Where Does the Word “Tattoo” Come From?

Whether it’s a cultural rite of passage, a sentimental piece, or just a really cool design, tattoos will never go out of style. But what do we know about the history of tattoos?

Tattoos have always been intriguing, as have their origin, significance, and means of getting them.  

The ancient forms of tattooing were a painful, albeit fascinating, form of art.  

What’s most interesting about the origination of tattoos is that so many of these cultures independently began tattooing, prior to any communication with other cultures.

History of Tattoos: The Origins

As common as they are now, you might not realize just how far back in history tattoos go. 

Tattoos are considered one of the oldest forms of art. The oldest evidence of tattoos dates back to 3370 BC. If we’re measuring from the present day, that’s 5,390 years ago.

Yes, that’s a whopping 3,370 years before Christ was born.

Otzi, the Tattooed Mummy

Ötzi the Iceman is a mummy that was stumbled upon by hikers in 1991 in the Otzal Alps. His body provides a unique glimpse into the past because his body was preserved in the glacier he was buried in.  

What’s so cool about Ötzi? He had 61 tattoos!  

Ink inscriptions can be found up and down his legs, made from soot and ash. They were thought to mark fractures and injuries on his body.  

He is one of many mummies with extensive tattoos that have been found all over the world.

Tattooed Women in Ancient Egypt

Egypt has such a rich and robust history, it’s no surprise that tattooed mummies have been discovered from ancient Egypt.

Historians theorize that tattoos in Egypt date back to 2000 BC and were used for decorative or medical purposes.  

Tattooing was apparently only done on women by other women, so it is believed the tattoos represented fertility and rejuvenation.

They used a sharp wooden point and black soot to create the tattoos.

If you need help with your next tattoo project, send us your idea and one of our talented artists will contact you personally.

Criminals in China Were Marked with Tattoos

Tattooed mummies from ancient China go as far back as 2100 BC.

From what we know about China, tattoos were used as a way to mark criminals and bandits and warn others not to trust them.

They were primarily done on the forehead, back, and chest.  

As you might imagine, tattoos were highly stigmatized in ancient China. 

Where Does the Word “Tattoo” Come From?

The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Samoan word ‘tatau’, which mimics the tapping sound of the tools used during tattooing. To create tattoos, they used turtle shells and boar’s teeth to tap the dark pigment into the skin.

Fast forward to 1769, Captain James Cook sailed to Tahiti and discovered a culture that would revolutionize the art of tattooing, making it a worldwide phenomenon. This event was a milestone in the history of tattoos.

Polynesia encompasses Samoa, Maori, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and other small islands.  

They held tattooing ceremonies for young men destined to follow their father’s footsteps and become chiefs.  

The markings represented community, status, respect, honor, and pride, and it was disrespectful if you were not of Samoan heritage to use those markings.

Tattoos as a Form of Identification

The Maori culture of New Zealand, also part of Polynesia, used tattoos to represent a person’s status, rank, ancestry, and skills.

Their tattoos worked similarly to an ID or passport, except printed on their face, usually around the mouth and nose.  

They used bone chisels to dig designs into the skin, and then tapped soot into the open wounds.  

Getting a tattoo was a rite of passage and enhanced one’s desirability and status.

Read Also: How Old Do You Have to Be to Get a Tattoo?

European Takeover

After Captain Cook’s return from Polynesia is when the word “tattoo” spread throughout Europe.

He brought a Tahitian man named Ma’i back with him, and Europeans were captivated by his tattoos.  

The art of tattooing became widespread throughout Europe, especially among sailors.

Denmark, Pioneer in Scandinavia

The modern history of tattooing in Denmark began in the late 19th century, when sailors poured into Nyhavn (Copenhagen)  sporting tattoos they had gathered on their journeys and were greeted by a few enterprising locals who had set up rudimentary stations.  

At the turn of the 20th century, Nyhavn was the only place in all of Denmark – indeed in all of Scandinavia – where those inclined could get tattooed.

It was a distinction the area held for nearly a century. 

The First Tattoo Shop Ever

In 1846, Martin Hildebrandt, an immigrant from Germany, set up the first tattoo shop in New York City.

A few years later the first electric tattoo machine was patented–based off of Thomas Edison’s invention of a perforating pen.  

From there, the rest was history!