionally acted as a form of a coat of arms. “They were a visible sign that
one had achieved status, endured pain with courage, and confronted the possibility of death,”
says Ellis (82).
Many contemporary warriors also receive tattoos. Often American enlistees enter boot
camp with one or more tattoos, or they may acquire them at the first opportunity. From her many
years of experience in researching tattoo incidence among the military and college students,
Armstrong believes: “For soldiers, tattooing tends to represent courage, valor, and conquests”
(Armstrong, et al. “Tattooed Army Soldiers”).
Other military personnel may get a tattoo to remember fallen comrades in arms. Tattoo
artists say “memorial tattoos are a way for soldiers to remember and to channel their grief, and
the experience is often draining for [both] the tattoo artist and the recipient,” reports writer
Jeremy Schwartz. Frankie Johnson summarizes the military perspective of tattoos that
commemorate the loss of comrades in armed combat: “For some, the pain of the needle eased the
guilt of having survived and the sorrow of the loss. Some said that feeling the pain made it okay
that the others got killed and they didn’t. [The tattoo] became a way to remember their brothers”
(51). Other tattoos motivated by armed service are not so positive. One anecdote reported to my
5000 Years of Tattoo 5
informal survey was of a veteran who returned from Iraq with “Do Not Resuscitate” tattooed on
his forearm (see Appendix).
New members of a military unit may get the same tattoo as senior members, either as part
of an initiation, or to increase bonding between unit members who will have to rely on each other
in crisis situations. This is also common in groups other than the military, as when new members
of an athletic team get the same tattoo on the same body site as the senior members (Mayers, et
al.). Newly made gang members or the recently incarcerated are often initiated into the group
with a forced amateur tattoo. This last example also fits the definition of tattoos that mark
outsider status, discussed later.
Tattoos Honor Family or Significant Personal Relationships
Tattoo in Oceania permanently marked the individuals’ lineage and/or status, reminds
Ellis (35). “Although every person’s moko was unique, patterns were passed down from
generation to generation. Maori could ‘read’ each others’ iwi (‘tribe’), hapu (‘clan’), rank, and
locale in their moko [sic],” agrees writer Cynthia Levinson. Tattoo
scholar and artist Tricia Allen further explains the family aspect of the
Maori moko tradition: “The tattoo designs denoted rank and status as
Fig. 1. A Black and White
Image of a Moko Map Drawn
by Te Pehi Kupe of His Facial
Moko (Kupe)
well as clan or tribal affiliation. The designs were . . . passed down
within a family, which is why Maori today are unhappy with outsiders
wearing their tattoo designs” (qtd. in Barney-Campbell).
This family connection is movingly illustrated by the story of Te
Pehi Kupe, a Maori chieftain who, in the 1820’s, travelled to England to
request weapons for a dispute he was having with a rival tribe. Te Pehi
contracted measles before he could sail home, so he became the houseguest of an impoverished
5000 Years of Tattoo 6
Englishman, who nevertheless refused to exhibit Te Pehi (and his full facial moko) for money.
Apparently to thank his host for his hospitality, Te Pehi took a pen in his hand (without ever
holding one before) and drew an accurate copy of his moko from memory, without using a
mirror. Te Pehi grew quite emotional when drawing certain portions of the design, which he said
were the names of his relatives. “’Europee man write with pen his name, —Tupai’s [sic] name is
here,’ pointing to his [Te Pehi’s] forehead,” recounts George Craik in his 1830 book The New
Zealanders (qtd. in Ellis 54-56). By request, Te Pehi made several more copies of his moko as
gifts before regaining his health and returning home (see fig. 1).
Memorializing family members who have passed on is another way indigenous peoples
used tattoo. Ellis documents that the royal family and other high status Hawaiians used tattoo to
honor the passing of relatives or other highly esteemed people. King Kamehameha’s widow
received several tattoos to commemorate her husband’s death. The wife of Kamehameha II
received a tongue tattoo to express her grief at the passing of her mother-in-law. Many chieftains
were present to be tattooed on the tongue at the same time, the tongue being the spot where
humans expressed grief the most, according to traditional Hawaiian belief (Ellis 114). Family
connections are the major motivation for tattooing in Oceania. Interestingly, once the tattoo is
marked on the body, that tattoo belongs to the family, not the individual. The tattoo wearer may
be obliged to let that tattoo be exhibited to every other family member. In one case, a young
woman had her dress lifted up surreptitiously by several family members while she was dancing
at a gathering, so they could view her tattoo. “That’s when I understood that even though it is on
my skin, it doesn’t necessarily belong to me,” she said (anon. qtd. in Ellis 193-94).
