A tattoo is a glimpse into a person’s soul. It can tell you so much about their world – especially if you know what to look for! But where exactly did this form of body art come from?

Tattoos  have existed for thousands of years. As far back as the 4th millennium BCE, tattoos were being used for many reasons. Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy sports a whopping 61 tattoos, but these were not an ancient form of body art. Instead, they are presumed to have been an ancient form of acupuncture used for pain relief.

Early tattoos discovered on mummies
Ötzi the Iceman’s Tattoos


In ancient Greece and Rome as well as East Asia, tattoos were a brand — if you were inked, you were most likely a criminal or an outcast. This use of tattoos continued until as recently as the 1940s; Nazis were still using branding as a prisoner identification system. While this continues to be a painful memory for many, tattooing is now more accepted in modern Europe.

Auschwitz Survivor Leon Greenman 98288 At The Jewish Museum
Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman displays his identification tattoo


The brand used by Nazis to identify prisoners
Auschwitz survivor Sam Rosenzweig displays their identification tattoo


The Asian Connection: A symphony of colour and patterns

Closer to home, the art of tattooing can be traced back to 3000 years ago. Asian mummies with ink indicate that tattoos were a mark of social status, but some were also worn for decorative purposes. Over time, tattoos became a symbol of identity — those that could not afford expensive silk or jewellery found expression in ink. East Asian tattoos were often worn as talismans to ward off evil. They later developed into an art form that used a variety of colours in full-body designs telling detailed stories. In places like Japan, these became associated with the Japanese mafia or ‘yakuza’, the most visibly inked members of society.

East Asian tattoo styles tell stories through detail and colour
Japanese styles of tattooing are as colourful as they are intricate


In China, tattooing is still tied to its history of being used as a brand, but this perception has changed over time. Minority groups like Dai and the Dulong wear facial tattoos that were meant to make women less desirable to attackers in the hopes of preventing abduction and sexual assault. Getting a tattoo with Chinese characters is popular outside of China, but is often discouraged since the characters are complex and you’ll probably get something you didn’t ask for!


South Asian Tribal Tattooing

In South Asia, the Apatani tribe much like their East Asian counterparts have women’s faces tattooed to make them less appealing to rival tribes who might abduct them. In modern times, these tribal markings are seen as a sign of strength and courage, largely due to the painful process that goes along with getting them inked.

Women's facial tattoos were used to make them 'less desirable' to potential attackers
Women from the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh with facial tattoos


Further south, The Tamilian Toda tribe have tattoos that match the geometric patterns of their clothing.

Tribal tattoos among the Toda look very similar to their traditional embroidery
Toda tattoos match their embroidered clothing


South Asian tribal women continue to wear tattoos for many reasons – to ensure safe passage into the afterlife, to symbolize their faith in magic, and to mark tribal victories and commemorate important events. The art of temporary tattooing using henna is also widely practiced in South Asia and the Middle East and has gained popularity across the world. Henna designs are now a trend, even as a permanent tattoo!

Tattooing in the Western World

Western tattoos and methods are extremely popular across the world now. Though different from ancient tattoos, they are definitely inspired by the same practices. British sailors often returned from their voyages sporting new ink, which made the art of tattooing gain popularity in Europe. Nautical tattoos thus evolved into an eclectic mix of tattoo styles from around the world.

Sailor tattoos are credited as having brought tattooing to the world

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