The History of Tattoos

This past week, I did something that I had been thinking about doing since college. I got my first tattoo. Aside from a couple of older relatives not being thrilled about it, I got a positive response from family and friends. People have many different reasons for getting tattoos, and they’ve gotten more popular in recent years. I’ll talk about my reasons later on.

When I went to the tattoo shop, they displayed different artifacts that showed the history of tattoos and piercings, and I grew interested in how tattoos came to be what they are today. Older generations may look at tattoos and assume that you’re in a gang if you have markings on your skin, but tattoos started way earlier in history.

The History

Tattoos have been around for a long time and have had several meanings around the world. I started my research with a History channel documentary about the history, and I learned many interesting facts. Tattooing started when man realized that charcoal rubbed into cuts in the skin remain there after the cuts healed. The meanings, reasons, and symbols have changed over time and continue to hold different significance for different cultures.

The oldest tattoos discovered was on the body of remains found on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. The remains were dated back to 3250 B.C.E. and had several tattoos from the legs to the torso to his wrist. It was interpreted as a form of medicine where the tattoos were used to alleviate the pain of some condition this person might have had. The tattoos could have had another use as well. This person was named the “Iceman.”

The word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian word “ta” (to strike) and the Tahitian word “tatau” (to mark something). Because of this, tattooing is associated with Polynesia, but tattooing dates back even further than that.

Tattoos in Egypt

Before the discovery of the “Iceman,” ancient Egypt was the earliest known civilization to tattoo. Mummies of women show that tattooing in Egypt started as early as the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 B.C.E.). The mummies discovered show that tattooing was almost exclusive to women of the time. This led to the controversy of what those tattoos meant–were these women prostitutes or royalty?

Men who initially dug up the female mummies had their own biases and assumed that the tattoos meant the women were lower class or sex workers. Later discoveries showed that the women were members of the court and might have been tattooed for religious purposes. Some scientists even think that the tattoos protected the women during pregnancy because the dots tattooed on them would expand with the abdomen.

Tattoos in Religion

In ancient Rome, tattoos were forbidden. It was believed that the human body was God’s work of art and should not be changed in any way. The human body was seen as a form of purity, and tattoos tainted that. Criminals were tattooed as a form of punishment for their crimes, slaves were tattooed to keep them from escaping, and gladiators were tattooed as a form of property.

When Romans went to war in other areas, they grew curious about tattooing and began getting tattoos themselves. It became a mark of pride, and they brought it back with them. Doctors were the first tattoo artists because their tools could double as tattooing tools.

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.”

Leviticus 19:28

Christianity has had an internal battle with the idea of tattoos for a long time. Tattoos were banned, but that didn’t stop people from rebelling early on. Some thought of the body as God’s creation, as they did in Rome, but others used tattoos to prove their lifelong devotion to their religion. One of the symbols used to show their faith was a cross on the inside of their wrist. They placed it there so they could hide it from the Romans. Another reason that Christians would get tattoos so their bodies could be identified and buried properly if they died in the war.

My Experience

I’ve wanted to get a tattoo since I was in college, but I couldn’t decide what I wanted or where I wanted it. I was also petrified of needles, and the idea of a tattoo freaked me out. I was ignorant of what a tattoo was and decided recently that I have to actually schedule an appointment if I’m going to do it.

I decided that I wanted something literacy-related on my forearm, but I knew I wanted that one to be big. I was worried about my pain tolerance and wasn’t sure if I would handle something that big from the start. I decided I would get something smaller on my shoulder and go from there.

When I met with my tattoo artist, I showed him what I wanted and asked him his opinion. He explained that something that small wouldn’t turn out well and might bleed together. Even though I had a small two or three-inch tattoo in my head, I came out with a five-inch work of art.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’ve struggled my whole life with anxiety. Recently, I’ve been learning how to live with anxiety without letting it control me. I’ve grown so much, and I wanted something to remind me of the beauty that came from my struggles. My tattoo is the chemical makeup of serotonin, which is the chemical in the brain that stabilizes your moods. When you have anxiety, you don’t have enough serotonin. The symbol for serotonin has lilies growing out of it because lilies are my favorite flower.

Evolved Body Art: Darius

I was pleasantly surprised with how little the tattoo actually hurt. It felt like a liquid burn that was being scratched into me, but it only hurt a little when my artist went back through for touch-ups. After a week of washing it a few times a day and keeping Aquaphor on it, it’s almost healed! It still feels a little uncomfortable to have clothing over it, but it doesn’t hurt to touch anymore.

Overall, I’m so thrilled that I decided to go for it. Eventually, I want to get the forearm tattoo and possibly more. My advice to anyone looking to get a tattoo is to find an artist you like and feel comfortable with. Make sure the tattoo shop you go to is clean, and make sure whatever you decide to tattoo on you is something that you will be proud to show off!

Learn More

I decided halfway through writing this that I wanted to split this into parts. There’s so much history in tattoos, and I wanted to take the time to continue exploring it. I highly recommend the documentary I linked above if you are interested in learning more. You can also click the hyperlinks to see my sources. Happy learning!