History and culture of tattooing around the world

January 10, 2024

Tattooing, a form of artistic expression rooted in the history of many cultures around the world, embodies a unique fusion of art and personal storytelling.  This age-old practice transcends geographic boundaries, offering a fascinating window into the evolution of societies and cultural identities.  What should we remember about the history and culture of tattooing around the world ?

What is tattooing ?

Tattooing, a universal and ancestral practice, is deeply rooted in the customs of various peoples around the world.  Do not hesitate to consult the site to find out more about the History and culture of tattooing around the world. Dating back more than 5,000 years, the oldest traces of tattoos were discovered on the body of a deceased man.

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These first motifs, made up of small parallel lines, were probably displayed for their virtues considered therapeutic, thus illustrating the multiple dimensions that this form of body art takes. Tattooing, having served as an initiation rite, a sign of identity or a protective mark among civilizations such as the Celts, the Japanese, the Egyptians or the Polynesians, had almost disappeared from tribal traditions over the centuries.

However, in the 18th century, it made a significant return to the scene, adorning the skin of sailors inspired by the Tahitian customs discovered in the Pacific by James Cook.  This historical renaissance has helped to redefine the role of tattooing, making it much more than simple ornamentation, but a complex means of cultural and individual expression.

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Tattoo as a mark of marginality

Initially widespread in the East, tattoos found their place in the West by becoming the attribute of marginalized people, particularly in prison environments.  Over time, tattoo techniques evolved, and the practice became professional, marking the emergence of the first shops at the end of the 19th century.  Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that tattooing was not always a voluntary choice and was sometimes inflicted as punishment.

Dating back to ancient times, tattooing has been used as a means of marking slaves, symbolically equating them with livestock to indicate their ownership.  This practice was even encouraged by the Code Noir, which governed slavery in the 18th century.

During World War II, prisoners of the Third Reich, especially Jews, were forcibly tattooed with numbers, not only as a means of identification, but also as a brutal act of dehumanization.  These dark moments in history highlight the many complex and sometimes tragic facets of tattooing as a body mark.

The tattoo machine revolution

In 1891, in New York, Samuel O’Reilly revolutionized the world of tattooing by inventing the first electric tattoo machine. This innovation marks a decisive turning point by modernizing the practice of tattooing and giving it a more professional character.

Although the first tattoo studios in Europe emerged in the middle of the 20th century, their generalization did not occur until the 1970s. At that time, the phenomenon of pigmentation of the epidermis particularly affected « bad  boys” such as bikers, rockers or punks, a marginal population choosing tattoos as a symbol of rebellion and protest.

The 90s marked a major turning point where tattooing became a fashion phenomenon.  It gradually loses its exclusive association with rebellion to take on a broader aesthetic dimension.  During this period, more and more lovers of body decoration emerged, transforming tattooing into a popular and accepted form of artistic expression in contemporary society.

Tattoo : between trend and artistic approach

The growth of tattooing is evident with the rapid proliferation of shops, going from only 15 in France at the start of the 1980s to more than 2000 today.  This popularization was a major catalyst for the significant improvement of the equipment and techniques used.  Hygiene conditions are now rigorously regulated by the public health code, guaranteeing a safer and healthier practice of tattooing.

This progress, combined with the improvement of graphics and artistic evolution, has changed social norms, offering everyone the possibility of getting a tattoo of almost anything they want.  Thus, certain individuals display tattoos which transform into real works of art, reflecting a personal artistic approach.

Over the centuries, tattooing has evolved to become an essential trend.  Although its practice and symbolism have undergone significant changes, the deep motivation behind the choice to get a tattoo remains essentially the same : to stand out through a personal artistic approach.  Tattooing thus asserts itself as a unique and creative expression, allowing everyone to leave an indelible artistic imprint on their skin.