Where Did Tattoos Originate?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 8, 2019
    Last Updated: November 27, 2020

Marking our bodies with tattoos is not a recent phenomenon. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Have designs always been the same, or were they more tribal?

There appears to be no single source from where tattoos originated. Strong links have been traced back to thousands of years BC, as well as through the discovery of Otzi the Iceman. In addition, cultural traditions are thought to be a reason why tattoos have stayed throughout evolution.

When Were the First Tattoos Performed?

It’s thought the actual word tattoo originates from the Samoan word tatau. Permanent body art, on the other hand, is a practice that’s been taking place throughout history, since ancient times, and long before. Explorers found the very first examples of permanent body art dating back to between 3370 BC and 3100 BC.

Do you recall the discovery of Otzi the Iceman? This naturally mummified body was found in the Otzal Alps, and his remains are the oldest ever found in Europe. On his body were an astonishing number of tattoos — 61 in total. The majority were on his legs, and it’s believed that soot or fireplace ash were used to make the marks.

Otzi The Iceman

Why Were Tattoos First Done? 

There are many theories as to why these ancient people tattooed their bodies. Nowadays, we choose to tattoo ourselves to make a statement. It might be a statement of undying love for another person, or because we miss someone so badly. It’s also a form of artistic freedom, self-expression, and maybe even rebellion. 

Did ancient cultures and races do it for the same reasons?


Tattooed mummies have been discovered in Egypt dating back as far as 2000 BC. Some think the tattoos were purely decorative, while others think they may have been done for medical reasons

In Ancient Egypt, tattoos were typically only worn by women. This did change around the Meroitic period, between 300 BC and 400 CE. During this time, men also had tattoos.


In Samoa, tattooing is a tradition used to define rank and title. First reports of the practice came about when Europeans first set foot on Samoan soil in 1787. They’re a fundamental part of Samoan culture, with the tattooing skill passing from father to son.

Tattoos in Samoa are excruciatingly painful to receive as they’re given by hand using tools made from a boar’s teeth and turtle shell. They can take several weeks to complete and are often part of a rite of passage ceremony. 

Ancient Rome and Greece

There’s evidence of tattooing in Ancient Greece going back as far as the 5th century. Those who received a tattoo during this time were typically outcasts of society — slaves, criminals and prisoners of war.

In Ancient Rome, soldiers and arms manufacturers often had tattoos. Slaves also received tattoos. This mark let people know that they’d paid their taxes

How Tattooing Practices Have Evolved

The tools and inks used to create tattoos have transformed over the years. In the modern Western world, tattoo artists use tattoo guns. Before this, tools were made from a variety of materials — for example, from bronze or bone — and they’d often make the ink using soot or ash mixed with oil

The first modern tattoo gun was granted a patent in 1891. The design worked in much the same way as an electric pen. From then, the tattooing process was mechanized — from then on, it slowly increased in popularity. 

The inks used in the guns came from mineral or geological sources. For example, iron oxide was used to make black ink. To make red ink, they used cinnabar. A variety of cadmium compounds would have been used to make yellow, red, and orange. 

Fast forward a few years, and tattoo inks are now made using a wide variety of ingredients. These might include a variety of metals, plastic materials, alcohol, water, and glycerin. 

Having a Tattoo is Nothing New

Have a tattoo done today, and you’re not doing anything new or revolutionary. The origin of tattoos and goes back thousands of years. That being said, it’s still a cool thing to do, and modern methods mean you can wear a stunning piece of art on your body for many years to come.

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