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Tattoos Cultural Context: Ancient to Modern


Tattoos are designs created on the human body by inserting objects beneath the human skin. Tattooing is a form of body modification using indelible ink. The tattooist inserts the ink beneath the skin’s upper layer. Humans have the habit of adopting new cultures that emulate their perception towards various aspects of life. The earliest forms of tattoos are traceable as early as 2000 B.C in Egypt and were on females. Moreover, the recent discovery of the iceman alongside the borders of Italy and Austria in recent years indicates that tattoos were also common 5,200 years ago.

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A close look at Egypt indicates that the cultural significance of tattoos is still an issue of interest. Egyptians considered tattooing as a female practice with the ability to hold a certain status mark. For example, girls who served as royal concubines and dancing girls bore tattoo marks on their bodies. Similarly, prostitutes wore special body imprints as a means of punishing them. In the case of prostitutes, the marks characteristically distinguished women who could easily infect men with Sexually Transmitted Diseases as a cultural requirement. Nonetheless, the tattoos were also a symbol of therapeutic function. In this case, the Egyptian women used the tattoos as amulets during their painful moments of labor and birth.

The social meaning of tattooing has evolved over time assuming different connotations in the modern times. Although tattoos have certain positive significance from a historical perspective, social consequences abide with regard to ancient social perception of tattoos. An example of such is the stigmatization of women with tattoos. However, social trends have drastically brought new perspectives and eroded or hardened the social inclination towards the tattooing culture. This has either increased or decreased cases of tattooing in specific societies.

Tattooing has always raised some medical and legal concerns. Tattooing, for example, includes the use of technologies and toxics that may affect human body and health. Concerns abide that tattooing leads to a significant increase in infection rate among bearers. In this perspective, there have been legal concerns regarding prohibition of this practice in some societies. The sheer ignorance regarding the potential dangers informs the decision by some societies to forbid such incisions expressly unless a doctor approves and recommends it.

Tattooing is also attributable to some religious and community beliefs. While some religion such as Christianity does not believe in tattoos, some trending beliefs project a position that tattoos can be significant in portraying religion. In fact, some people have extreme beliefs in their faiths to an extent of having tattoos as a religion remembrance. Egyptian women for instance wore tattoos along their waists as a sign of respect to the ‘god of fertility’. This paper discusses the history of tattooing in different cultures, examines the acculturation effect of the practice, and delves into the pertinent issues surrounding the tattooing culture today.

Cultural Context: Ancient to Modern


History alleges that the culture of tattooing started in Europe after the Europeans made several voyages across the world and adopted some foreign cultures. Europeans in Polynesia exemplify this acculturation concept quite vividly (Demello 78). Europeans were among the first people to practice the art of tattooing. This activity would then spread in various countries around the world and for different reasons. In Northern, Southern and Central America, tattooing became a common activity. It was used to mark and identify warriors, and for their rankings. It was also a symbol of social status while women used it to beautify their bodies. The extensive adoption of the culture of tattooing in America led to the invention of an electric tattooing machine in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly (McKinney 56). The Britons, Greeks, the Celts, and other European countries also learnt tattooing and practiced it in several occasions unlike in France, where tattooing was banned. The Greeks learnt it from the Persians, and their women commonly used the art to beautify their bodies. In some cases, tattoos were a form of punishment among some communities.

The Romans and the Greeks, although they considered tattoos as a beauty on the body, used it on criminals as a mark of identification. Criminals who were considered dangerous to the society were given specific tattoos on their forehead so that in case they escaped from prison, members of the community could easily identify them (McKinney 112). Such individuals were tattooed in a special way that would make their tattoos unique.Currently with the spread of Christianity, tattooing is declining in most of the European countries, especially among the faithful. They now believe that their bodies are a representation of Christ’s image and ought not to be defiled in any way. Other sections of Christians have actively opposed tattoos, associating them with illuminati. They hold that the tattoos in the body are a manifestation of evil forces in the society.

