Traveling By Tattoos

Tattoos have been a large part of almost every culture in time. They have been both fiercely positive icons and harshly banned symbols, but tattoos existed long before history was written. The word tattoo itself is derived from the Tahitian word ta-tau, which meant create a rhythm. The word changed meaning when the explorer, Captain James Cook, and his crew began wearing tattoos similar to those worn by the Tahitians they discovered when explored the Tahitian islands. (Brady, 1)

Smithsonian. Web. 3 Dec 2010. <>.


The oldest tattoos are those found on “Iceman”, a 5200 year-old cave man. (Lineberry, 1) He was recently uncovered near the Italian-Australian border, and his tattoos are thought to have been for therapeutic, not symbolic uses. Early nomadic tribes often had tattoos of tigers, wolves, birds, monkeys, or other animals each specific to a tribe. These tattoos were used to show belonging within a tribe, and helped to distinguish between tribes.(Palermo,3) Well recorded symbolic tattoos first appeared in Egypt around 2000 BC, which have been found quite commonly on female mummies.(Lineberry,2) These tattoos were used to show both occupation and status in that time period. In a few eastern cultures such as India and Japan, tattoos were used as a means of punishment. This allowed for criminals to be easily discerned from the common man. Tattoos earliest ties to criminal groups came from ancient China during the Tang Dynasty, in which groups of bald-headed tattooed thieves would commit armed robbery in small towns. (Palermo,6)

Society has often gone through phases of acceptance and rejection of tattoos. Ancient Japan had used tattoos as large part of their society until it was prohibited and used as a sign for criminality. Criminals would be labeled with a specific tattoo that matched to their crimes. Japans ban on tattoos wasn’t repealed until the 1800’s. Emperor Constantine outlawed tattooing in 325 CE, because he believed that it degraded what was created in god’s image, and it was banned yet again in 787 CE by Pope Hadrian for the same reason. (Palermo, 5)

Even the US has undergone several phases of tattoos. Tattoos were a common occurrence among immigrants in the early 1800’s as cultures merged in the U.S., but slowly died out as US as the industrial revolution ended. Beginning in the 1900’s with the First World War, tattoos among servicemen became extremely common. The vast majority of these tattoos depict patriotic themes of eagles and flags or love of their families and wives. While in the periods between these wars tattoos were considered unacceptable, which shows how quickly society can fluctuate between acceptance and rejection.(Chaplin, 640)

Tattoos owe much of their current popularity to three different factors, the first being sailors. Sailors could not own conventional artwork, because they were constantly sailing seas and oceans spanning thousands of miles. The answer to their problem was tattoos, as they would be with them everywhere. Consequently they also spread the popularity of tattoos amongst the places they traveled. Another is the United States Prison system. Prisoners have a lot of free time and not a lot of things to do with it. Tattoos also gained popularity through the United States prison system. The activities of prisoners were fairly limited, but one activity they had access to was tattooing. Then the prisoners would leave prison and share these tattoos with the rest of world. Lastly the third thing given credit for the popularity of tattoos today is, oddly enough, the circus. The circuses of the 1900’s almost always exhibited tattooed side-shows and tattoo artists. These circuses would travel the U.S. both showing of their tattoos and giving new ones, spreading them further. (Demello, 12)

Brady, C. "From Punishment to Expression: A History of Tattoos in Corrections." Corrections Compendium. 18.9 (1993): 1-5. Print.

Palermo, George. "Tattooing and Tattooed Criminals." Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice. 4.1 (2004): 1-25. Print.

Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham,NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Print

Lineberry, Cate. "Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History." Smithsonian 1 Jan. 2007: n. pag. Web. 5 Nov 2010. <>.

Chaplin, Beverly Jane. "Tattoo Narratives: A Generational Study of the Changing Meanings of the Tattoo." Dissertation International. 65.3 (2004): 639-C. Print.source