The Fascinating History of Tattoos: A Complete Timeline | Painful Pleasures Community

The Fascinating History of Tattoos: A Complete Timeline

Tattoos are one of the most popular forms of body modification. Learn more about the history of tattoos, their origins, and their significance!
by Painful Pleasures Last Updated: June 6, 2022

Tattoos are one of the most popular forms of body modification in the world today, but they weren’t always so commonplace. Even among tattoo artists and enthusiasts, the long and fascinating history of tattoos isn’t well known. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins, evolution, and cultural significance of this 5,000-year-old art, you’re hardly alone.

The Origins and Meaning of the Word “Tattoo”

It’s believed that the modern word “tattoo” derives from one of two sources – either from the Marquesan (Polynesian) word “tatu,” which means both “to puncture” and “a mark made on the skin,” or from the Tahitian/Samoan word “tatau,” which means “to mark something.” The roots of “tatu” may also have come from “ta,” a Marquesan word that means “to strike something.” 

The English word “tattoo” first appeared in 1769 in the writings of James Cook. Cook was an explorer and Captain of the Royal Navy, who defined the word as “pigment designs in the skin.” During his expeditions across the Pacific Ocean, he encountered many indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. Cook’s word “tattoo” is most likely a phonetic transcription of “tatu” or “tatau,” the terms these peoples used to describe the elaborate and beautiful designs they proudly displayed on their bodies. The word “tattoo” stuck and has remained unchanged in English ever since. Today, “tattoo” can refer to the designs themselves, the art of creating such designs, or even convey other meanings.

History of Tattoos

The story of tattooing’s origins and evolution spans 5,000 years of global history. Although the tools, techniques, and styles have changed, the history of tattoos and tattooing illustrates that they have always carried deep cultural, spiritual, and personal significance.

~3300 B.C.E.

Our friend Ötzi the Iceman (and most likely many other members of his Bronze Age tribe) sported the first tattoos on record to date. Researchers discovered the mummified Ötzi in the Alps between Italy and Austria in 1991. They believe that his dotted tattoos were used primarily for healing.

Around the same time, on the other side of the world, people in modern-day Japan painted or engraved facial tattoos on clay figurines, which they placed in tombs alongside their dead. The markings likely have religious or magical significance, while the figurines themselves represented surviving members of the community who symbolically accompanied the dead into the afterlife. Japan’s earliest tattoo evidence originates from these figurines, but it’s not clear if the Japanese also tattooed their own bodies in addition to the figurines.

~2300 B.C.E.

On the coast straddling the arid Atacama desert in present-day Chile and Peru, the Chinchorro civilization practiced mummification long before their more famous Egyptian counterparts. One well-preserved Chinchorro mummy has a line of dots tattooed on his upper lip, providing the oldest direct evidence of tattooing in the Americas. 

~2160-1994 B.C.E.

Only women who held positions of religious significance were allowed to get tattoos during the early dynasties of Ancient Egypt. The earliest known example is Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose mummified body showed that she decorated herself with many dots and dashes, forming abstract geometric patterns on her thighs, arms, breasts, shoulders, and abdomen. Scholars believe that these tattoos may have served as medicinal, spiritual, or fertility aids.

Scholars also believe that Egyptians were responsible for spreading the practice of tattooing more broadly across Europe and Asia due to their close and frequent contact with civilizations in modern-day Greece, Iran, and the Arabian Peninsula.

~2000 B.C.E.

Tattooed mummies thought to date back to 2,000 B.C.E. were discovered in Xinjiang, Western China, and at Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau. Tarim Mummies found in Xinjiang may be of Western Asian/European heritage, whereas Pazyryk Mummies are of Siberian descent, suggesting that tattoos are common among Europeans and Asians during this period (or perhaps earlier).

~1200-400 B.C.E. 

In this period, the Celtic people inhabited most of Central and Western Europe, reaching the British Isles and Ireland around 500 B.C.E. 

