Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Today on Museum Bites we’re getting inked. Whether it is for self-decoration, group identification, magical protection or a therapeutic prescription, tattoos have a long and colorful history. From the snowy Alps to the Polynesian Islands, we have painted our bodies with vibrant hues and dazzling designs. Join me for a brief look into this ancient art. We begin by dialing the clock back to the Copper Age…

Show me a man with a tattoo and
I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.
~ Jack London

Ice, Ice Baby:  The oldest tattoos on record date back more than 5,000 years and belong to Ötzi the Iceman (c3370 BCE). Comprised of dashes and crosses, Ötzi’s 61 tattoos were created by cuts smeared with charcoal. Located on areas of his body associated with stress and strain (i.e., lower back, joints, and chest) scientists believe Ötzi’s tattoos were a form of early acupuncture.

The oldest figurative tattoos were discovered on two of the six Gebelein mummies (c3351 BCE-3017BCE). Infrared imaging of these 5,000-year-old Egyptians, reveal tattoos of a bull and sheep on the bicep of the male mummy. The female, sports four S-like shapes on her shoulder and a tattoo of a staff on her abdomen. This ancient lady is the first and oldest female to be decorated with tattoos. Like Ötzi, her and her male companion’s tattoos were dyed with soot.

Fun Icy Fact: In 1991, German hikers stumbled upon the mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman. Named after the Ötztal Alps where he was discovered, scientists originally believed Ötzi to be an ill-fated alpinist or World War I soldier. Imagine their surprise (and delight!) when carbon dating revealed Ötzi to be 5,300 years old.

Tattoo You:  The process of tattooing is painful and permanent. With skill and a healthy dose of grit, the tattoo artist punctures the skin and infuses it with dye by pricking, scratching, etching, cutting or tapping. Tattoos cut across all cultures and causes. Many ancient Egyptian women tattooed their breasts, abdomen, and thighs with dot-like nets as well as images of the dwarf god, Bes, for protection in pregnancy and labor. The Māori etched and dyed their faces with elaborate tattoos to indicate their heritage, status within a tribe, and general all-around badassery. Coptic Christians frequently tattoo crucifixes on their forearms to honor their faith. And Inuit women tattoo their faces and bodies to pay homage to their ancestors and mark important events in their lives such as marriage and childbirth.

The Romans were one of the earliest cultures to conduct forced tattooing as a way to brand slaves and stigmatize criminals. In the 1800s, army deserters in Britain and convicts in the US were involuntarily tattooed. But perhaps the most horrific case of forced tattooing occurred during World War II when the Nazis tattooed identification numbers on the arms of concentration camp prisoners. Some of the children and grandchildren of these Holocaust survivors have obtained tattoos of their loved one’s number in a show of honor and respect.

Interesting Inky Fact:  The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tatau and was first logged by Captain James Cook during his 1769 expedition.

Inky Rites:  The Samoans have maintained an intense tattooing tradition for approximately 2,000 years. Prior to their 18th birthday, boys and girls undergo this painstaking procedure as a rite of passage into adulthood. Boys receive elaborate tattoos that stretch from mid-torso to knees, and girls obtain smaller, more delicate designs on their thighs and sometimes hands.

Using a hammer made of jagged bone, ivory or tortoiseshell, a mixture of soot is repetitively tapped into the skin. Pain is a key element of this ritual. Tattooing is completed in stages and can take anywhere from a few days to several months depending on the youth’s level of pain tolerance. Those who can endure longer sessions and complete their tattooing in a quick timeframe earn bragging rights and respect. However, those who shy away from tattooing or refuse to complete the process are branded, cowards. The pain is so debilitating, family members must help their young adults with simple activities like walking and bathing. Daily salt water baths are prescribed and most likely add to the trauma. By 6 months, the tattoos are well defined and by 1 year they are fully healed. Click on this Samoan Tattooing video clip courtesy of Britannica and Fun Travel TV, to see this ancient art in action.

Today, in many parts of the world, tattoos are a fashionable form of self-expression. Modern techniques infuse the skin with nontoxic nanobeads which, if desired, can be removed with a simple laser treatment. So there is hope for that regrettable matching tattoo you may have obtained at a tender age 😉

Tatto Artist, Photo by Marcelo Bragion, Pixabay
Tattoo Artist, Photo by Marcelo Bragion, Pixabay

Fun Inky Fact #1: The first electric tattoo machine was patented in the United States in 1891. Samuel F. O’Reilly’s invention was inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen.

Fun Inky Fact #2: The Picts, an ancient people that once lived in modern-day Scotland, were named for their inked bodies by Roman soldiers guarding Hadrian’s Wall.

That concludes our tattoo tour. I’m hitting the road next week and will be back with more quirky bits of history. Until then, have a fantastic week!

Tattoos, Photo by Andi Graf, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Andi Graf, courtesy of Pixabay.


Australian Museum

Britannica: Iceman

Britannica: Pict

Britannica: Tattoo

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

DW: Passing on Holocaust Tattoos

Good Reads

Huffington Post: Berber Women Tattoos

Huffington Post: Thomas Edison Tattoo

Milwaukee Public Museum

National Geographic: Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tattoos

National Geographic: Scarification

Natural History Museum Los Angeles County



Smithsonian Magazine: Otzi Iceman Tattoos

Smithsonian Magazine: Tattoo History

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

YouTube: TedEd-Tattoos


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