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Derived from a Tahitian word “tatau”, the word “tattoo” denotes a wound and sign at the same time. These signs, received through pain, mean a lot in modern youth culture. Tattoos captured our hearts and got deep into our skin – that’s what is told in commercials, lookbooks, magazines and can be seen on your friend’s inked dermis. A tattoo has a peculiar history, dating back to thousands of years ago. Ancient people were sure that drawings on their bodies were heavenly marks you could get only if had a reasonable purpose. According to C. Levi-Strauss’s book, «A World on the Wane», the American Indians strongly believed tattoos marked a human being’s evolving into sophisticated species and “help[ed] him to cross the frontier from Nature to culture, and from the mindless animal to the civilized Man”. In many cultures tattooing has always been a special rite symbolizing a transition to a meaningful stage of life and making this transition sacred and memorable. Why do people crave for getting tattooed? What’s the origin of this painful phenomenon?

Once upon a time, accidentally, tattoo pierced a man’s skin and left permanent unwashable marks - probably, that was soot deep inside the wounds and burns. As our ancestors spent most of their time next to the fire, soot often got into the traumatized parts of skin. Consequently, they decided to hurt themselves intentionally and use other natural pigments (coal, ochre, minerals and herbs).

Definitely, inked guys existed in the ancient world, and a good deal of archeological finds can prove it. One of them will be introduced to you below.


No one expected what a great time-worn surprise awaited for two German tourists hanging out in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991. An iceman they found between the mountains turned out to be a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) European who was about 5 300 years old. He was named «Ötzi» after Ötztal Alps where he was killed almost 6 000 years ago . Afterwards, scientists discovered his body was marked with 61 lines and crosses, which supposedly served as acupunctures. Ötzi suffered from arthritis, so the signs on his body were supposed to improve his health state. To know better about the mysterious lines on Ötzi’s body, check out The South Tyrol Museum of Archeology’s page (

This is how Ötzi The Iceman, a Copper Age man with the oldest tattoos, looked like. Photo:, by Simon Claessen.

As tattoos had been an important part of rites, they had to be done only on purpose. People got tattoos in order to decorate their bodies, protect their lives, communicate with gods, identificate themselves or show their social status.

Ancient Egyptians tried to contact with gods and other supernatural forces with the help of tattooing. For instance, Libyan men, depicted on the wall of the tomb dating back to 1300 BC, wore signs of goddess Neith on their legs and arms. Neith was considered a great mother of all gods of Egyptian pantheon and psychopomp for the dead.

Ancient Greeks and Romans inked totems. The Thracians were tattooed with signs of Dionys : men wore an ivy, a symbol of eternal freshness, women punctuated a faun, Bacch’s animal incarnation. Tattoos were used for marking criminals and slaves as well.

The Chukchi wore tattoos symbolizing protection and courage. Their tattooing techniques were different from the ones we know now: they pulled threads with dyes under the skin. Women tattooed their daughters when they turned 10 years old. Childless women punctured their cheeks to get pregnant. A warrior put a dot on his knee every time he killed an enemy.

A Chukchi woman’s facial tattoos. Photo:

Accompanied by pain, every tattoo session also implied that a person had to follow the taboos established by the community, often by a tribe.


Island tattoos are the good example illustrating the importance of taboos in a man’s life inside of his tribe. Some tribes still keep up their traditions in order to save their unique culture.

The Polynesian people Maori are famous for their facial tattoos ‘ta-moko’. Both sexes receive them: among men they signal social status, women believe their faces look prettier and younger with ta-moko carvings. If you google for ‘ta-moko’, you’ll be impressed by its strictly individual, perfectly symmetrical and incredibly deep ornaments. According to Maori traditions, ta-moko is done with the help of uhi (chisels) which is much more painful than tattooing in modern studios. The victims of ta-moko tattooing, as a rule, have their faces covered with grooves and scars.

Tattooing a ta-moko also meant following some norms. For warriors having their skin carved with a ta-moko it was forbidden to touch themselves or anyone else, look into their reflection in the water, speak to anyone who didn’t have any fresh tattoos at that moment. They were also banned from touching food while eating (but it was okay to eat something with the help of fern’s hafts) and eating fish.

A Maori man’s face is covered with perfectly symmetrical ta-moko ornaments. Photo:

The Abipones in Paraguay had a specific rite for a girl reaching puberty - she was supposed to have a tattoo on her chin. At the same time she had to stay isolated at her father’s home until the tattoo was finished. This tattoo was to make a girl more attractive and more tolerant to the pain (which she was going to experience when having birth labours). To make a tattoo the Abipones used spiky thorns with soot as a pigment.