Tattoos were a fundamental part of the Celtic culture; they were made from a blue dye derived from woad plants. Common motifs in Celtic body art were spirals, knots, and braids. They were meant to symbolize the interconnection of all life.

~600 B.C.E.

Although Greek people likely saw Egyptian tattoos far earlier, textual evidence indicates that tattooing didn’t become a common practice in Greece until around this time. Unlike the Egyptians, however, Greeks used tattoos as a mark of barbarity and shame. According to the historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.E. ), Greeks learned the practice from the Persians and used it to identify criminals, defeated enemies, and enslaved people. 

 ~500-300 B.C.E. 

Roman writers, including Virgil and Seneca, describe the tattooing of criminals and enslaved people during this time, using methods and purposes drawn from the Greeks. Tattoos were referred to by the Romans as “stigma,” a term that carries the punitive connotation of the practice to modern English. As a result of the social stigma associated with tattoos, Greek and Roman physicians also devised various methods for removing them.

~50-27 B.C.E.  

At the time of the Late Roman Republic and Early Roman Empire (est. 27 B.C.E. ), the practice of tattooing was common and well documented. For example, in Julius Caesar’s “The Gallic War,” he describes the tattoos of the Picts, a tribal people his armies encountered during their campaigns. Also, according to Ephesus, enslaved people exported to Asia during the Early Empire had the phrase “tax paid” tattooed on them. 

~0 C.E. 

Most sources estimate that tattooing emerged in the Polynesian cultures of the South Pacific around 2000 years ago, although it’s entirely possible it existed earlier. Tattoos were used during important rites of passage and indicated social rank and affiliation as in other ancient societies. They carried significant personal, social, and spiritual meaning for the Polynesians, who are known for creating some of the most intricate and skillfully designed tattoos in the ancient world. 

These tattoos were not chosen by the person getting tattooed but rather by a tattoo master with extensive knowledge of both the technical and artistic aspects of tattooing. They would customize each design according to the recipient’s specific attributes, personality, status, and achievements. Though tattoo designs and locations varied between Polynesian groups, the tattooing techniques and motifs were similar throughout the South Pacific. These designs included linear, curvilinear, and geometrical patterns incorporating triangles and circles. Other shapes were common, as were basic representations of natural and manmade objects. 

In Samoa, men received tattoos called pe’a to signify their passage into manhood and their commitment to serving their extended familial clan. Pe’a were large — covering the thighs, buttocks, lower back, and lower abdomen — and a prerequisite for any man who wished to receive the title of chief, matai. Samoan women were also ritually tattooed with less extensive geometrical designs, typically applied to the hands, thighs, and legs. 

The art of tattooing that originated in Samoa spread to New Zealand, Hawaii, and other South Pacific regions. The Maori of New Zealand developed their own tattooing tradition called moko. Unlike other Polynesian tattoos, moko were often created using woodcarving techniques. Artists used tattooing chisels, called uhi, to cut designs into the skin up to one-eighth of an inch, then applied pigment by rubbing it over the wounds or using a serrated uhi

Moko — especially full-face moko — was so personalized that they allowed their wearers to communicate their lineage, regional or tribal affiliation, social rank, achievements, and even occupation. It could be placed anywhere on the body but was most common on men’s lower bodies and faces, while women generally got them on their arms, abdomen, and thighs.  

Tattooing in Hawaii was the least ritualized and regimented of any of the Polynesian cultures. The Hawaiian tradition of tattooing is called kakau.  Hawaiians wore tattoos to show distinction, decoration, and both physical and spiritual well-being. Men most often adorned their faces, torsos, arms, and legs, whereas women were most often tattooed with natural designs from their wrists to their fingers and occasionally even on their tongues. 

For more information about the incredible history of Polynesian tattooing, check out Skin Stories from PBS and Pacific Islanders in Communications.


