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The History of Tattoos: Motivation

Tattoos are popular: As many as 3 in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo, and the numbers are comparable in much of Europe. While younger people are more likely to have tattoos than older people, on average, it might surprise you to learn that tattoos are actually an ancient art form. Human remains from 3000 to 2000 BCE have been found with tattoos on them. In fact, the oldest tattooed individual, nicknamed Otzi the Iceman, lived somewhere around 3100 to 3300 BCE, and he had over 60 tattoos on his body!

The reasons for tattoos are as varied as the number of tattoos in the world. Let's take a look at some tattoo history to find out more about how our ancestors used tattoos in their lives.

Branding for Criminals and Slaves

In Ancient Greece, Rome, and China, tattoos were sometimes used as a way to brand criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war. Some of these individuals had tattoos on their backs, while others had them on their faces. The markings could act as a warning to others to steer clear of the criminals, and they also identified that a slave had been paid for or that the slave had paid his or her taxes. In these cultures, having a tattoo would have been highly stigmatised.

Tattoos For Health and Safety

During ancient times in Egypt, women sometimes had tattoos on their upper thighs or pelvis. While they could have been for decoration, one theory is that the tattoos were placed as a good luck charm against suffering and death during childbirth. Another theory is that they would act as an amulet against infections that were common among prostitutes. Some Egyptian mummies were also found with tiny tattoos on the knee, hip, and ankle joints, which could indicate that they were used as a form of therapy for sore joints or injuries.

Decorations As a Tradition

In the Samoan culture, tattoos were and are used as traditional decorations placed on the body. They are a symbol of virility and bravery: In the past, in particular, the tattoos would have been very painful and could act as a sign that the wearer was brave and endured the pain necessary in order to have the large, elaborate tattoo completed. These tattoos often went from the torso to the feet and involved many months of intricate work. With the sterility measures not being what they are today, the risk of infection was high, so men who were able to go through the entire event without quitting or succumbing to infection were considered to be very strong.

Tattoos As a Mark of Rank

Several cultures, including the Japanese, used tattoos as a symbol of ranking. Only those who were high members of society would have tattoos. Also, in the Altai Mountain region in Asia, tattoos were seen as a mark of a higher ranking in society; those of lesser status would not be likely to have tattoos.

Tattoos As Entertainment

During the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, tattoos were sometimes used by people in the circus and in other types of entertainment venues. Because tattoos were not very popular during that time, it was a bit of a novelty to see people wearing full sleeves, tattoos on their chests or necks, and tattoos on their hands or faces. Of course, nowadays, you can see people with many tattoos in many areas of Europe and North America, so this sort of display would be unlikely to draw a crowd.

Motivation for Tattoos Today

People in the 21st century have many different motivations for having tattoos. Some are not all that different from our ancient ancestors: For example, giving and receiving tattoos can be a way for people who are in jail to bond with one another. Also, sometimes soldiers will get tattoos as a way to signify that they belong to a group. Other reasons for modern-day tattoos include rebellion, personal expression, and even a spur-of-the-moment decision fueled by inspiration or emotions. You can read more about common reasons that people get tattoos in our earlier blog article.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about some of the methods and materials used for tattoos in the past, in comparison to what is used today. In the meantime, leave us a comment about why you were motivated to get your tattoos. Does the same motivation apply today? If not, do you still love your tattoos, or are you considering tattoo removal? We want to know!

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