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As indicated earlier, tattoos were first evidenced in Chatelperron and Grotte des Fees in France. Tattoo enthusiasts allude that instruments for conducing tattooing existed in some Scandinavian caves as well as in Portugal. History indicates that these tattoo instruments are as old as 12,000 years ago. Moreover, the Scandinavian caves have images of people with marks on their bodies, signifying that the practices could be as old as the tools found in the caves. The Romanian Danube region where experts found traces of tattoos dating 5000 B.C attests and stamps to this fact. However, the excavations and the founding of the iceman along the borders of Italy and Austria indicate that tattooing may have been a common culture in Europe after all. However, there exist strong indications that tattooing practices may have come from the integration of the Europeans and the Asians. For example, the eastern European tribes and those of the central Asia resulted from the frequent contact between the tribes. The most prolific evidence of tattoos in Europe can also be traced during the 18th century.

During this period, the Portuguese and the Spaniards in both Latin America and the pacific regions made many explorations. In trying to conquer and colonize the regions, other important aspects such as trade were established between the Europeans and the indigenous people of both Latin America and the pacific regions. Over the time, assimilation of cultures such as tattooing started to take shape. As indicated earlier, tattooing was also considered as a status symbol. During the World War 2, tattooing on men considered patriotic to their nations was a common practice especially in Europe. Between 1940 and 1950, soldiers and sailors were having tattoos in Europe as a symbol of status and recognition in the society. Today, sociologists recognize tattooing in Europe as part of art and beauty. Other therapeutic values are also considered part of tattooing. With the emergence of the pop culture in the recent decades, tattooing has become an integral part of artistry especially in the entertainment industry.


In the entire Asia, tattoo designs first emerged in what is today’s China. Among the majority of Asian countries, tattoos bore significant historic connotations. However, the Japanese embraced tattoos because they considered it the best way through which they could beautify their body. Others believed that with the tattoos on their body, they would have supernatural powers. They could tattoo their entire bodies using several colors and imaginative designs they considered unique. The art was also representative of the spiritual status of an individual in the community (Kapunnan 126). In many Asian countries, despite the spread of Christianity and other religions, allegiance to a certain religion accorded a tattoo several purposes. History indicates that majority of the Asian tribes used tattoos as a mark of punishment towards criminals.

However, this does not entirely mean that the tattoos were not also a symbol of beauty. Historical evidences are that the Chinese preserved mummies that had tattoo marks in the western region of China. Tattoo marks according to the ancient Chinese indicated that a person has accomplished much in life, thus the mark of status in form of a tattoo. During the middle ages, the Chinese society started to associate tattoos with the criminals. The same trend was also taking shape in Japan during this period. In fact, tattoos in Japan were only a common practice among the criminals and people in the lower class during the 1600. However, the Japanese originally considered tattoos as a form of beauty. In some other Asian countries like India and Thailand, tattoos were a symbol of strength. In this case, Thais mounted specific tattoos on arms and legs of an individual.

This was highly practiced among the monks, who believed in mythical and magical powers. In Asia today, tattooing is still an ongoing practice for the same reasons as those of the ancient times. Majority of Asians still use tattoos as symbols of social status. Criminal gangs still use tattoo marks as symbols of loyalty and recognition in the society. Other societies also use tattoos to enhance beauty, a culture that is increasingly becoming popular among the youths. Youths in Asia perceive tattoos as trendy in the fashion industry. This is attributable to the fact that most of the Asian celebrities and pop stars have tattoos. On the other hand, some modern Asian societies are still conservative in their religious devotions. In this aspect, Monks and Buddhists still use the tattoos.


