Tattoo History: A Cross-Cultural Intro

Cross Cultural Tattoo History
Photo by: Marcelo Chagas

Tattoos have been around just about since skin has. More astonishing yet is the fact that the idea of tattoo evolved independently on different continents. That means that the idea to permanently ink your skin was so amazing that multiple people had it, and it became a mainstay in many different cultures. For some tattoo afficionados, the history and ritual of tattoo are some of the main draws. Let’s talk about tattoo history and the lingering effects it has on the current industry.

The Early Days of Tattoo History

The oldest tattoos discovered so far date back to 3300 B.C., and all 53 of them belonged to a man posthumously named Otzi the Iceman who died in the Alps between Austria and Italy. Scientists have found evidence of tattoos in Japan from the Paleolithic era and Egypt from the Ptolemaic period when the pyramids were built. Native American tattoos were documented as early as the 1700s, in portraits like “Four Indian Kings,” that showcase the tattoos on Mohawk and Mohican tribal leaders. Greeks used to use tattoos as a form of communication between spies in the 5th century, too.

Archaeologists have found women with tattoos dating back to ancient Egyptian times, too. Though many believed that the tattooed women they found were sex workers hoping for protection against disease and pregnancy, some academics have now changed their stance. Since many women buried in places of status had tattoos, some believe that the tattoos were meant to keep women healthy during pregnancy, especially since many of the tattoos were of the deity known as Bes, who was the protector of fertility.

So, if tattooing was such a widespread practice for an extended period of history, what happened? Why did it collapse into a niche interest? Historians have proposed that the popularization of religions and the tradition of tattooing criminals and slaves stigmatized the process. Though the stigma against tattoos has declined for several years, it still lingers in certain communities today.

Historical Meanings of Tattoos

Ever since ancient times, tattoos have been worn as a form of defense from evil spirits of death. Much more recently, in the 1800s, tattoos became popular amulets for sailors to use. An anchor meant protection from drowning; a swallow meant 5,000 nautical miles already safely under your belt. The idea of tattoos as a form of supernatural protection still exists today. Many people will get a Celtic triskelion talisman that symbolizes the number 3 and represents the balance of body, mind, and spirit.

Evil eye tattoos are  popular, and the historic belief about them is that the evil eye protects you from evil spirits and brings bad luck to the person it gazes upon.

Manaia tattoos originate from Polynesia, and this conjured creature has a bird’s head and a fish’s tail. In Maori culture, this symbol wards off evil. Other Maori tattoos, like the one below, symbolize protection, too, and have long-standing cultural meaning for Polynesian people in New Zealand.


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A post shared by Vansh Chhabra (@pigmentedtattoos)

Hamsa tattoos originated in the Middle East, and they symbolize the hand of the goddess. Hamsa tattoos mean protection from evil, and some have an evil eye in the center.

More Tattoo Inspiration

In Native American culture, dreamcatchers would protect the nearest dreamer from nightmares. And today, that form of tattoo is still prevalent.

Once banned by the government, Japanese horimono tattoos are full-body tattoos that tell a story. Sometimes, the story was a legend or folktale meant to infer protection to the wearer.


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A post shared by Brainked Tattoo Blog (@brainked)

Choosing a Tattoo With Historic Meaning

Tattoo history is fascinating, and it is particularly meaningful if you come from a culture with a particular ritual surrounding the tattoo process. Selecting a tattoo that has been passed down for generations can be a powerful reminder of where you come from. Don’t forget to find a tattoo artist that specializes in the specific kind of cultural tattoo process you want. In many cultures (especially indigenous ones), only people with a certain level of status, like priestesses, shamans, and healers, could become tattoo artists. Though it’s tough to find a priestess to give you a tattoo these days, it’s still important to find someone you trust.

Want More Tattoo Inspiration?

Check out the Tattooed Women gallery.