Americans do not share that sense of familial ownership, but it seems they do share the
desire to honor family. The kinds of family tattoos contemporary Americans wear are widely
5000 Years of Tattoo 7
varied. Respondents to my informal survey have described many different ways to memorialize a
passed family member, such as the name and date of passing, inscribed along with a symbol, like
a rose (see Appendix). Dates with names of children are often tattooed, with or without a
symbol, like wings. Tattooed copies of infant footprints from a birth certificate were described
more than once in the survey. “Mother” is a popular design that has been around a while,
tattooed over the heart or elsewhere. Tattoos that celebrate a birth (or memorialize a death) may,
consciously or not, acknowledge the individuals’ understanding and acceptance of their new
responsibilities in the family structure, while also celebrating that family member.
Contemporary Americans honor family with a tattoo in other ways, as well. Members of
a family may get the same tattoo in the same body spot, or the same design but in a different
body area. One survey respondent related a group of family members voting on a design to use
as a family crest, then all members getting the same design tattooed in different body areas.
Another respondent described getting the tattoo of the Chinese character (hanzi) for “Older
Sister,” while her sister got the hanzi for “Younger Sister.” This would seem to illustrate the
siblings’ devotion to their relationship. Another type of family tattoo is the European hereditary
family crest. These can be quite elaborate, so they are more often worn by only one family
member. All types of family tattoos show the individual’s perceived connection to past
generations and living family, as well as the importance he or she places on that connection. As
such, they may also represent the individuals’ knowledge of the past and reverence for it.
5000 Years of Tattoo 8
Tattoos Mark Ideals, Spiritual Faith, or Serve as Symbols of Healing
Some of the oldest tattoo designs ever discovered were those that marked a religion or were
believed to promote healing. The tattooed marks on Ötzi, the 5,000 year-old mummified man, were
remarkably similar to those used by the Inuit, a contemporary ethnic group of circumpolar people,
who tattooed marks on the joints for protection, or to promote healing. Many other ethnic groups
living around the North Pole also tattooed small groups of straight lines on their joints, to keep the
Fig. 2. A Buddhist Monk Wears an
Elaborate Tattoo for Protection
good spirits from flying out, and bad spirits from finding a way in, as
the joints were thought to create doorways into the body. They had
done this for centuries, though this custom ended in the last hundred
years or so (Gilbert 173-76). The marks borne by the Ice Age man at
his joints (ankles, hips, and up his spine) were so similar to those of
the contemporary Inuit it is easy to think they were also similar in
function, especially since Ötzi was found to have arthritis in those
joints bearing the tattoos (“Ice Mummies”).
Egyptian female mummies have been found with the names of goddesses tattooed on their
skin. The earliest tattoo ever found that was not an abstract pattern was a depiction of the Egyptian
god of mischief and carousing, Bes (Gilbert 13). Buddhist monks have tattooed script and symbols
on their skin for almost 2000 years (Gilbert 78). They are still doing so today (see fig. 2). In the
Middle Ages and later, pilgrims from the Holy Land often returned with a “Jerusalem Cross” tattoo
(Ellis 13): a cross was tattooed, on the arm or elsewhere, with ink made from soot or ash. The
Catholic Church had proscriptions against tattoo, deeming it heathen, but this type of Christian
devotional tattoo was allowed (Gilbert 150-51).
5000 Years of Tattoo 9
Browsing Web sites like BMeZine.com (Body Modification eZine) will reveal that
contemporary Americans often tattoo symbols that have a religious or spiritual meaning, in order
to express their faith, or to ask for protection or guidance from that faith belief (Christian crosses,
Celtic crosses, yin-yang symbols, the Om symbol, etc.). These examples of religious or spiritual
tattoos can be categorized as either claims of faith; claiming the body for a special, spiritual
purpose; or requests for spiritual protection issuing from a religious entity.
