History Of Tattoos Research Paper

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Henry Gassner

History of Tattoos in the 19th Century

Ned Sparrow

Tattooing has been around since about at least 3,300 B.C. with the oldest known tattooed mummy being “the iceman” found on the border between Italy and Austria in 1991.  Clues that tattoos began long before that include multiple figurines with marks suggesting tattoos, and instruments believed to be used for tattooing dating about 30,000 B.C. (Reece, PJ).  Accounts of tattooing in China and Japan date back to about 300 B.C.  Although a scientific and factual account of the origin of tattooing seems to be unknown, it has been assumed to having been around for thousands and thousands of years.  Throughout history tattooing has been everything from a criminal adornment, to a sign of power and royalty.  Tattooing has a diverse history all over the world.  In each country there is a different story to the proliferation of tattoos.  By the end of the 19th century, tattoo parlors were not uncommon and nearly every major city or port had one in Japan, England, France, Italy, and the United States (Gilbert).  It is quite incredible how tattooing has evolved over the years, and thrilling to hypothesize its future.

Sharp tattooing instruments made out of clay have been found dating all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic period (38,000 - 10,000 B.C.).  A carved figure found in Germany in 1991 with lines running up the left arm (assumed to be symbolizing tattoos) is approximated to be 32,000 years old. (Reece, PJ) Similarly, in Japan, clay figurines with symbolic marks were found dating back to 5,000 B.C.  “The Iceman” mummy found in 1991  bore 57 tattoos, all of which are believed to be for therapeutic purposes.  It can be concluded that the tattoos of the ancient civilizations served two purposes; either to serve as a medicinal acupuncture, or to serve the purpose of a decorative design.  Egyptian mummies found with geometric decorative tattoos include Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, dating back to somewhere between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C.  The first representative tattoos date back to 400 B.C. , a depiction of the goddess Bes found on Nubian mummies.  In 297 A.D. the first account of tattooing was recorded in Chinese describing the decorative ways Japanese men tattooed their faces.  From this point on, tattooing in east asia was seen as a barbaric ritual and was only used to identify criminals (Gilbert).

For the majority of the 17th century tattooing in Japan was used solely as a form of punishment to those who committed crimes, adopting the customs of the Chinese. The criminals were then identified by tattooed crosses and bands on their arms, and outcast by community activities and even family events.  The Japanese, as well as the Chinese, held family membership and ethics above all else, and consequently tattooing was a cruel and severe form of punishment.  By the turn of the century however, tattooing had been replaced by other means of punishment as decorative tattooing increased popularity (Gilbert).

A popular novel of the time, The Life of an Amorous Man, featured many decoratively tattooed characters livingrespectable lives, and although tattooing was still strongly associated with crime it slowly gained popularity.  By the 18th century, tattooing was proliferating in Edo, and became a cultural act along with sumo wrestling, and geisha districts.  As woodblock prints became the standard for advertising in Japan, tattooing adopted a similar style and was commonly the subject of the woodblock prints.  The government outlawed tattooing, deeming it “deleterious to public morals” , however the attempts to suppress it were in vain, as tattooing continued to flourish through the lower class of society (Gilbert).

As the 19th century arrived, the development of tattooing in Japan took a spike upwards with the translation of Suikoden, a Chinese novel.  A multitude of the heroes in the novel were heavily tattooed.  The tattoos of the characters mirrored their personalities; Busho the man who fought tigers bore a tiger on his back, and Rochoshin, the romantic, was decorated with flowers (Gilbert).  The characters of the novels became the muse for a series of woodblock prints.  Utagawa Kuniyoshi took the title as the most successful illustrator of Suikoden, upon publishing his first five individual prints in 1827, they boomed with success.  The prints displayed a groundbreaking expressiveness, with contorted characters and dramatic conflict.  Kuniyoshi continued to make a woodblock for every one of the 108 characters in Suikoden.  As the prints became widely praised, the tattoos they bore gained popularity as well.  Following Kuniyoshi’s death in 1861, the art and culture of Japan had been revolutionized.  Old traditional means of art seemed outdated, and many Japanese artists tried to adopt the techniques of the west (perspective, shadow, modeling) as trade opened between them in 1853.  Fearing that westerners would view tattooing as barbaric, a new push to ban tattooed entailed.  Ironically, the tattoo masters were legally allowed to tattoo foreigners, and additionally they continued to tattoo the Japanese in secrecy (Gilbert).  

During this time, inking of the skin became exceptionally desirable by the Yakuza, or gangs of itinerant gamblers.  The origin of these gangs can be accredited to a new time of peace during the Tokugawa period, in which thousands of samurai found themselves unemployed and turned to illegal methods of surviving.  The Yakuza prohibited any act of violence on an innocent person, and did not allow for rape, as they remained instilled with the morals of the samurai.  The Yakuza prided themselves of duty, loyalty, courage, and the ability to withstand pain.  Tattoos were an easy fit; they were painful and displayed the Yakuza member’s perseverance, and their permanence symbolized the member’s loyalty.  

