Origin of Tattoos

Freshman (College 1st year) ・Anthropology ・MLA ・3 Sources

An image, word or pattern on the skin that is created by inserting pigment into the skin using needles is known as Tattoo. Tattoo is taken as a type of body modification on humans and as a means of identification for animals and is therefore created on human or animal skin. It however serves different purposes in different cultures. This paper focuses on the origin of tattoos and how it relates to the field of anthropology.

Origins of Tattoos

The first form of tattoos started from Egypt during the construction of the great pyramids in 2560 BC (Smith 3). As Egyptians were expanding their empire, the art of tattooing advanced also. Moreover, the civilization of Arabia, Crete, Persia, and Greece took up and broadened the art form. Notably, in 2000 BC tattooing art spread to China (Smith 3). In the West, the art was introduced by Britons who used tattoos in ceremonies (Smith 4). For instance, the Saxons, Danes, and Norse tattooed family crests. However, in 787 AD, the art was banned by Pope Hadrian (Smith 4). Despite his ban, tattooing blossomed in Britain until the Norman raid of 1066 who condemned it (Smith 4). Thus, it died out from the Western culture as from 12th to the 16th centuries. During the same period, the art blossomed in Japan (Smith 4). On the other hand, William Damper, who was an explorer and sailor who traversed the South Seas re-introduced the art to the West. In 1691, Dampier came to London, accompanied by a densely tattooed Polynesian, Prince Giolo also referred to as the Painted Prince. Giolo was put on exhibition, money-making allurement, becoming the obsession of London at the time, six centuries since the art had been introduced in Europe, but it took another century before tattooing made a mark in the West (Smith 5).

In the late 1700s, Captain Crook visited the South Pacific several times (Smith 5). Crook’s stories were warmly welcomed by people of London who were anxious to see the art facts and art Crook brought back. For instance, in one of his trips, he produced a densely tattooed Polynesian, referred to as Omai, making him a sensation in the city (Smith 5). Afterwards, the upper-class began to get some small tattoos in discreet areas. Consequently, tattooing became a trend in the city. On the other hand, the painstaking and slow procedure of tattooing hindered the advancement of this art. However, Samuel O'Reilly patented the earliest electric tattooing device, which was anchored on an Electric pen that perforated paper with a needle spot (Smith 5). As a result, it enabled average individuals to get a tattoo at a reasonable price.

Chatham Square in New York City was the birthplace of the American style tattoo (Smith 6). By the turn of the century, a seaport and entertainment center was appealing to working-class individuals who had money. With this regard, Samuel O'Reilly came from Boston and put up a shop there, taking on Charlie Wagner, his apprentice (Smith 6). After O’Riely’s death in 1908, Charlie established a supply business with Lew Alberts, who was a wallpaper designer (Smith 6). Notably, Alberts transferred his ingenuity in wallpaper design to tattooing. At this time, the popularity of this art was declining across the U.S. However; it thrived in Chatham Square. For instance, husbands tattooed their wives with some of their outstanding works, which played a key role in advertisements. At the same period, cosmetic tattooing became trendy, eyeliner, colored lips and blush for cheeks. However, amidst World War I, the glint art pictures switched to those of heroism and wartime idols.

In the 1920s, amidst prohibition, Chatham Square lost its attractiveness. As a result, the center for tattoo art shifted to Coney Island (Smith 7). The art’s enthusiasts in the country put up shops in places that would support them, especially in cities, where military bases were nearby, namely naval bases. However, after World War II, tattoos denigrated further by their links with Marlon Brando type bikers and Juvenile delinquents (Smith 7).

Relationship of tattooing and anthropology

Tattooing enables anthropologists to study various aspects of communities who practice the art. Cultural anthropologists utilize this form of art to research cultural aspects of specific communities. For instance, tattooing among the Maori men and women of New Zealand had a cultural significance as men who did not have it could not be allowed to make weapons, carve wood, weave nets and build canoe houses (Peoples and Bailey 348). On the other hand, women who did not undergo tattooing were not allowed to help in farmlands with sweet potatoes, the community’s staple food. Moreover, in Polynesian islands, a group of boys in Samoa had their thighs and hips tattooed in their early years with a ceremony following. The son of a high-rated chief was the primary beneficiary of this event, while the rest participated to share their pain, and as a way of publicly revealing their loyalty and respect (Peoples and Bailey 348). Apparently, the Samoan women did not accept men as sexual partners if they did not have tattoos exclusively on the back of their knees (Peoples and Bailey 348).

More importantly, tattooing has a significant role in rituals and traditions. For example, in Borneo, women had tattoos on their forearm as a representation of their specific skills (Peoples and Bailey 349). A tattoo symbol showed that a woman was skilled. Thus, her marriage material was substantially increased. On the other hand, tattoos around the fingers and wrist were believed to ward off sickness. Presently, groups such as Hells Angel tattoo their particular group symbol due to the belief that the wearer of a tattoo image calls the soul of the picture. For instance, the fierceness of a tiger is considered to belong to the tattooed individual. Even today, this practice holds true as demonstrated by the generation of snakes, birds of prey, and tigers.

Tattooing relates to anthropology about studying the criminal behavior among some individuals in the society. For instance, in the U.S many gangs and prisoners use specific tattoos to reveal facts about their unlawful acts, organizational affiliation, and prison sentences. Also, in early Japanese culture, tattoos were used to mark wrongdoers, the most intriguing method being the one employed by Hiroshima. First offense criminals had a line tattooed on their forehead, then another was added after the second offense, and a third one added for a third offense.

Importantly, tattoos signify self-expression with each one representing a unique story. For instance, a Virgen de Guadalupe tattoo reveals that an individual is a Catholic and cherishes this specific saint (Smith 7). Moreover, the U.S military has a long established and standing history of tattoos using them as a sign of their devotion to their work with tattoos indicating their battles and military units (Smith 8).With this regard, individuals feel unique as a tattoo is something that is very personal to them, a clear implication that it creates a sense of individuality as one can come up with an image of his, which cannot be replicated by someone else, unlike commodities such as clothes and shoes.

Tattoos have been utilized in communicating identity and symbolizing relations with each other. For instance, the women of Rashaayda Bedouin of Eastern Sudan had tattoos in the lower side of their faces, forearms and the upper thighs and legs, with leg and face tattoos being private symbols reserved for the eyes of their loved ones (Fedorak 95). Moreover, an unmarried lady had a man’s camel brand tattooed on her thigh, declaring her love for him (Fedorak 96). Most importantly, this form of body modification is a means of showing resistance to mainstream society for those individuals who are or feel marginalized.


The origin of tattooing dates back to 2560 BC during the building of the great pyramids in ancient Egypt. Individuals such as Briton introduced this art in the West, while William Dampier and Captain Crooks introduced it in London. More importantly, Chatham Square in New York City is the birthplace of the American style tattoo with Samuel O’Riely spearheading the art. On the other hand, tattooing has had its relations in the world of anthropology, specifically in cultural anthropology, because the art has had a role in ritual and tradition. Moreover, they have been used to communicate identity and symbolize relations between individuals. Precisely, it played an essential role in the society, such as giving individuals a sense of unique personalities.

Work Cited

Fedorak, Shirley. Anthropology Matters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. Print.

Peoples, James and Garrick Bailey. Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Boston: ISBN, 2017. Print.

Smith, Mark. "Tattoo School Training." A Brief History of Tattoos (2017): 1-14. Print.

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