Tattooing by puncture, with a sharp tool or needle which introduces a dye under the top layer of skin, was first practiced, so far as we know, in Ancient Egypt.
Clay dolls fashioned during that civilization are the earliest evidence of tattooing to have been preserved. There are two of these dolls, with their tattoo-marks, in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. They provide positive archeological proof that body markings by puncture tattoo were applied to human beings as well as female clay figurines in Egypt between 4000 and 2000 BC.
It was from Egypt that the tattooing art traveled across the world, to appear, disappear and reappear throughout recorded history. Egypt of the third and fourth dynasties - when the great pyramids of Gizeh were built (between 2800 and 2600 BC) was in communication with Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia.
By 2000 BC the art had spread across Southern Asia as far as that part of China which lies south of the Yangtze Kiang. The Ainu people, a migrant race from Western Asia, must have adopted it very early, because when they crossed the sea to Japan tattooing was highly developed among them and considered a divine gift. The Shans acquired the craft in their original home in Southern China and brought it to the Burmese, who later were to evolve a most elaborate technique of tattooing, making it until the present day part of their magical and religious belief.
Similarly, the tattooing introduced to Japan by the Ainu people, it's ancient inhabitants, gained a great importance, though the Japanese only adopted it as an ornamental art, rejecting the magical beliefs attached to it by the Ainu. Nowhere in the world was the technique and style of the Japanese tattooists, the Horis, surpassed by beauty of designs, color, expression of movement and the use of shade and light which made the tattoo marks appear almost three-dimensional.
From about 1100 BC onwards tattooing migrated southwards from Japan, together with the less attractive practice of head-hunting, to Formosa, the Philippines, Borneo and the Pacific Islands. The Polynesians, an ancient Semitic race, who at one time settled in India, began a widespread migration about 450 BC, lasting into the Christian era.
They occupied many of the Pacific Islands until they reached New Zealand. Indeed, the Polynesians, more than any other race, were responsible for the widest distribution of tattooing, developing in New Zealand a new style, Moko, which consisted of many patterns associated with religious rites and taboo beliefs. Moko tattoos, which still survive among the Maoris and the inhabitants of some of the Pacific Islands, were administered in accordance with strict regulations and ceremonies. There were different patterns denoting tribal communities, families and ranks, and there were special patterns for girls and married women.
The arrival of tattooing in America still provides a puzzle to science. It has been established that the early inhabitants of Mexico and Peru knew the art, which was later highly developed during the civilizations of the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs and played an important role in their religious rituals. Some scientists maintain that tattooing was brought to America by the Polynesians during their migration across 2000 miles of ocean.
Other anthropologists say that the Siberian Chukchee, who had learned tattooing from the Ainu, disseminated the art throughout Northern America after crossing from Asia into Alaska, and that tattooing then spread across the length and breadth of the New World.
But very early the cult of tattooing also traveled north from Egypt, and the Iberians, who preceded the Celts in the British Isles, were ardent supporters of body-marking. The Gauls and the Teutonic peoples practiced tattooing, as did the Picts of Scotland. The Greeks used secret tattooing marks for their spies, the Romans tattooed criminals and slaves.
The invading Danes, Norseman and Saxons brought the custom of more cultured and artistic tattoos to Britain. It was the pride of these sea-faring warriors to have their tribal symbols and family crests punctured on their bodies. This is a custom which still survives among some aristocratic families, particularly in Scotland.
Christianization called a halt to the "barbaric practices" and Pope Hadrian I at the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787 banned tattooing, which was repeated in papal bulls in following centuries. Between the 12th and 16th centuries there was no mention of contemporary tattooing in the monastic chronicles of the Middle Ages, and because of the interdiction proclaimed by Rome, Christian soldiers remained untattooed.
The art had survived in Britain until the Norman invasion in 1066. In contrast with their Scandinavian cousins, the Normans scorned tattooing after they had settled under King Rollo in Normandy.
Like all the Anglo-Saxon kings before him, King Harold was heavily tattooed and, when his body was recovered from the battlefield of Hastings, it was identified by the word "Edith" tattooed over his heart in just the same way as Tom, Dick and Harry have the names of their "true loves" imprinted on their chests to this day.
After the Norman invasion nothing was heard of tattooing in the British Isles and there is little evidence of it in Europe for many centuries. From time to time stories of the "painted wild men" of Africa were told but were dismissed as examples of barbarous mutilation.
Columbus, and later Cortes and Pizzaro, brought home some tattooed prisoners from America, but the fact that the Incas were tattooed - though their civilization was higher than that of some European countries - was sufficient to condemn them as "savages". Europe was unaware of the heights the art of tattooing achieved both in secretive Japan and among the American peoples.