The culture of tattooing in Africa is ancient and existed a long time ago. In fact, historians found the oldest tattoo to in Africa in a mummy between 2160 B.C and 1994 B.C. The tattoos indicated a significant attachment of the art of tattooing to religious affiliations. A majority of the tattoos represented Africa gods such as that of fertility and rejuvenation or abundance. Other common tattoos found in Libya in 100 B.C symbolized the god of sun. While other cultures in the world use tattoos to express their individuality, Africa tattoos are a cultural expression of character. Other fundamental aspects symbolized through the Africa cultures include the tribal lineage, spiritual aspect, and maturity (Soliman & Hamamsy 81). Scarification is the oldest form of tattooing in Africa. Village elders and political leaders used the method of tattooing on men and women who, in their opinion, had passed the rite of passage to adulthood. Scarification style of tattooing is a painful process that involves the use of razor and thorns to make scars on the body skin.

However, the scars have patterns with various meaning. For example, scars on women bellies signified fertility, while other scars, according to specific cultures, keep off harm from the family. Tattooing found its way in Africa from other countries much later, which is attributable to the fact that Africans have a dark skin; hence, it was complex to apply the art properly. However, as noted earlier, some communities in Africa practiced tattooing as a rite of passage. They would decorate their body at a given age for different purposes. Among the Acholi of Southern Sudan, they tattooed their children soon after birth in their forehead as a sign of identifying them as members of this community. Currently, tattooing practice is gaining popularity in Africa with the invention of new tattooing methods.

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Acculturation and Exchange: From Contact Modern Day

Global interconnectivity has greatly improved leading to media and other stakeholders to referee to the world as a ‘global village’. Advances in the field of technology are making it easy for communities around the world to interact. Some do interact in the areas of trade, education, economic improvement, among others. According to Guth (36), culture can be learnt through acquisition or transfer from one community to another through social activities like intermarriages, religion, or migration. Through these interactions, a culture from one community is easily transferred to another. In this manner, the tattooing culture and the various methods of tattooing infiltrated different communities.

For instance, some communities in Tunisia used tattoos mainly on women who were not able to give birth. The women had to carry a tag so that members of the community would identify them as barren women. However, this has changed in the modern day Tunisia. Currently, youths in this country who are trying to ape celebrities of Western countries wear tattoos for fashion purposes. Similarly, the Greeks acquired the culture of tattoos through their interaction with the Persians. Celebrities such as footballers, boxers, wrestlers, musicians, motivate the modern day spread of tattooing to various communities around the world.

Issues in Tattoo Culture

According to Beeler (78), the tattoo culture is becoming popular in the communities with the incoming new tattoo methods. However, tattooing raises several pertinent issues. In past years, tattooing was part of culture and the art passed from one generation to another. The art integrated and infiltrated most of the cultures for social ranking and as a way of passage in one’s life. In some communities, tattooing was commemorative of the death of a friend or family member with the aim of showing commitment, love, and grief over the loss of dear ones. Tattooing, with good patterns and coloration, has become part of many cultures as a beauty supplement in many communities. In other communities, tattooing identified those with some special and unique powers and authority and was a sign of slavery.

The art is associated with some demonic powers and authority. Since the art is permanent to the body, some societies believe that such evil powers are permanent which in the modern society can easily lead to the excommunication of the victim from the community. Even though many American youth consider tattooing fashionable and the art is attracting a lot of professionalism in USA, social conservatives consider it as a taboo in major parts of the world and those bearing the marks in their bodies ought to cover themselves failure to which they face social rejection. From the religion perspective, the art of tattooing is highly prohibited among the Christian and Muslim communities.

Modification, Authenticity, and Meaning

Tattoos are designed in different ways. In analyzing the modification, authenticity and meaning of a tattoo, a number of factors are considered. Modification of a tattoo will always determine its authenticity. A tattoo may be modified to reflect a given norm or belief among a specific group of people (Demello 175; Muggleton 101). Some groups of people have their tattoos modified in a specific manner to mean a specific thing. Some use dragons as a way of passing specific information, or just identifying with it. Such group would use a certain modification on the dragon tattoo in a way that will enable them determine authenticity of the tattoo. Modification of the tattoo will make it easy to authenticate among the rest if there may be a need. It is possible to find a woman with a tattoo of a scorpion. To her, the tattoo appears cool in her shoulders and this may be the sole reason for this modification. Hence, some modifications are purely because of celebrity influence, which leads to flagrant disregard for the meaning of the inscription.

