The oldest definitive proof we have of ancient and pre-historic skin art comes from Ötzi the Iceman; a preserved human discovered in the Dolomites of Italy. Ötzi lived and died some five thousand years ago, passing away at approximately 43-years-old. He suffered from a number of degenerative ailments, from Lyme disease to heart problems, rotten teeth, and arthritis, and was killed by blow to the head.

Among the many curiosities of this European mummy are his tattoos, which seemed to distinctly consist of lines and crosses inked over tissues that were degenerated, indicating that he was tattooed as a form of therapy. Several Italian and German researchers have posited that these tattoos not only indicated an understanding of human anatomy and medicine in Europe several thousand years ago, but they also aligned (whether coincidentally or not) with Chinese acupuncture points, suggesting a common belief that pain could be reduced by piercing the skin. Other interesting tidbits were his use of medicinal mushrooms and fern.

While we can only guess at their meaning, tattoos around the world have been utilized in a number of different ways, as away to signify status and tribe, as a way to celebrate a personal milestone, attribute rank, show maturity and adulthood, or pay tribute to the gods. The Egyptians and Europeans even used tattoos therapeutically, while later examples of skin art help understand the intricate dynamics between the reserved upper class and the criminal underclass in the cities of the US, as well as 12th century Chinese bandits.

When it comes to culture and history, tattoos are about as rich in both as one can get. Where to begin, then? When it comes to trying to tie down what significance tattoos held in cultures around the globe, it helps to consider why people started inking themselves to begin with.

Tattoos as History

To tattoo oneself as a marker of personal history is not only one of the main reasons for modern-day inking (a survey revealed that 34 percent of tattooed individuals got a tattoo as a sign of a new beginning, 27 percent got inked to remember an event, and 43 percent got inked to honor a loved one), but it may also have been a reason to get inked in the distant past – when means of writing and recording recent events and experiences were limited to paintings and wall art, one way to commemorate significant milestones or remember certain events in one’s past might have been through tattoos.

Aside from mummies all around the world, unearthed pottery dating back several thousand years in parts all over the world depicted lines and symbols on female figurines. Tattoos were particularly common on women across the world, from the famous priestess Amunet, to the oldest forms of tattooing among Polynesian women, as well as the Japanese Ainu, and several tribes in Africa.

Some posit that the process of tattooing was common particularly among women during pregnancy, perhaps as a way to ward off evil, protect the child, commemorate the birth, or to place a talisman of divine protection around the woman’s thighs and womb. In Polynesia, the tradition of the tattoo was eventually switched, as men received elaborate tattoos around the waist and midsection, while women received less elaborate tattoos.

Tattoos as Identity

Tattoos in the more recent modern memory of the world have served as identifiers for soldiers, sailors, criminals, and outcasts, especially in the Western world, where they (until recently) continued to carry negative connotations, and connections to the underworld. Gangs still use identifiable tattoos, and certain motifs are still inflammatory due to their close connection to criminal associations. But for those getting inked, a tattoo would often mean an initiation into a new identity, or the commemoration of another step towards mastery and recognition.

In older cultures, the process of tattooing was far more dangerous than it is today. Bones, shark teeth, cactus spines and citrus thorns are just some of the implements potentially used to puncture the skin and introduce ink under it, and in larger tattoos (like those traditionally adorning Samoan men), surviving and recovering from the ordeal can take months. Those who endure it are hailed as heroes, and brave men.

These coming-of-age rites can be considered parallel to similar rituals of identity and maturity in Africa, as well as the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica, where tattoos were the sign of a growing warrior, and the Philippines, where tribes such as the Kalinga used tattoos to keep track of the number of enemy heads they have collected. When the Spanish first landed upon the coasts of the pre-colonial Philippines, they named the locals Pintados (the painted ones), and documents from that time note that Filipino males were tattooed as a rite of passage, and as per the Spanish “he who is bravest is painted the most”.

