Tattoos – A brief history, from identification branding to self-expression

Having several tattoos myself I was interested to stumble across a bit of the history of tattooing when I started my latest Open University course (DD308 – Making Social Worlds).  I always knew tattoos dated back a long way but had never really thought about it much and the aspect (in the course) of their role as a ‘regime of identification’ was fascinating.

A Brief History of tattooing

Ancient Tattoo

Dating back to at least 2000BC marking the body with ‘brands’ or tattoo’s was one of the earliest forms of identification for individuals. . Early tattoo’s were used for a variety of reasons from identification to therapeutic, and decorative purposes. female Egyptian Mummies have been found bearing tattoos, believed to have marked them out as being of ‘dubious character’, but may have been therapeutic. Also in ancient times Greeks and Romans used Tattoos known as Stigmata as a sign of ‘belonging’. Tattooing was common across the world with evidence from cultures in North and South America, Asia and Europe.

Moving forward in early modern Europe and the USA tattoos were used for identification, of status and occupation, or criminality. And in Nazi Germany the most notorious use of tattoos for identification purposes involved tattooing numbers on prisoners in concentration camps.

More recently tattoos continued to be used around the world, from African tribes to Japanese elaborate art. They became a statement of  fashion amongst sailors and miners in Europe following James Cook’ s expedition to Tahiti – where our version of the word originates from the islanders word ‘tatatau’ or ‘tattau’ which means to hit or strike. In New Zealand, Maori facial tattoo’s represent status, ability, rank and ancestry and considered attractive to the opposite sex.

Tattoos now

Of course tattooing has come along way from the crude branding techniques used in the past. Ever more elaborate and skilful artistry, finer, better needles (often originating from my home town, Redditch, which is world renowned for needle production!) and inks that produce better, lasting colouring free from harmful toxins. To express the value of tattoos as piece of art one local tattoo parlor has a sign up that says something like this:

“Would you expect to pay £5 for a painting by an artist in the National Gallery? No? Well don’t insult our artists by asking to pay £5 for your tattoo”

I think that is a very fair and accurate statement!

I have four tattoos myself, the first one I had was a small Celtic symbol on my upper left arm, followed by a flaming pentagram on my right butt cheek and a phoenix rising from fire on the right ribs, the last one I had done was a dagger on the side of my neck. Interestingly almost none of the guys I have ever dated have had tattoos, most have not even liked them. I have friends who have between none and very, very many tattoos.  For all of us that have them we consider them art work, a form of self-expression, along with piercings.

My tattoos…

Getting a tattoo can be costly, with most ‘decent’ tattoo parlours having starting prices around £50 GBP. However, the cost of having a tattoo removed is even higher, so before you get one done make sure you have really thought about if you want that ‘mark’ still on your skin when you are in your 70’s!

I am currently undergoing laser removal treatment for one of my tattoos, the dagger on the side of my neck, which is the only one of my tattoos that is in a clearly visible, un-hide-able position. It is costing £30 per session, and could need around 12 treatments – bare in mind this is only a small tattoo, minimal colouring and only really and outline – no shading. Larger, shaded, colourful tattoos will take many more session. Usually I like my tattoos to be discrete, in places I can cover them up easily to look ‘professional’. This one however, has to go it is not very becoming and I had it done whilst in crisis, an extension of my impulsive and self-harming behaviours. This is anther aspect of tattooing which is probably not considered very often, but when you think about it it really makes sense – tattooing (and piercing) is another form of self-harm, the permanent marking/scaring of one’s own body…

Thank you for reading!  If you have enjoyed reading this post please share it with others who may be interested and I always enjoy receiving feedback and comments 🙂

4 comments on “Tattoos – A brief history, from identification branding to self-expression

  1. Hi Sharon,

    It’s really interesting as to the reasons why people choose to alter their bodies in some ways and then the reasons behind what they depict on them.

    I gave myself a tattoo for a 23rd birthday present and am willing to get more but they are always personal and small and monochrome because I am petite and small made. And I’m from Sri Lanka and I’m hell raiser at times but I am first and foremost a lady who wears sari so my tattoo had to be something that didn’t seem garish in that sort of outfit.

    It’s a tiny, black design of two arrows, connected at a central core but spiraling out into two different directions. It symbolises my freedom to do what I want in life and still be a centered, whole person.

    I do love a joke however and my next tattoo will be a power button symbol on my inner thigh (“Press here to turn me on!”). 😉

    Cheers, Marisa

    • Hi Marisa,

      Thank you for your comment! Indeed the reasons people choose to get a tattoo are very interesting, from art to self-harm…
      Your tattoo sounds very nice, I think the power button is an excellent idea! lol 😉


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