The first direct evidence of tattooing in Japan comes from a complied Chinese dynastic history. It states that the Japanese admired tattoos primarily for their beauty rather than their spiritual, medical, or magical properties. Japanese tattoo artists, called Hori, were absolute masters of their craft. In addition to their use of beautiful colors, their creative designs and technical approaches made them unique to other known tattooing traditions. 

Over the course of hundreds of years, tattoos, like ancient Greece and Rome, became a punishment for criminals. By the 1600s, criminal gangs called Yakuza had embraced the association, often covering their entire bodies with tattoos that permanently marked them as outlaws.


Following his conversion to Christianity, Roman Emperor Constantine rescinded the Roman state’s official prohibition on Christianity and banned tattooing based on a passage from Leviticus: “Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” 

Christians believed that humans were created in God’s image, so Constantine viewed tattooing as a desecration and forbade the practice, aside from marking enslaved people. However, by this time, tattooing had become commonplace in the Roman military, meaning the prohibition stigmatized many soldiers and veterans.


In 2005, archaeologists unearthed a burial chamber in Peru containing the mummified remains of a Moche woman now known as the “Lady of Cao,” who died around 450 C.E. She bore many stylized animal tattoos on her arms, including spiders, crabs, cats, and snakes.


With the rise of Islam in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, attitudes about tattooing began to change. Although the Qur’an doesn’t explicitly forbid tattooing, strict interpretations of the text view it as unholy. As in Christianity, some Islamic scholars believed that tattooing was a vain and unholy desecration of God’s creation. Despite these interpretations, evidence indicates that tattooing endured in many Islamic communities across the region, particularly in North Africa. 


The Chimú people (~1100-1470 C.E.) who lived in modern-day Peru, were among some of the most elaborately tattooed populations in South America. Carrying on the mummification traditions of the earlier Chinchorro and Moche people of the region, the Chimú mummies preserved evidence of their intricate, elaborately crafted tattoos, which featured stylized plant and animal designs, anthropomorphic beings, hunting tools, and weapons, and complex geometric patterns. 


While archaeological evidence indicates tattooing among China’s ethnic minorities existed long before Marco Polo’s journey to Quanzhou at this time, it is one of the first detailed reports of a highly developed tattoo culture in the country. Polo stated there were so many skilled and reputable tattoo artists in Quanzhou that people from northern India and beyond came to get tattooed.


Early Spanish conquistadors like Hernán Cortés first encountered the Mayas on the Yucatan Peninsula in modern-day Mexico. In Maya culture, tattoos were a way to display courage and worship their idols. 

Because tattooing had been so effectively suppressed in Christian Europe, the Spaniards believed it to be the work of the devil. They were horrified to find that tattooing was widely practiced throughout Central America. As in Europe, they sought to eradicate the practice.


Tattooing faces of criminals and enslaved people became a common practice in China during the Great Qing Dynasty.


Captain James Cook and his crew explored the South Pacific on three expeditions, landing on Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, Kiribati, Fiji, and Easter Island. Thanks to their encounters with tattooed people in this region, the word “tattoo” came into the English language. As a result of their expeditions, getting tattoos became a widespread practice among European sailors, many of whom returned with Polynesian-style tattoos of their own. Over the following decades, tattoos would become increasingly common among Western European and North American sailors.


During this time, the London Missionary Society dispatched its first missionaries to Polynesia. These missionaries used varying degrees of force and persuasion to convert indigenous peoples to follow European-style political, social, and religious norms, including the stigmatization of tattoos. 

These missions would provide basic education and medical care but may have restricted this to people without tattoos. While some indigenous people willingly abandoned their tattooing traditions, many others fought to protect them. Over time, sustained resistance forced most missionaries to relax their prohibitions on tattooing.


For nearly 100 years, European sailors had been collecting tattoos like souvenirs from their travels. However, in this year, Maurice Berchon, a French Navy surgeon, published a study outlining the dangers and complications of tattooing. As a result of this study, the French Navy and Army banned tattoos amongst all soldiers and officers.


