Obviously, the word “tattoo” is a fairly new one, as far as the beginnings of words go, the first time ever being used in 1769 in Captain James Cook‘s diary. It comes from a Polynesian word, as many of the Pacific islands at the time tattooed themselves. English speaking sailors first got their tattoos on these islands, then introduced the custom to Europe. However, tattooing was believed to have started in Egypt, before Egypt was even an organized society, 6,000 years ago. At that time, the only tattoos archeologists believe were done were tattoos on women’s legs that were meant to protect the woman from the dangers of childbirth. From Egypt tattooing was later spread and shared with other parts of Africa, into Asia, and Pacific islands through trade lines and travelers.
Every culture since has tattooed themselves in one form or another, for reasons of spirituality, protection, strength, and history. Tattoos have been marks that the bearer is very proud of, or ashamed to wear. The Polynesians allowed both men and women to be tattooed, while in other cultures only men were permitted. The Japanese have been tattooing since at least 400 BC, for ornamental and narrative purposes, but also as a marking on criminals to identify them. Much more recently, in the 1800’s in became fashionable for members of European royalty to be tattooed.
The first electric tattoo machine was first invented by Thomas Edison in 1876, who drew out blueprints for an electric engraver that became the machine that revolutionized tattooing. Patents for tattoo machines were filed less than ten years later by different individuals, each adding their own improvements. Samuel O’Reilly is credited with the first created “electric pen”, the device built from the Edison blueprints. The only thing O’Reilly changed from the Edison version was that he added an ink reservoir. The machine we use today was first patented by Charlie Wagner, which was called a dual coil reciprocating engraver, especially made for tattooing.
If sailors spread the art of tattooing by water, it was circuses that spread the mystery of tattooing by land. From the start of the modern circus, a constant freak show exhibit has always been the heavily tattooed man or woman. Circuses in America would each promise that they had the most tattooed person in the whole world, and for a world without photography, this was the first experience with tattoos that middle America had.
Tattooing had always had those opposed to it, from the first time it was banned in 787 AD by Pope Hadrian. After a Hepatitis outbreak in the 1960’s was blamed on tattooing, many states outlawed the art. Tattooing had become synonymous with rebellion, gangs, dirty sailors, and motorcycles. Lyle Tuttle tried to change societies views on tattooing by himself tattooing female celebrities, but even today a few states still outlaw the practice.
Today, tattoos are becoming less taboo and more accepted as cleaner, more professional shops open up and the artistic boundaries are pushed with the medium of tattoo art. Also, the advances in color and other tattoo equipment have made tattoos more than just a symbol or a testimony, but a real piece of art on skin.