It exists in many corners of the planet long before any proper writing systems or major city-state civilizations. While it isn’t known whether the practice evolved independently in most places or is so ancient that it survived into numerous cultures throughout the globe, the tattoo is potentially older than even agriculture.
Explaining the origin of the word ‘tattoo’
If you follow the etymology of the word ‘tattoo’, you might notice that it doesn’t stem from the same origins as so many other words in the English language. Despite the fact that Europe has a long history with tattoos, and that much of the oldest evidence of the practice stems from that continent, there are few examples of words in Europe’s many languages specifically talking about tattooing.
The term stems from the Polynesian ‘tatau’, which has a variety of meanings but can largely into a verb, meaning to ‘mark’ or ‘strike’. This word was imported by European explorers into the various languages of Europe (tatouage in French, Tätowierung in German, tatuaggi in Italian, tatuaje in Spanish, and so on), but other terms were used as stand-ins for the same practice in the many centuries predating the discovery of Polynesia and New Zealand in Europe, including various different words that mean ‘to prick’, ‘to stab’, ‘to mark’, or ‘to imprint’. Examples include the Greek stigmata, which was used to describe tattoos in the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the French piquer, which is to sting. This excellent article by Anna Felicity Friedman does a great job of detailing the evidence of contemporary tattooing during and around the time of Cook’s voyages.
Of course, there’s more to the world than just English, so it would be a disservice to stop things there. While much of Europe owes its use of tatau and its many derivatives to journeys into the South Pacific and contact with its many indigenous people, the same practice was widely spread throughout different parts of the world with many different names, some of which are no longer known to us.
In the Philippines, precolonial Filipinos practiced batek or batok. They were so heavily tattooed in the Visayan region of the country that the Spanish, upon first contact, named them the Pintados (painted ones).
Among the descending cultures of the ancient Khmer people, the practice of tattooing is known as Sak Yant, an ancient tradition that involves marking the body with protective symbols.
India has a rich history of tattooing, with several different terms. In northern India, ancient tattooing was known as gudna or godna, which means to bury the needle. Among the Gondi of central India, the practice was known as kohkana. In the south, it was pachakutharathu. Among the Santhal of Bengal, different terms are used for different common tattooing motifs. Temporary henna tattoos are known as mehndi.
In Japan, irezumi (to insert ink) describes the local tattooing culture, but the practice is older than the term, which dates back to its use to mark prisoners in ancient Japan (a practice imported from China), as well as a traditional practice of female tattooing among the indigenous Ainu of northern Japan.
In China, where tattooing also has a history of marking property and prisoners, the tattoo is wén shēn, or to mark the body.
The tattoo carries meaning in cultures throughout the planet, mostly positive, and sometimes negative.
First known evidence of tattooing
Based on pure numbers, we can trace the tattoo as far back as the Upper Paleolithic/Late Stone Age. It is within this era that ancient carvings were discovered depicting human figures with geometric carvings all over them. Similarly, many regions where tattooed mummies were discovered later first had sculptured art of human tattooed figures, tattooed masks, or other similar proofs of the practice.
Aside from artworks, there are various finds of tattoo tools throughout the years, although none of them are older than the first evidence we have of tattoos on human skin (through mummification). The oldest find of ancient tattoo tools comes from the island nation of Tonga, where 2,700-year-old bone tools were used to etch and ink skin. Slightly younger, another find points to pre-historic North America, specifically modern-day Utah. There, 2,000-year-old tattoo tools made with cactus spines were discovered.
We know that tattoos were practiced independently in just about every culture on the globe, although for long may differ from culture to culture. Purposes were often the same: as a rite of passage, a form of identification, an embodiment of skill or mark of prowess, or simply because they looked nice.
The oldest evidence of tattoos on human skin stems from Ötzi the Iceman, who was tattooed in the Fourth Millennium B.C. (sometime around 3500-3100 B.C.), during the Copper Age. Past that, the history of the tattoo branches out considerably across all continents, with other examples of early tattooed humans including the the Chinchorro Man, the Gebelein Man and the Princess of Ukok.
From sticks and pricks to the tattoo machine
Earliest examples of tattoos were likely made not with pricking, but by cutting the skin open and smearing soot into the wound, in a combination of pigmentation and scarification. Wherever spine tools were found, however, the evidence would suggest that tattoos were applied using the same technique still practiced by traditional tattoo artists all over the globe (as well as some contemporary enthusiasts), using a stick with a needle.
For millennia, this was the way things were done. A needle, some ink, and lots of time and patience. This changed when Thomas Edison invented the electric pen, part of a greater printing press equivalent that would allow one to mass-produce copies of a page stenciled with said electric pen. The pen would rapidly oscillate, powered by a simple battery.
After several revisions to the design, today’s modern-day tattoo machines operate on a similar principle: most are either coil-based or motor-based, with the former being based on an electromagnetic loop of a pair of coils and an armature bar constantly fluctuating to make the needle move, and the latter being a basic rotary motor pumping a needle up and down. Each needle feeds ink into the skin through capillary action. When shading, multiple needles are used at once (like a paintbrush).
While today’s tattoo renaissance might feel novel, tattoos have grown and waned in popularity for a long time in the West. Far from a new trend or restricted only to the undesirables of society, tattooing is one of humankind’s oldest artforms, and it’s been a staple among the elite, the poor, and the working class alike.