Despite the conservative social mores of the Victorian Era, the Prince of Wales — eventually King Edward VII — got a cross tattooed on his arm while visiting Jerusalem, setting off a tattooing trend among the English aristocracy. 


King Edward VII’s sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York, were tattooed by Hori Chiyo, a Japanese master tattoo artist.


Fifteen years after Thomas Edison invented the electric pen, another American named Sam O’Reilly adopted his device, adding an ink tube and needle system to create the first rotary tattoo machine. Although his patent wasn’t filed until 1891, there is evidence he had built and used his machine for years prior. Just weeks after O’Reilly received his patent in the U.S., Londoner Thomas Riley completed the first single-coil tattoo machine. These two devices formed the basic structure for all future tattoo machines.


Around the turn of the century, technological advances in tattooing and increased exposure to other cultures produced a fascination with tattooing among the American upper class, leading many sideshows and carnivals to include people with Japanese-style full-body tattoos among their attractions.


After the successive traumas of two World Wars and the Great Depression, public fascination with tattooing decreased significantly. Once again, tattoos were regarded by many people in mainstream society as deviant, vulgar, and improper. Despite this, tattoos remained popular among soldiers, sailors, and those involved in nascent countercultural movements, which solidified their unseemly associations in the public mind.


Nearly 150 years after coil and rotary tattoo machines were first invented, tattooist Carson Hill created the first pneumatic tattoo machine, powered by air compressors. Pneumatic tattoo machines are autoclavable and lightweight, but they have yet to gain significant popularity among tattoo artists.


Today, tattooing is not only a viable career but a highly-regarded art form. There are documentaries, museums, and even reality T.V. shows that celebrate the technical skill, artistic expression, and cultural importance of tattoos and tattooing. Nowadays, tattoos are rarely seen as a sign of shame or immorality as they were in the past. They are instead now considered common and acceptable forms of expression, commemoration, and spirituality. 

An In-Depth History of Tattoos in America

Around the same time the indigenous people in the South Pacific began developing tattooing, the indigenous peoples of North America were doing the same. Like their counterparts in Polynesia, North American tribes used sharpened bone, rock, and other natural objects to etch designs into their skin, filling the wounds with soot or natural dyes to make them permanent. Indigenous tattooing traditions included geometric patterns, such as lines and simple shapes, and pictographic representations of objects found in nature. The particular styles, motifs, patterns, and images used varied from region to region and even from tribe to tribe, allowing individuals to express their identity and affiliations through their body markings.

Throughout North America, tattooing played an important role in the social, cultural, and spiritual life of native groups, although their uses and significance varied. Among many Pacific Northwest tribes, women were tattooed to mark their age, their eligibility for marriage, the onset of puberty, their rank in the tribe, and enhance their beauty. For plains tribes, tattooing was more common for men. It was a rite of passage into adulthood for them, often performed after the boys participated in their first successful hunt or battle. 

Many groups tattooed heavily their men in the Southwest and Great Plains, especially their warriors, whose tattoos were meant to intimidate their enemies. Some groups believed their tattoos would even endow them with supernatural powers or strength. It was particularly common for an individual to get a tattoo of the animal whose strength they most wanted to emulate.

Our existing documentation of Native American tattooing culture is primarily based on evidence from the East and Southeast, where indigenous groups were in contact with Europeans from the 1600s onward. For example, John Smith, the famed English explorer of the American Eastern seaboard, noted in his journals that many of the natives they encountered were decorated with tattoos on their faces, hands, chests, and legs. 

For Eastern groups like the Creek, Seminole, and all the members of the Iroquois Confederacy, tattooing was an important mode of personal expression and identification. Boys had their manitou, or guardian spirit, tattooed on them after achieving manhood status and added to their collection over time to commemorate new achievements. 

