Historical Tattoo Art

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The body serves as the ultimate artistic canvas.

From dragons to crosses and lyrics to "mom," tattoos today feature nearly anything the human mind can think of. Although still taboo to some people, tattoos are a regular part of most societies and they have served as an artistic, as well as therapeutic, outlet for thousands of years.

  1. The Iceman

    • The earliest proof of tattoos dates back 5,200 years. Hikers found the perfectly preserved remains of a Neolithic man in 1991. The body had various artistic dots, lines and small crosses, numbering 57 in all. The permanent markings were located in strategic places such as the knee and ankle joints, leading experts to believe that the tattoo designs were potentially used for therapeutic purposes. The latest microscopy techniques reveal that the ink consisted of soot particles with a sprinkling of stone crystals.

    Egyptian art

    • Archaeologists hold the second-oldest evidence in three female mummies that have been carbon-dated and estimated to be from 2000 BC. This and later findings popularized the belief that tattooing at the time was a woman's activity. The permanent marks include dots, lines, diamond shapes and net-like patterns on the abdomen, thighs and breasts. The placement on parts of the body associated with motherhood and giving birth suggests that the artistic tattoos of the period served as amulets, signs and therapeutic instruments against difficult pregnancies or childbirth.

    Self-Expression in Japan

    • According to VanishingTattoo.com, the Japanese were the first to use tattoos for decorative purposes, although it fell into disfavor by the 7th century. A written account, dated 297 AD, states that Japanese "men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs." The art form enjoyed resurgence during the Edo period (1603-1867), producing among the country's best tattooists of the time.


    • In the South Pacific Islands, the highly ritualized and intricate art of embellishing the body by hand is passed down from father to son. Local tribes have been marking their bodies -- during significant times of the individual's life -- for 2,000 years. The elaborate geometric designs signify one's rank or status in the community, or a warrior's skills or profession. The procedure is also viewed as a rite of passage to adulthood.

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