The Impact of Technology; Medical and Legal Concerns

According to Udelson (45), technology advancements have significantly affected and influenced the art of tattooing and its popularity in the modern world. He states that with the invention of the electrically powered tattooing machine, tattooing process took a new look. Traditionally, tattooing carried a lot of weight and meaning. The whole process was painful and that is why those that had the markings in some communities were warriors. The introduction of the tattoo machine has considerably mitigated the pain in tattooing. This attribute has decreased the significance of tattoos in the community, making the process less risky and accessible to many. The tattooing machine assumes the idea of penetrating properly into the skin, a factor that gave the entire process a meaning (O’Connell 56).

Eliminating pain and dangers of tattooing makes the art more of fun than a cultural rite. The tattooing process, even with the use of the advanced machine, poses some healthy risks to the victim. Many people now view tattooing as a foolish act that has no meaning. In many states in USA, tattooing is illegal, and in states that allow it legal actions are taken on irresponsible tattooists. The states are closely working with the municipal councils to monitor tattooing and ensure that tattooists adhere to health and age regulations. Following this, many tattooists have closed shop for failing to adhere to the set rules and regulations that require tattoo artists to use sterilized equipments and disposable needles.

The Body as Canvas and the Functions of Tattoo

The body is the canvas of tattoos. People cherish their bodies, irrespective of their social standing in a given community. Given the fact that they use their body as a canvas for the tattoos show how much they cherish the tattoos. They believe that the tattoos will help modify their skin, and make their bodies more appealing both to themselves and to the public. Tattoos have been use for various functions. As discussed above, some used it as a form of identification. Others used it as a sign of beauty while others considered it a sign of social class (Kapunan, 103).

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Tattooing has been in existence for a long time. Tattoos mean portray divergent messages and meanings to different communities and individuals around the world. In the current global society, tattooing is significantly popular among the youth who consider it a modern trend. Tattoos pass special messages or a conviction of the wearer. This is a stark contrast of the symbolism that tattooing had in virtually all cultures globally. While some governments may want to control (or now control) this highly virulent force of body piercing, it is still a personal endeavor in many parts of the world. While research on tattooing and it significance is still ongoing, the health risks posed by the act is still an issue of contention despite most research suggesting that the process is a health hazard. In the current world where global interconnectivity bolsters the effect of acculturation, tattooing as a way of enhancing self-esteem is gaining traction especially among the youth. Although many developed countries have established legal mechanisms to tackle to inherent health concerns, developing nations that experience even greater effect of acculturation have not.

Works Cited

Beeler, Karin. Tattoos, Desire, and Violence: Marks of Resistance in Literature, Film, and Television. Jefferson: McFarland, 2006. Print.

Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.

Demello, Margo. Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. California: ABC-CLIO, 2007. Print.

Guth, Christine. Longfellow’s Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting, and Japan. Seattle, Wash: University of Washington Press, 2004. Print.

Kapunan, Sal. Everyone is an Artist: Making Yourself the Artwork. Indiana: iUniverse, 2003. Print.

McKinney, Chris. The Tattoo. New York: Soho Press, 2006. Print.

Muggleton, David. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning Of Style. Minneapolis: Berg, 2000. Print.

O’Connell, Mitch. Mitch O’connell Tattoos. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2007. Print.

Soliman, Mounira & Hamamsy, E. Walid. Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Post-Colonial Outlook. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Udelson, Jon. Arabic Tattoos. New York: Mark Batty Publisher, 2008. Print.

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