Tattooing has been around for thousands of years and has a direct link to culture and symbolism of each culture. Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice at least since Neolithic times. Mummies bearing tattoos and dating from the end of the second millennium BC have been discovered at Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau.
Tattooing in Japan is thought to go back to the Paleolithic era, some ten thousand years ago. Various other cultures have had their own tattoo traditions, ranging from rubbing cuts and other wounds with ashes, to hand-pricking the skin to insert dyes.
Tattoos have served as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts.
The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures, sometimes with unintended consequences. For example shamrock tattoo are believed to belong exclusively to the Aryan Brotherhood (within their range of the US prison system), but on the streets of America it can stand for whatever the wearer wants it to.
Romans used to mark their slaves with tattoos as a form of status and ownership. Ancient Greece used these as a way for spies to communicate with each other covertly. Oftentimes, like in the Hawaiian and Native American cultures, these were an indication of an initiation rite or religious ceremony. This methodology still exists today—as getting a tattoo, whether it is in the military, a street gang, or a rock band, often means the person is transformed by it.
At some point in the history of tattoos colors were added, probably from the pigment of plants. As the decorative nature of a tattoo is increased, so did its symbolism. Egyptian female mummies were tattooed to arouse male mummies and ensure resurrection while in Polynesian tribes such as the Maori, tribal face tattoos were used so that spirits would be able recognize them and help guide them in the afterlife.
But for many years the history of tattooing seemed to be relegated to the fringe of western society. In Japan they were continuing to use tattoos to designate felony status (one mark for each offense), and in many cultures these continued to represent status and spiritual protection, but in the West much of the 19th and early 20th century they were found in, of all places, the circus.
Tattoos and the technology by which they are administered haven’t really changed all that much from Samuel O’Reilly’s invention of the tattoo machine in 1891. They are still delivered via small punctures with a needle that is dipped into ink and moves up and down the skin not unlike a sewing machine.
Tattoos are permanent because the ink that is inserted into the body goes past the epidermis, or primary skin layer, and goes into the dermis or secondary skin layer where the ink molecule stays forever.
Today, people choose to be tattooed for cosmetic, sentimental/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups.
Tattoos of favorite bands and football teams’ logos are fairly common in the west. Some Maori still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. In Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is used for protection.