The Picts, whom the Romans named for being painted, similarly tattooed themselves with marks and beasts as symbols of status, and the Greek writer Herodotus noted how, among Scythians and Thracians, not having tattoos was a symbol of low status.

Tattoos as Worship

Rather than a thing to have or a symbol to wear, many cultures considered the process of tattooing itself most important. To receive a tattoo was excruciatingly painful, and in many cases, it was a sacrifice borne in order to appease or serve a higher power, from the practice of tattooing the Aztec gods in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, to European Christians traveling to the Holy Land to be adorned by the Razzouk during the Renaissance.

The practice of using ink to worship is also practiced among the Buddhists of China, Cambodia, and Thailand, where traditional texts, poems, and verses are inscribed into the skin with an old script as a way of further consecrating one’s faith in the tenets of Buddha, or signify an element of mastery over the self. The Egyptians purportedly used tattoos the same way, as a blessing of the gods.

Among Japanese dockworkers, firefighters, and carpenters, full-body tattoos during the Edo Period were a way of asking for spiritual protection against the brutal and dangerous elements of their everyday lives, and common motifs in local irezumi culture included water dragons to fight fire, the tiger to ask for strength, as well as depictions of local gods such as Fujin, the god of wind, and his brother Raijin, the god of lightning. When Buddhism grew in popularity, it also became common to use Buddhist figures such as the Fudo Myoo to signify personal struggles with the spiritual, and depictions of Bodhidharma, the father of Zen Buddhism (known as Daruma).

Tattoos in the Modern Day

Tattoos seem to have accompanied us wherever we went, and the art has a more extensive history in some places than it does in others. In many cultures and traditions, tattoos have continued to survive over centuries, between ancestors, and across generations. In some cases, designs were passed down and carried on, and the tattoo maintained its original purpose as a sign of maturity and strength, of commitment and will.

Tattoos were even more painful than they might be today due to ancient tattooing practices, and there was always the risk of infection, or even death. Cultures that tattooed children in particular had to worry about that, and to this day, many traditionalist tattoo artists continue to employ ancient techniques, making use of wooden and bone tools, instead of the modern-day tattoo machines. Some use both but specialize in one or the other.

While the 21st century and the world wide spread of globalism has helped many who descended from some form of diaspora and feel the need to belong to a tribe again rediscover their ethnic roots and appreciate the beauty of a culture they may not feel a special personal connection to, the commercialization of the tattoo, the nature of tattoo removal, and the manner in which tattoos are received today (not by rite of passage or ritual, but as a payable service) completely changes the nature of the tattoo, and gives it an entirely new meaning.

This meaning is neither positive nor is it negative. Where tattoos used to be the brands of outlaws and outsiders, a way to express your relationship with society, or even a way to ask for protection against forces you cannot control in an endlessly cruel world, tattoos today can be anything from an identifier and form of personal symbolism, to a piece of fashionable art, an image worn without any intent past the superficial, a way to attribute meaning to a life that has none, or worst of all, a mistake.

It’s easy to romanticize the past and forget that tattoos were also a form of societal pressure, as well as a form of branding for those who have committed wrongdoing and were condemned to a life sentence of prejudice. One needs to look no further than living memory, where survivors of the Holocaust remember being tattooed with digits to help organize the slaughter of human lives and make it more efficient.

Yet some might feel that today’s increased popularity of the tattoo is double-edged sword, one wherein skin art is finally given the recognition and appreciation it deserved for centuries in many countries across the world, as well as one wherein the tattoo has inherently lost some of its meaning and weight. However, a tattoo can be as meaningful or as meaningless as one chooses it to be. It could be a terrible joke between friends, or it could be a memorial to a loved one, or the fading scars of a regrettable past.

Perhaps, it should be up to each and every one of us to remember what a tattoo once meant to those who lived before us, and if we choose to emulate or appreciate an aspect of a culture we admire by wearing their art, we should also make it our duty to fully understand the weight behind that art to the best of our abilities, regardless of whether it is a piece of irezumi culture, a tribute to one’s Polynesian roots and the original tatau, a celebration of faith, or even just a souvenir.