Traditional ornaments of tribal tattoos evoked interest of the civilized world. Growth of popularity of tattooing among Europeans started after introducing a Polynesian with a traditional tattoo to European society in 1769 by James Cook.

Photo:, by Tute Marqués.

Unlike Europe, America adopted tattooing traditions from the Amercan Indians, and, moreover, one of the Americans became the father of a modern tattoo machine. You probably know this guy as an inventor of the first electric light bulb. Yeah, this guy's name was Thomas Edison. Thomas was not only a cool scientist but also a businessman, and his invention was not a tattoo machine itself but its prototype designed for making document copies. Edison called his brainchild «electric pen», which appeared on the markets in 1876, three years earlier before his most famous invention, an electric light bulb. This invention was noticed by a New York tattooist Samuel O’Railey, who had been seeking for new means of inking tattoos at that moment. He found out «electric pen» could have been a perfect tool for tattooing. It was only required to change needles for safety purposes. In 1891 “electric pen” adapted for tattooing saw the light of day.

O’Railey was looking forward to getting first clients in order to test his new invention. The opportunity was not long in coming, and after a while he was payed a visit by famous circus artists, Mr and Mrs De Burgh. They asked him to ink something religious on their backs, and after a final tattoo session their bodies turned into masterpieces. Emma De Burg was decorated with a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and Frank had a crucifix with an inscription “Mount Calvary”.

Circus artists like couple De Burgh made their living by demonstration of their incredible tattoos to public. For them their inks were source of money, but for some communities they were means of nonverbal communication.


Criminals have developed a complicated system of numbers, words, phrases and symbols to exchange information within their own “circle of trust”.

Since 17th century the yakuza have been tattooing their bodies with nature objects (landscapes, flora), mythical creatures (dragons), or mons of the concrete gang they belonged to. Even now, because of associations with yakuza, Japanese society treats tattoos negatively. Full-body tattoos of the members of syndicates help them to see each other clearly. However, these people can be identified even by the non-yakuza members, that’s why some of them have removed their tattoos.

Being imprisoned gives you a chance to be inked with some symbolic tough stuff. A criminal’s tattoos can tell stories. Tattoos may tell how many years a gangster have spent in jail, what bad things he has done in his life, what gangs he belonged to etc. Soviet and Russian prison tats still captivate the world community. They are abbreviations (which only a tattoo wearer himself can decode), religious and political tattoos, epaulettes, stars, skulls and crossbones, or naked women. American prisoners tend to ink on their bodies cobwebs, teardrops, dots on the face and on the hands or symbols of mafia family they are members of.

A russian prisoner’s tats. Photo:, by cea+

Not only criminals, but also military personnel, sailors and other workers, whose lives are often at risk, get tattoos. Their inks may carry important personal information in case of a tattoo wearer’s death and passport loss, protect from danger in an emergency (e.g. sailors prefer to tattoo cocks and pigs as charms to avert sinking), encourage professional achievements or commemorate one’s mates. All these traditions are still kept alive.


Ordinary people could get inked as well, and there were special studios in the large cities. Like nowadays, they could go to a tattooist and ask for what they wanted.

Gradually, tattoo culture becomes widespread. Millions and billions of decorative tattoos are scattered on people’s bodies. At the same time, tattoos are no longer perceived as social markers or talismans - they are aimed to express a person’s individuality.

To get a tattoo you can choose the nearest tattoo parlor/tattoist to your location.Or the best one in your town. You can make an individual tattoo sketch to be the one and only for the people around you.

As for the process of tattooing itself, it has become much less painful (at least, in comparison with a severe carving of tā moko) and safe. In addition, you can get rid of your tattoo, and several possible ways (thermal, mechanical, chemical) are brought to your notice . To experience less pain I strongly advise you, though, to cover up your old tattoo with a new one.

No obligations, no taboos, freedom of choice - you are welcome to express yourself in any way. The main thing which surprises most is that modern society treats inked people much better than it used to about twenty years ago. They get jobs more often, they’re allowed to get what they want on their bodies and are not to be blamed. Society of the 21st century became much more tolerant to the inked.

History of tattooing dates back to thousads of years ago, and each people’s tattoo culture was linked with its own customs and taboos. Tatoo served as means of transmitting information about its owner or his community; it also could be a talisman. In our time, we can easily cover our body with tattoos, and a tattoo of today has turned into an ideal form of expression for the youth.

Xenix Fenix

Tattoo Lover