From Espionage To An Art Form: Tracing The History Of Tattoos

There are certain cultural commonalities found throughout the world, and as you walk down the street in almost any city in the world, you’ll find bars, restaurants, laundromats, and tattoo parlors. Tattooing is a global phenomenon, and can be found on every continent.

From symbolic patterns and family crests to half-naked mermaids and fire-breathing dragons, tattoos come in every imaginable shape, size, color, and level of complexity.

The question is, when did this tattoo craze begin in human society, and what has made it so intriguing for generations of people around the world?

A Brief History of Tattoos

While some anthropologists believe that the tradition of tattooing could date back more than 10,000 years, the oldest tattooed remains that have been found are roughly 5,300 years old, belonging to a natural mummy nicknamed Otzi the Iceman, who was discovered in the Otzal Alps, near the border of Austria and Italy. Tattooed mummies have also been found in more than 45 tombs of Egypt, which may indicate that tattoos were considered a cultural status symbol even back then.


The art of tattooing (consisting of puncturing multiple layers of skin and injecting ink into the dermis to change the pigmentation) only spread and expanded from there as the Egyptian Empire grew larger and more widespread. Greece, Persia and Arabia picked up on this form of body modification and developed their own versions; eventually, the tradition spread to the Far East roughly 4,000 years ago.

At different points in history, this practice was identified in Scandinavian countries, Siberia, Japan, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, Briton, New Zealand, Mongolia, and Central America. It disappeared for nearly 600 years in Europe following the Norman Invasion of Briton, but was then rediscovered during England’s Age of Empire, when “savages” from Samoa and other distant lands were brought back to England and put on display in the 17th century.

Sailor Jerry-style tattoo (Photo Credit: cyco1976 / Fotolia)

Sailor Jerry-style tattoo (Photo Credit: cyco1976 / Fotolia)

Since tattooing was associated with exotic locales and traveling, tattooing initially gained popularity with sailors, and consequently, military men. This held true for nearly two centuries, until it spread to common British society. In North America, tattooing was first popularized as a way to identify sailors, particularly if they were killed or lost at sea. Although the practice of tattooing was widely practiced by Japanese and Polynesian amateurs in port cities, catering to sailors from around the world, there wasn’t a formal “tattoo parlor” in North America until 1846, run by a professional German tattoo artist named Martin Hildebrandt. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Controversy of Meaning

The most fascinating aspect of tattoos is their widely varied cultural significance in countries across the globe. Since the inception of tattoo art, the meaning has evolved and morphed countless times. While today, tattoos are largely a form of self-expression and a liberal attitude towards body modification, this was not always the case.


In Greece, for example, tattoos were used for espionage purposes to identify early intelligence agents, while in Egypt, tattooing was used for traditional medical scarification, religious ceremonies, and status.

In Japan, perhaps most famously, spiritual and decorative tattoos were once widespread (dating back thousands of years), but popularity eventually declined to the point where only criminals were tattooed as a visible punishment for their crime. This cultural history can still be seen today in the heavily tattooed bodies of Yakuza members (Japanese mafia) and the subsequent suspicion of tattoos throughout the rest of Japan and parts of Asia.

Photo Credit: Andrei vishnyakov / Fotolia

Photo Credit: Andrei vishnyakov / Fotolia

In England, during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the advent of the mechanical tattoo machine, “getting inked” was considered a sign of wealth and status, because the process was long, complex, and rather expensive. However, once the cost dropped and the technology improved, it became associated with a lower class of people, or even dangerous criminals. Some of these fallacies still exist today in the western world.


The style, subject matter, precision, and color of tattoos has evolved continually over the ages, just as its perception by cultures has shifted and switched over time. The range of significance of tattoos is incredibly wide, including family unity, religious inclination, youthful rebellion, social status, criminal history, sexual inclination, pop culture fandom, masculinity, femininity, spirituality…. the list goes on and on.

Fortunately, in recent decades, thanks to globalization and the wider acceptance of tattoos as a legitimate art form, most people see tattoos as a personal choice for self-expression. The work done by many professional tattoo artists is stunningly beautiful, and deserves a place in a museum just as much as a painstakingly created oil painting.

However, that’s probably the coolest thing about tattoos; they are permanent pieces of art on mobile canvases with a temporary life span.

Tattoo in Progress (Photo Credit: mr_prof / Fotolia)

Tattoo in Progress (Photo Credit: mr_prof / Fotolia)

Whatever your reason for going under the needle, make sure the artist you choose has steady hands!


  1. History Of Tattooing – Wikipedia
  2. Tattoos –
  3. What Is The History Of Tattooing? – Pennsylvania State University
  4. Tattoo History – University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science
  5. Tattooing Identity – Colorado College
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About the Author:

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor and publisher who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and calls the most beautiful places in the world his office. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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