Strangely, it was the Church that encouraged tattooing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though this was confined to the Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations. Today many priests of the Coptic Church are tattooed, and religious designs tattooed on the forearm or chest have been traditional for two centuries with the Serbians, Bulgarians and Catholic Eurasians.
The term "tattooing" has, with some variation in spelling, been adopted in every European language. But the word is of far more recent origin than the practice itself, having been brought to Europe by Captain Cook when he returned, in 1771, from his first voyage to the South Seas, during which he sailed round the coasts of New Zealand and visited Tahiti.
In his famous narrative, The Voyage in H.M. Bark Endeavor, Cook refers to the operation called "tattaw", using for the first time the word "tattawing", while body marking hitherto has been described as "scarring", "painting" or "staining".
Captain Cook wrote about the practice of the Otahitans as follows: "They stain their bodies by indentings, or pricking the skin with small instruments made of bone, cut into short teeth; which indentings they fill up with dark-blue or black mixture prepared from the smoke of an oily nut... This operation, which is called by the natives "tattaw", leaves an indelible mark on the skin. It is usually performed when they are about ten or twelve years of age, and on different parts of the body."
The Otahitan word "tattaw" is derived from "ta" which means to knock or to strike in many Polynesian languages. Although Captain Cook introduced the word "tattooing", in this sense, to the English language, from which it was borrowed by the rest of Europe, its Western origin is, in another sense, much earlier.
Writing fifty years before Cook's first voyage Sir James Turner, a military historian, used the word "tattoo" to denote the beating of military drums. So the meaning of the Polynesian word "tattaw" may have been equated with the already familiar word of "tattoo", which also indicated a strike or tap, and the roots of which are Latin. From his second voyage Captain Cook brought more details of tattooing in the South Seas.
He described the designs not only as "beautiful circles, crescents and ornaments", but reported that the natives also tattooed pictures of men, dogs and birds. But Cook had merely rediscovered the craft.
Not only does the honor of importing the word "tattoo" go to an Englishman but also the credit for bringing to modern Europe the first man whose body was tattooed all over. William Dampier, the great sailor, explorer and pirate, who was also one of the first Europeans to set foot on the continent of Australia.
He brought the "Painted Prince" to London from his voyage in the South Seas in 1691. The prince became overnight the sensation of London's fashionable society. The prince was introduced by Dampier to the King and Queen, and subsequently the shrewd explorer decided to exploit his "property" - given to him by an English trader in settlement of a debt, by exhibiting the prince to the general public.
A contemporary broadsheet advertised the event to prospective viewers in flowery language:
"PRINCE GIOLO, Son to the King of Moangis, or Gilolo; lying under the Equator in the Long. of 152 Deg. 30 Min.; a Fruitful Island abounding with rich spices and other valuable commodities.
This unfortunate prince sailing towards a neighboring island, with his mother and young sister, to complement the intended marriage betwixt her and the King of that island, a violent tempest surpriz'd them, and drove them on shore upon the coast of Mindanao, where they were all made prisoners, except the young lady, with whom the King was enamored, that he took her to wife; yet suffered the prince and his mother Nacatara to be purchased for money.
The mother died, but the prince, her son, is arriv'd in England. This famous Painted Prince is the first wonder of the age, his whole body (except face, hands, and feet) is curiously and most exquisitely painted or stained, full of variety of invention, with prodigious art and skill performed. Insomuch, that the ancient and noble mysteries of painting or staining upon humane bodies seems to be comprised in this one stately piece.
The pictures, and those other engraven figures copied from him, serve only to describe as much as they can of the forepart of this inimitable piece of workmanship.
The more admirable back-parts afford us a lively representation of one quarter-part of the world upon and betwixt his shoulders, where the arctick and tropick circles centre in the north pole on his neck. And all the other lines, circles, and characters are done in such exact symmetry and proportion that is astonishing, and surmounts all that has hitherto been seen of this kind.
The paint itself is so durable that nothing can wash it off, or deface the beauty of it. It is prepared from the juice of a certain herb or plant peculiar to that country, which they esteem infallible to preserve humane bodies from the deadly poison or hurt of any venomous creatures whatsoever.
This custom they observe - that in some short time after the body is painted, it is carried naked, with much ceremony, to a spacious room appointed, which is filled with all sorts of the most venomous, pernicious creatures that can be found; such as snakes, scorpions, vipers, centapees (centipeds), etc. The King himself is present.
