The concept of techniques and practices being old or ancient is hardly a new one, though the things still in use that predate language are becoming more and more scarce as time goes on. But tattooing, something which is now very commonplace and generally cosmetic in nature, has been around for more than 5000 years, and its history is a diverse and interesting one.
These days, people use tattoos to commemorate loved ones or special events, or to show off things that are important to their character, or to add beauty to what some see as uninteresting blank space. But prior to the invention of the electric tattoo machine, when tattooing took even longer to do and also hurt significantly more, skin markings had more meaning that the name of a significant other sprawled in a flourishing script across a shoulder.
In Egypt prior to 2000 BC, tattooing was common only among priestesses for ritualistic purposes, whereas in Thailand men were the only ones allowed to have skin markings. Tattoos were believed by the Thai people to place magical protection into the skin, and women were considered strong enough to get by without assistance.
The purpose of tattoos was generally centered around becoming more in tune with nature or divinity, or was believed to bestow the wearer magical abilities and blessings and also ward off demons, or even to bring about better health.
For those living in Africa, whose dark skin often made tattooing difficult, scarification was common but held the same ideas and in some instances, the same symbols that other cultures were adding to their skin with inks and dyes. In New Zealand, the Maori did similar things with skin carvings that often looked like tattoos that took up the wearer's entire face.
Around the time that the Bible was being written, certain religious and spiritual leaders were speaking out against tattooing, preaching that marking the body with barbaric symbols was an affront to the God(s) they believed had created them, as if tattoos told the Gods that they had made a mistake.
As time went on, the purpose of tattoos became a symbol of status and held less of a religious or magical significance. In some cases, as with Celts and Native American tribes, various markings and symbols tattooed on the skin told of great deeds and their ranking in the tribal hierarchy. In Greece and Rome , at the other end of the spectrum, slaves were often tattooed, as were criminals, so no one could mistake them if they attempted to run away.
In the 18th century as more and more of the world was being traveled by boat, many sailors would come home tattooed from their journeys. In 1861, a French naval surgeon wrote about the complications of tattoos, which led the navy and the army to forbid tattoos. And still, from the pinnacle of Roman society even until now, tattoos among criminals and ne'er-do-wells are quite frequent. More recently, they are used to show gang affiliations and achievements as a gang member using symbols that other gang members will recognize easily.
If anything, the history of tattooing gives an indication of the evolution of the mindset of humankind through the ages, showing what was important at the time. It seems obvious to us now, looking back, that the nature of tattoos is now more cosmetic than ritualistic, as the widespread belief in magic has been replaced by the importance of looks and individuality, and the use of the body as a canvas for art. Where the future of tattooing will lead us, however, is something we will have to wait and see.