Tattoo Timeline


Source: TattooSymbol and Wikipedia

3300 BCE: Ötzi the Iceman dies in the Austrian Alps, where his frozen body is discovered by hikers in 1991 CE, making him the world's oldest mummy. His 57 tattoos - straight lines and small crosses, mostly - are believed to be therapeutic, possibly used to treat osteoarthritis.

2800 BCE: The ancient Egyptians: Is there anything they can't do? In addition to inventing writing, surgery, and beekeeping, they also popularize tattooing as an art form, which spreads from Greece to China. (Oh, yeah - they invented the flushable toilet, too.)

921 CE: Islamic scholar Ibn Fadlan meets Viking on a journey from Baghdad to Scandinavia and describes them as vulgar, dirty, and covered from neck to toe with tattoos.

1600: Unlawful intercourse by Indian priests is punished by tattooing. Doesn't sound so bad? Try having a big vagina branded on your forehead for life.

1700: Obeying the letter of the law - if not the spirit - middle-class Japanese adorn themselves in full-body tattoos when a law is passed that only royals can wear ornate clothing.


Omai, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1776). Notice the tattooed arm and hand.

1790: Captain Cook returns from a voyage to the South Pacific with a unique souvenir: a tattooed Polynesian named Omai. He's an overnight sensation in fad-crazy London and starts a tattooing trend among upper-class poseurs. Between passionate declarations that he is "not an animal" Omai also manages to introduce the word tattoo into our Western lexicon, from the Tahitian tatau, "to mark."

1802: By now, tattooing has caught on with sailors throughout the Royal Navy, and there are tattoo artists in almost every British port. Especially popular are Crucifixion scenes, tattooed on the upper back to discourage flogging by pious superiors.

1891: American Samuel O'Reilly "borrows" Edison's electric pen design to patent a nearly identical machine that tattoos. Its basic design - moving coils, a tube, and a needle bar - is still used to today, so remember kids: That's 19th-century technology they're repeatedly stabbing you with.

1919: The troublemaker protagonist of Franz Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony" finally gets the law drilled into him - liiterally - by its fatal, 12-hour inscription into his skin.


Robert Mitchum sporting "love/hate" knuckle tattoos in The Night of the Hunter.

1955: Robert Mitchum makes the tattoo cool again in the movie Night of the Hunter, playing a sociopathic traveling preacher with "love" and "hate" inked on his knuckles. Popular modern variants include "rock/roll" and "love/math."

1961: Hepatitis B makes the tattoo not cool again, an outbreak of which is linked to tattoo parlors in New York City. Parlors are outlawed in the Big Apple until 1997.

2005: Popular culture helps tattoos become more popular in the West than at any time in recorded history, with more than 39 million North Americans sporting one. It all comes back to Austrian Ötzi and his 57 tattoos. It might've taken almost 6,000 years but tattooing and the West are in love again.

The article above, from mental_floss' book Scatterbrained. is published in Neatorama with permission.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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Newest 5 Comments

'The reality is that the very act of getting a tatoo immediately places an individual into a "high" risk group for either contracting or transmitting Hepatitis B...and much worse...Hepatitis C.'

That is not the reality at all. If you go to a reputable studio, there is little risk. The biggest risk comes from unhygenic work practices. A clean shop with an autoclave machine (Kills Hep C) which uses new needles for each customer, as is standard practice (most artists will open the sterile packaging right in front of you... ask to see the needles they use beforehand if concerned) will pose next to no danger to your health. Other things to look for: That new ink is poured for your tattoo (not sharing ink between customers).

You, sir are a (probably well-meaning) scaremongering fool.
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This article is poorly researched and poorly written by Alex Zavatone. He glamorizes the almighty "tatoo". The reality is that the very act of getting a tatoo immediately places an individual into a "high" risk group for either contracting or transmitting Hepatitis B...and much worse...Hepatitis C. Getting a tatoo is simply not worth the risk. Hepatitis C is also known in the medical fraternity as the "silent killer.
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Err... *The facial tattoos of the Drung in China, or the tattooing customs of the Dai, weren't included on the timeline.

I love my tattoos :)
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Yeah, I second the commenter that said the Egyptians did not, in fact, invent writing. Their hieroglyphs were pretty spiffy, but definitely not the first form of writing (Sumeria, anyone?). Also, I'm a little sad that the facial tattoos of the Drung in China, or the tattooing customs of the Dai. It's been a part of their cultures for an extremely long time, and is sometimes still practiced today.
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