The grandees and multitudes of spectators seeing the naked body surrounded with so many venomous creatures, and unable to wound or do any mischief to it, seem transported and ready to adore him; for none but those of the royal family are permitted to be thus painted. This excellent piece has been lately seen by many persons of high quality, and accurately surveyed by several learned virtuosi, and ingenious travellers, who have express'd very great satisfaction in seeing of it.
This admirable person is about the age of thirty, graceful, and well proportioned in all his limbs; extremely modest and civil, neat and cleanly, but his language is not understood, neither can he speak English.
He will be exposed to publick view every day from the 16th of this instant June, at his lodgings at the Blew Boar's Head, in Fleet Street, near Water Lane; where he will continue for some time, if his health will permit.
But if any persons of quality, gentleman or ladies, do desire to see this noble person, at their own houses or any other convenient place, in or about this city of London, they are to send timely notice, and he will be ready to wait upon them in a coach or chair any time they may please to appoint, if in the day-time."
Until the arrival of Prince Giolo the craft of tattooing had been forgotten and ignored for at least six centuries in Europe. The "Painted Prince" was the pioneer of the great revival of the art in the West. He was also the first in a long line of bizarre showmen to be displayed at fairs, markets and in circuses. From his second voyage Captain Cook brought a tattooed native of the Isle of Amsterdam in the South Seas whose name was Omai.
He was exhibited in London and many other English cities, and in Edinburgh, by Sir Joseph Banks, Cook's companion. When Cook left England in 1776 for yet another voyage of discovery, he put Omai aboard the Resolution and returned him to his homeland. The next man to make an impression upon the English also carried with him the fascinating aura of a being from the far-off world. But he had no royal tag, he was a slave. In 1806 a Levantine trader abandoned his servant, a heavily tattooed African, in Liverpool.
Found wandering in the streets of London "in the open air and without any visible means of subsistence", the wretched man was brought before the magistrates at Union Hall, who promptly forwarded him to the House of correction at Horsemonger Lane with the order that he should be held there "until some mode of disposing of him" could be found. It seems that interest in tattooing was once again keen among the English nobility, although it took another seventy or eighty years for tattooing to be promoted to the status of a suitable hobby for young gentlemen of breeding.
The Duke of Sussex heard of the "poor black man", went to see him in jail and was so pleased with the tattoo marks that he gave their owner a post as a footman in his household.
The African apparently performed his duties satisfactorily, learned English, saved some money and, with the permission of his master, joined a group of wandering jugglers and acrobats, exhibiting himself to a startled public in towns and villages.
There were few tattooed men to astonish the British people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but on the Continent there was a greater supply.
An advertisement published in Paris shortly before the French Revolution referred to a man "with extraordinarily beautiful designs covering the whole body". But tattooing had now become popular with sailors, in particular those who had sailed the South Seas.
So far as I can discover there were no professional tattooists at work in England in the early nineteenth century, although a number of amateurs were in popular demand aboard ships and in the great ports. It seems the Americans can claim the honor of having produced the first professional in the West and, in view of my own experience, it does not surprise me that this tattooist reached the peak of his prosperity during a war.
Martin Hildebrandt, an immigrant from Germany, arrived in Boston in 1846 and set himself up as a full time practitioner soon afterwards. Between 1861 and 1865, according to his own reminiscences published in 1870 in New York, Hildebrandt worked in the thick of the battles between the armies of General Grant and General Lee. He said he crossed the lines freely and was welcomed alike by Northerners and Confederates.
He could tattoo the emblems of both sides and did a roaring trade. In the middle of the nineteenth century there were professional tattooists in France, Algiers, the Holy Land, Italy and in Hamburg. I believe the first British professional of any standing was David Purdy. He had a booth at Holloway in the 1870's. However, it was not until the next decade that tattooing was properly cultivated in Britain.
In the 1890's two of the greatest exponents of the craft who have ever lived, men who put the words tattooing and art together for the first time in the West, and who only needed to bow in mutual salute towards the Japanese, achieved fame and modest fortunes. They were Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald.
Both were immensely skillful and imaginative and had many crowned heads among their customers. In my opinion King Edward VII acted as the curtain-raiser to the golden age of tattooing when he acquired his first tattoo design in Jerusalem in 1862. Many distinguished travellers to the shrines of the Holy Land commissioned permanent reminders of their pilgrimage from the able school of tattooists which was in practice there. Later the King patronized Riley and MacDonald.
I realize that my attempt to give even the briefest outline of the history of tattooing and it's motives can only serve, at best, as a tantalizing morsel. If it whets your appetite for further research into tattooing, when you have finished my story, I wish you good eating from better cooks than I.
-Photos by Jeffree Benet