Unfortunately, contact with Europeans and subsequent expansion of settler-colonial power decimated indigenous populations. Christian missionaries had already spread throughout the continent by the time the United States was established, discouraging tattooing. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. government was actively engaged in the dislocation, destruction, and suppression of indigenous peoples and cultures, most notably symbolized by the Trail of Tears and the establishment of Native American boarding schools. These efforts severely damaged indigenous tattooing traditions, although many of those traditions have experienced a revival in recent decades, as newer generations seek to reclaim their ancient cultural practices and knowledge.

As tattooing was being suppressed among native groups, it was gaining popularity among American sailors, just like in Europe. However, in the 1800s, its popularity expanded beyond this group. In England, tattoos became an object of aristocratic style and fascination during the late 1800s. Notably, however, the practice was much more prevalent among American women than British ones. Just after the turn of the century, the New York World estimated that up to 75% of New York City’s female socialites were tattooed with such trendy designs as butterflies, flowers, and dragons. 

After the invention of electric tattoo machines, tattoo culture flourished. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the proliferation of fully-tattooed men and women as sideshow attractions, such as John O’Reilly, “the tattooed Irishman.” During this time, New York City became the center of the new tattooing subculture. In 1870, Martin Hildebrandt opened the first tattoo parlor in the U.S., and Sam O’Reilly, the inventor of the rotary tattoo machine, also operated a tattoo shop in the city. Then, in 1939, Mildred Hull opened her Tattoo Emporium in lower Manhattan, making her the nation’s first female tattoo shop owner. As the tattooing subculture expanded along society’s fringes, it became less popular in the mainstream.

 In the 1930s, when the Social Security system was established, people had to memorize their nine-digit Social Security number. Rather than risk forgetting it, many people decided to get it tattooed on them instead. In the 1940s, legendary tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins — better known as Sailor Jerry — popularized the classic American style of tattooing, which features bright, bold colors and strong lines along with frequently patriotic or militaristic subjects. During World War II, tattoos became increasingly popular among military men as both a sign of service and a symbol of strength and masculinity. Regardless, to most people within the mainstream, tattoos remained associated with criminality and social deviance throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

As Baby Boomers fueled the rise of broad counter-culture movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, tattoos became more socially acceptable. Music icons such as Janis Joplin inspired young people to seek out tattoos that expressed their alignment with hippie culture, the anti-war movement, or other emerging subcultures like motorcycle clubs. Stylistic approaches also expanded beyond the traditional Sailor Jerry school during this time, adding more subtle and intricate designs and techniques inspired by artistic traditions worldwide.

In the 1980s and 1990s, tattoos continued to gain in popularity due to the influence of famous musicians. Punk, metal, and other underground music scenes embraced tattoos as a symbol of rebellion and social antagonism. At the same time, more mainstream celebrities like Pamela Anderson sported now-cliche designs like barbed-wire armbands, expanding tattooing’s cultural reach and acceptance far beyond the underground. The rising popularity of tattoos featuring Chinese symbols, Polynesian designs, Native American motifs, yin-yang symbols, and other significant elements from different foreign cultures during the 1990s led to some of the first major discussions about cultural appropriation. 

During the 2000s, tattoos became entirely commonplace in American culture. Alongside the traditionally religious, patriotic, and nautical styles and subjects, new generations of tattoo artists expanded the technical and conceptual vocabularies of the art form to include more minimalistic, abstract, and realistic approaches. Today, tattooing is one of the most common forms of personal and artistic expression. Millennials are the most tattooed generation in American history, bringing the U.S. tattooing industry to an annual estimated worth of over $3 billion and ensuring that tattoos will continue to hold a prominent place in American art and culture for many years to come.

Into the Future

Tattooing is one of humanity’s oldest and most widespread artistic practices, and it’s only gotten more popular over time. Today’s tattoo artists aren’t just pioneering new styles, techniques, and technologies — they’re also reviving some of the most revered and iconic styles from our collective past, including ancient and indigenous styles that were suppressed or discouraged in prior generations. Tattooing has come a long way, so it is important to remember its past while looking forward to its future. 

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