Pictures that get under your skin have been around at all times. Previously, the skin was scratched with sharp stones or bones and then rubbed with ash or plant color. Today, tattoo artists around the world make their dream come true. What seemed shocking or at least irritating years ago has long since become socially acceptable.

Even Ötzi was tattooed

Almost everywhere in the world, people know images that are drawn into the skin with needles or other sharp objects and color pigments. From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, from Iceland to Japan, people with skin pictures adorn themselves.

The 5300-year-old body of the Stone Age man Ötzi has more than 50 tattoos. The tattoos on this oldest surviving body in the world include parallel lines on the lower spine, stripes on the right ankle, and a cross motif on the inside of the right knee.

Since the drawings are located exactly on the main acupuncture line, researchers now assume that they should relieve pain in Ötzi.

Tattoos were also found on the 4000-year-old mummy of the Egyptian priest Amunet. In the central kingdom of Egypt, from about 2015 to 1794 BC, stained glass paintings based on Nubian ornaments were a popular ritual on the skin.

The characteristic motifs of blue-black dots and lines, for example, wearing a princess from the 11th Dynasty Thebes (2000 BC), which was discovered in 1923 in a tomb at Luxor.

2400 years old is the corpse of a woman who was found in the Russian Ukok Plateau. On her arms and shoulders she wears elaborate, ornate skin pictures of birds, deer and mystical animals. It is believed that the woman belonged to the Pazyryker tribe and was probably a warrior or narrator of tribal stories.



Body art with archaic techniques

In contrast to today’s modern and relatively painless technique of tattooing, past methods seem crude and brutal. Each people had its own procedure to bring colors under the skin:

The Inuit worked their skin with sooty threads that left scar-like markings.

The Maori in New Zealand used chisel-like wooden instruments to cut paint into their facial skin.

A comb-like hoe, which consisted among other things of machined human bones, used the Samoans.

In Tahiti tattooed with sharp bones or shark teeth, the Maya and Aztecs helped themselves with thorns and cactus spines.

Irezumi – Japanese tattoos

Whether classics like anchor, heart and eagle, abstract patterns or individual pictures – there are many tattoo styles. One of the most important styles in the world comes from Japan. Again, there were first early tribal tattoos, which were rejected as primitive with the orientation to the Chinese high culture.

After centuries of using tattoos to stigmatize criminals until 1868, the “Nihon Irezumi“, the ornamental tattoo, arrived.

Irezumi means “introduce ink”. The corresponding motifs go back to a Chinese robber and rebel history from the 14th century. Translated into Japanese in the eighteenth century as “Suikoden” (“stories of the beach”), the story of four tattooed outlaws who, like Robin Hood, were at the service of the weak caught the nerve of the day. The Japanese population was tired of the tutelage of the shoguns.

The basis for the Irezumi tattoos was provided by the “Suikoden” illustrations by Katshushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who artistically translated the four rebels with their skin motifs and the motifs described in the stories. Typical Irezumi motifs are dragons and cherry blossoms, leopards, tigers or monkeys.



In addition, Utagawa Kuniyoshi coined the style by embedding the motifs in a wave and cloud background.

Of great importance to the Irezumi is the coherence of the motifs, which requires the tattoo artist to have a very good knowledge of Japanese history, mythology and art. Irezumi is often used as a synonym for the Japanese whole body tattoo, the so-called suit.

Why are people tattooing?

The reasons for perpetuating images on the skin are as individual as man himself. Early tattoos are based on a tribal ritual or a cultic background.

In Egypt, a tattoo should give the deceased power and reproductive ability in the hereafter. Among the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, recognized at a tattoo around the mouth the status of an adult wife. African tribes expressed the connection between procreation, birth, death, strength and courage.

Religious is the background in the skin signs of the early Christians. They took the initial letters Christi, CX or I.N. (Jesus Nazarenius), or symbols of Christianity such as lamb, cross or fish on the forehead or the wrist sting.

The Crusaders in the Middle Ages also stabbed a cross in the skin. Without this identification, their belief was that a Christian East homestead was not sure of a fighter in the Muslim Orient.


Tattoos as a sign of togetherness

Whether sailors, foreign legionnaires, the Yakuza Japanese mafiosi, members of the SS during the Second World War, prostitutes and pimps, or members of the rock gang Hells Angels – (marginal) groups still use tattoos as a sign of their togetherness.

In Auschwitz, Nazi concentration camps, the inmates were tattooed a number on their arms to identify escaped inmates and bodies without clothing.

The art on the skin also served as a way of earning a living: on fairgrounds and in curio cabinets tattooed people earned their livelihood with their display.

An example from the recent past is the 99.9 percent tattooed Briton Tom Leppard. In the mid-1980s, he had his leopard design applied and his canines sharpened. For a long time he was listed in the “Guinness Book of Records” as the most fully tattooed man. In 2016 Leppard died at the age of 80 years.

Tattoos as a protest

Tattoos were and are often the expression of a counterculture, which is directed against valid norms. But like many other posturing, tattooing has long since become socially acceptable. Prominent singers, actors and athletes can be tattooed just like bank employees, teachers and students.

Individual, as imaginative tattoos are cult. They are considered fashionable, erotic and chic. Also the psychological aspect – to carry mental sensitivities visibly on the skin for everyone – has intensified in the past years.