Tattooing, the early days

People have been decorating themselves with tattoos since at least Neolithic times, with 'Otzi the Iceman', a 5,300 year old man found preserved in a glacier on the Italian-Austrian border, having several carbon tattoos on his back, arms and legs. These are thought to have been placed there as part of medical treatment as the nearby joints showed more wear than the rest of his body.

Tattoos have also been found on Pazyryk tribesmen, from an Iron Age settlement in Siberia. Infrared photography revealed tattoos on all five tribesmen, with the chief sporting two stylised deer, a donkey and mountain ram.

There is evidence of tribes using tattoos to identify their members from all over the world, encompassing several different methods of tattooing.

In what is now the Northwest USA, tribal tattoos were used to identify which tribe you belonged to, and also your status within the tribe, with special markings indicating a kill in battle. In the California region, some of the markings on the Yokut tribes marked the locations of the person's magical power.

Probably best known for their tribal tattoos are the Maori of New Zealand. Their 'moko' designs displayed very impressive artistry, with a full face moko retelling the wearer's exploits within the tribe and events in their life. These designs are adapted and evolve over time as the tribe member gains more status and achievements.


To become a tattoo, pigment needs to be pushed down in to the skin's dermis, deep in the skin. Once it is in place, the pigment spreads out through the epidermis and upper dermis, where the hole was made to push the pigment in. As the wound heals, the upper layer of pigment is removed as the damaged skin flakes away, leaving the deeper layer in place.

Over the long term, pigment can migrate down deeper in to the dermis, which can lead to degraded detail in very old tattoos. This migration takes decades so is usually not considered by the person gaining the tattoo, especially if they are doing it for reasons of fashion.

Early tattoos were often made by rubbing ash or other materials in to deliberate cuts or open wounds. These can be seen in modern times by some workers in coal mines, who have not been able to keep wounds properly clean and coal dust has worked it's way under the skin, or from some motorbike accidents, where asphalt from the road has been pressed deep in to a wound. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to remove these markings as the foreign material is in scar tissue across several layers of skin and the surgery to remove it may create more damage than the area it is trying to help.

The patterns of tattoos found in Egyptian mummies shows needles have been used for tattooing for thousands of years. From archaeological evidence, it seems the Egyptians used brass needles to embed the ink in their skin, potentially with several needles tied together to be pressed in to the skin simultaneously in a predetermined pattern.

In Polynesia, the Lapita's used sharpened bone carved in to needles and comb shapes to create elaborate tattoos, with pigment mixed from soot and water. Many Lapita people have been found with tattoos covering their whole bodies, although many of the stories they tell are lost in history.

In areas where it is available, bamboo was used, which can be split in to very fine strands which are still strong enough to be used as needles.

Modern tattoos are usually applied with steel needles attached to a reciprocating shaft, piercing the skin between 80 and 120 times a second. Whilst not painless, this method is quick and gives the accuracy to make very detailed designs. Given the choice between having a brass needle or shaft of bamboo knocked in to our skin with a clay block, or a modern needle, I think it's easy to appreciate 21st Century technology!

Modern alternatives also exist. Instead of a permanent tattoo, you can have a temporary tattoo and avoid all the pain. They look just like the real thing, and you can wear them for several days if you need to. Perfect for trying out a tattoo before you get inked, or for parties.

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