A popular American trend for several years now is to tattoo a character or words in an
“exotic” or foreign script: a word or phrase that may be a guiding principle, or a state to aspire
to. This appears to be a variation on the type of tattoos that function as a request for, or a claim
of, spiritual protection, or as a dedication of one’s life to that ideal. There is a great risk,
however, of getting tattoo designs, for instance Japanese kanji characters (“Kanji”), that are
either completely bogus, or do not mean what the artist says they mean. To be fair, many tattoo
artists do this unknowingly, because they do not read the language but rather treat the characters
as pure design. Tattoo removal businesses see “a flood of people asking for their Asian tattoos to
be removed because of mistranslations,” says reporter Michael Park. A tattoo that is the Chinese
character for “Gas,” instead of “Spirit,” may serve to mark the wearer not as spiritual, but as a
laughing stock. It is not just Asian script that gets mistranslated though, but Hebrew, Latin, and
others as well (Park).
Tattoos Mark Outsider Status
Tattoos, both contemporary and ancient, may also mark the wearer as outside the social
norm. In ancient Greece and Rome, where much of the economy was provided by slave effort,
some slaves were tattooed “Property of…” to announce to others (and perhaps to remind the
slaves themselves) that they were agents of, and owned by, another individual. Criminals were
5000 Years of Tattoo 10
also tattooed (Ellis 12). Later in time the Romans tattooed their mercenary soldiers, so they
might be returned to their units should they desert (Gilbert 15). In very early Japan, men tattooed
themselves all over their bodies as adornment, though later they adopted the Chinese aesthetic
that considered tattooing barbaric; after this, only criminals were tattooed, and such individuals
were ostracized, and considered outcasts (Gilbert 77). In contemporary Japan, however,
members of the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime gangs) have brought back horimono—
intricate, colorful tattoo work done all over the body, which originated with the Samurai warrior
class (“Horimono”). The designs stop at the wrists, and neck or chest, so they are not visible
under business attire. Yakuza are not the only individuals to wear full body tattoos, however.
This type of tattoo has also become popular with the Japanese middle class in many walks of
life; thus it is not accurate to depict all wearers of horimono as gangsters (Taboo: Marks of
In several ancient cultures, then, tattooing served to mark an individual as outside the
norm of society. This attribution continues today in several forms. During World War II, Nazi
concentration camp inmates were tattooed with indelible numbers on the forearm. Few survived
the concentration camp experience, though not too many years ago one might still have seen the
faded numbers on the arm of a passing individual. Until recently, tattoos continued to be viewed
as stigmatizing; a person with tattoos had “a negative, soiled, social identity” (Horne, et al.), and
tattoos were often associated with criminality, since many wearers received a tattoo on entering
prison or joining a gang. Both inmates and gang members alike may use homemade tattooing
equipment: the incarcerated because sharp implements are prohibited in a prison setting, and
gang members may utilize it because it is viewed as more painful, or dangerous. Homemade
5000 Years of Tattoo 11
equipment certainly is more dangerous in terms of passing communicable diseases, particularly
Hepatitis B and C, says Armstrong, et al. (“Tattooed Army Soldiers”).
American prison tattoo designs are numerous. The outline of a tear under the eye may
mean one has a vendetta against someone. A common gang-style tattoo is three dots at the fleshy
base of the thumb (Walker). It must be understood, however, that these designs, while often
acquired during incarceration or gang membership, can be utilized by other groups—thus they do
not always mean what they purport to mean. In other words, some tattooed persons want to be
thought they are tougher than they actually are, by using designs other well-known subcultures
may use. Other individuals may be unaware of a design’s negative connotation. Thus, assigning
a constant and unchanging meaning to any tattoo design in contemporary culture can be
inaccurate and problematic (Walker).
While individual tattoo designs continue to evolve in specific symbolism, the motivations
for acquiring one are curiously similar throughout the entire 5,000 years of tattoo history. Tattoos
have marked outsider status, both in the ancient world and today; they communicated spiritual
meaning, and were agents of mystical healing; they served to honor family and personal
relationships; they marked group identity, and individual changes in status. All these functions
were reasons why ancient and indigenous peoples developed the art of tattoo and, either
consciously or subconsciously, they still seem to be functions of the tattoo in the contemporary
world. If Ötzi were alive today, someone’s tattoo may be one of the few things he’d recognize as
5000 Years of Tattoo 12
Works Cited
Abbas. A Buddhist Monk Wears Elaborate Tattoo for Protection (Wat Choum Khong, Luang
Prabang, Laos). 2008. Photograph. ArtStor. Web. 16 Feb. 2010.
