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Tattoos and Their Meanings Throughout History

Art of tattooing

The art of tattooing, which appeared in ancient times, has always given rise to different feelings and could arouse fear, anger, peace, and other emotions. This cultural trend emerged at the dawn of civilization when people lived in caves and got food by hunting and gathering. The first documented tattoos date back to the Bronze Age. These images on the body were primitive and did not have an aesthetic character but rather were intended to identify people and served as their social markers. Traces of tattoo are clearly visible on the surviving remains of a hunter located under the ice of the Italian Alps. This indicates the antiquity of this art, and the traces of a tattoo are clearly visible, which testifies to the antiquity of drawing on one’s body.

Tattoo Meaning

Over time, new meanings began to be involved in body decoration. People identified some symbols with victory, social status, religious beliefs, and other aspects of life. These images often represented distinctive signs that made it possible to describe a person and understand some of his or her beliefs and preferences. For medieval Europe, tattooed body parts of defeated enemies were of particular value. However, this art came to the Old World much later than to other civilizations. In the Egyptian kingdom, there was a cult of tattoos when images of brides and other symbols were applied to the body of the deceased. Despite the fact that not all ancient people appreciated this type of body decoration (the Romans did not recognize tattoos and considered true beauty unsullied), this trend gradually became world-wide.

Religious Aspects

In Christianity, there is no clear tradition of drawing patterns on humans’ limbs and torso. Nevertheless, both earlier and today, some symbolic images, or stigmas, are on the bodies of believers, for instance, crosses on the wrists, symbolizing the torment and death of Christ on the cross. At the same time, the church did not encourage such art, and during the bloody Crusades, the trend of tattooing was significantly weakened in Europe. However, it flourished in eastern countries, particularly in Japan, where the culture of body painting became a cult. In addition to marking on a social basis, for instance, class affiliation, individual groups and communities had their own unique signs. Yakuza members, as the ancient Japanese mafia, had distinctive tattoos that carried a deep meaning. Residents of island peoples also practiced this art, and their images were a very important attribute of social development and were passed down from generation to generation.

European Influence

Subsequently, Europeans adopted this trend, and one of the justifications was the desire for exoticism and a passion for an unfamiliar and distant life. In the era of colonization, slaves also received special tattoos, but they did not carry an aesthetic connotation but provided for the marking of the workforce. After the industrial revolution, when a special tattoo machine appeared at the end of the 19th century, the movement in support of this art acquired the global character. Tattoos became part of commercial activities and ceased to carry a deep subtext. Circus artists also used body images to attract spectators and stand out among their peers.

In the second half of the 20th century, when the movements for demilitarization, pacifism, and other significant goals were organized, this art spread even more. People protested socially through their tattoos and were willing to make such sacrifices for peace. In general, the relationship between drawing on the body and worldview was significant because certain symbols, drawings, and graphic abstractions reflected the inner world of a person. Thus, tattooing that originated tens of thousands of years ago gained widespread popularity, and today, fashion shows and competitions where participants demonstrate their talents without hiding tattoos are the norm.


IvyPanda. (2021, June 13). Tattoos and Their Meaning Throughout the History.

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