Yakuza tattooing traditionally covers the nearly the entire backside of a person, running all the way from the shoulders to the mid- hamstrings (Bruno).  Sometimes they covered the arms, and calves, as well as wrapping around the front leaving a space down the center of body (for unbuttoned shirts).  The process could take hundreds of hours, and was extremely painful (Bruno).  The images most commonly depicted were intricate symbols of Japan; dragons, tigers, flowers, landscapes, and fish to name a few.  The tattoos were very detailed and showcase the tattoo master’s ability to make precise line work.  Generally these symbols were incorporated with bold and dark design work of thick lines and curves to fill out the remaining area.  It is remarkable to think of Japan’s influence on the tattoo world today, being that all mentioned above are still the most commonly tattooed subjects.  

The artistry and style found constant throughout Japan’s tattoo history can be accredited to the master ukiyoe (woodblock) artists.  The tattoo masters inherited these design and modified them slightly to be more well suited for tattooing, however the imagery never changed.  The symbols found in these tattoos may as of recently diluted of their meaning and power as they are tattooed on the masses.  Originally, however, these images were highly significant and a large emotional and physical commitment.  They were associated with certain attributes such as courage, loyalty, devotion or obligation (Gilbert).  As a dragon represented wisdom, power, strength and freedom, a cherry blossom symbolizes beauty and life.  The image became a permanent part of the body, and it poetically became a permanent part of the person.  

In the beginning of the 19th tattooed people in the west were a remarkable and bizarre circus act.  Whether simply maintaining a sideshow, or juggling and sword swallowing, these heavily tattooed performers were a sight to see.  The first tattooed person to tour in the circus was in 1804, when long lost frenchman Jean Baptiste Cabri was rediscovered by Russian explorer George H. von Langsdorff (Gilbert).  Cabri had been deserted and lived among Marquesan natives for many years, and was heavily tattooed (Gilbert).  Once returning to Russia, he toured Europe and endowed on a theatrical career.  Following Cabri’s death in 1822, a similar story emerged in England with John Rutherford, who had been captured and tattooed by the Mauris of New Zealand.  Following in the footsteps of these two men, circus acts included “tattooed freaks” throughout the majority of the 19th century.  

Admiring the beauty and intricacy of the art, westerners and europeans adopted tattooing both from destinations such as Polynesia, and Japan.  But when british naval officers and seafarers saw the beauty in the Japanese style, they took to tattooing like a wildfire.  Eventually developing their own techniques and styles, the English navy was believed to be 90 percent tattooed in the 19th century (Dunlop).  In 1882 the Duke of York visited Japan and had a dragon tattooed on his arm by master Hori Chiyo (Gilbert).  Tattooing in the west became something remarkable.  It sprouted with an unprecedented speed, for it never had the negative associations that was a weighing factor in Japan.  By the end of the 19th century there was a tattoo parlor in almost every major port in England, and there were multiple tattoo artists in the United States as well.

In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly of the United States patented the first electric tattoo machine.  It was a modification on Thomas Edison’s electric pen, which was used for engraving.  Prior to this invention the most common method of applying the ink was a long thin needle, an ink reservoir, and a mallet.  A well seasoned tattoo artist could puncture the skin at a rate of about 2 or 3 times in a second (Gilbert).  The invention could double the speed of the prior method, and paved the way for the development of Traditonalism, a tattoo style still seen today.  By the 20th century there was a tattoo studio in every major American city, and tattoo supply companies flourished (Gilbert).  

In summary, I personally feel tattoo history is of great importance.  My generation has had a newfound craving for tattoos like never before.  I find it fascinating that the original japanese style of tattooing is one of the most common, and how tattoo art has developed since then.  Even in American Traditionalism and Neo- Traditionalism the influence from Japanese Traditionalism is apparent.  In addition the stigma attached to tattoos has been adopted from Japan, although not nearly as severe.  Body modification has always been a great interest of mine, especially tattoos, and I think it is something that as humans will remain with us forever.  We are always wanting to decorate our bodies on way or another, and tattooing is a direct and permanent way to do so.


Reece, PJ. "Upper Paleolithic Tattoos." Tattoo History - Upper Paleolithic Tattoos - History of Tattoos and Tattooing Worldwide. N.p., 2011. Web. 08 Feb. 2013.

Lineberry, Cate. "Smithsonian.com." Smithsonian Magazine. N.p., 01 Jan. 2007. Web. 08 Feb. 2013.

Dunlop, Tessa. "Tattoos: The Legacy of a Seafaring Heritage." History Today. BBC, 2012. Web. 08 Feb. 2013.

Reece, PJ. "Ancient Egyptian Tattoos." Tattoo History - Ancient Egyptian Tattoos - History of Tattoos and Tattooing Worldwide. N.p., 2011. Web. 08 Feb. 2013.

Reece, PJ. "Japanese Tattoos." Tattoo History - Japanese Tattoos - History of Tattoos and Tattooing in Japan. N.p., 2011. Web. 08 Feb. 2013.

  • Gilbert, Steve. Tattoo History. New York: Power House Cultural Entertainment Inc., 2000. Print.

Bruno, Anthony. "THE YAKUZA." The Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

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