Armstrong, Myrna L., et al. “College Students and Tattoos: Influence of Image, Identity, Family,
and Friends.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services 40.10
(2002): 21-29. Texas Tech U/Dr. Jerome R. Koch. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.
---, ---. “College Tattoos: More Than Skin Deep.” Dermatology Nursing 14.5 (2002): 317-23.
Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.
---,---. “Tattooed Army Soldiers: Examining the Incidence, Behavior, and Risk.” Military
Medicine 165.2 (2000). eLibrary. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.
Barney-Campbell, Noenoe. “An Interview With a Tattoo Artist.” Faces 17.5 (2001):
eLibrary. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.
Ellis, Juniper. Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin. New York: Columbia
UP, 2008. Print.
Gilbert, Steve, ed. Tattoo History: A Source Book. New York: Juno Books, 2000. Print.
“Horimono.” BMEzine Encyclopedia. BMEzine.com, LLC. 6 May 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2010.
Horne, Jenn, et al. “Tattoos and Piercings: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Interpretations of College
Students.” College Student Journal 41.4 (2007): 1011-20. Academic Search Premier.
Web. 16 Feb. 2010.
“Ice Mummies: Return Of the Iceman.” Nova. PBS, 24 Nov. 1998. Television. Transcript.
5000 Years of Tattoo 13
Johnson, Frankie J. “Tattooing: Mind, Body and Spirit. The Inner Essence of the Art.”
Sociological Viewpoints 23 (2006): 45-61. Academic Search Premier. Web.
16 Feb. 2010.
“Kanji.” BMEzine Encyclopedia. BMEzine.com LLC. 22 Feb. 2009. Web. 2 Apr. 2010.
Kupe, Te Pehi. A Black and White Image of a Moko Map Drawn by Te Pehi Kupe of His Facial
Moko. 1826. Image. New Zealand Electronic Text Center. Victoria U of Wellington,
2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2010.
Levinson, Cynthia. “Moko!” Dig July/Aug 2009. eLibrary. Web. 8 Mar. 2010.
Lineberry, Cate. “Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian
Institution, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.
Mayers, Lester B., et al. “Prevalence of Body Art (Body Piercing and Tattooing) in University
Undergraduates and Incidence of Medical Complications.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 77
(Jan. 2002): 29-34. eLibrary. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.
Park, Michael Y. “Please Remove My Nonsensical Asian Tattoo.” FOXNews.com. Fox News
Network, LLC, 9 May 2006. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.
Schwartz, Jeremy. “Ink Helps Survivors Channel Their Grief.” Austin American Statesman
14 Nov. 2009. eLibrary. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.
Taboo: Marks of Identity. Films Media Group, 2004. Films On Demand. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.
Walker, Robert. “Gang Tattoos: Unique Gang Identifiers for Street and Prison Gangs.”
GangsOrUs.com. Gangs Or Us, 24 Mar. 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2010.
5000 Years of Tattoo 14
Informal Tattoo Survey Northwest College and
surrounding area, Powell WY Spring 2010
Tattoo # Tattoo Design
Anonymous 1
Returned Iraq soldier: "Do Not Resuscitate" on forearm
Anonymous 2
Infants' feet prints with children’s names
Anonymous 3
All family members voted on a family crest design; all
members got design in different body areas.
A. A.
A. E.
A. S.
Arabic script inside hips (?), undisclosed meaning
"Michelle" (for passed mother)
Tribal design (for passed best friend)
Music notes (for music teacher)
Star outline & Vietnamese script for 'grandmother'
Unnamed tattoo design (matches husbands)
Dragon (matches husbands)
Red rose; name and date of passed grandmother
Red Playboy bunny logo
2 birds feet; represents "Joy"; taken from a poem
H. H.
3 unnamed tattoos
J. G.
Northwest native (Haida) animal symbol (for
C. J.
Children’s' names arching over/under belly button; tribal
wings coming off names
L. A.
Black & red nautical star with swirls
5000 Years of Tattoo 15
R. R.
Snowflake (matches with girlfriend) represents "I
survived the Baltimore Snowpocalypse"
Cactus w/ sombrero Family tattoo
2 Celtic knots on shoulder blades, reworked into hearts
with bones through them
Cursive script in pink ink inside both wrists
Full sleeve on both lower legs: Horimono-type designs
Infants' feet prints on back right shoulder
Hanzi for "Older Sister;" sister has hanzi for "Younger
Sister"/same spot (left ankle), same colors