Tattooing has been a part of human culture for just about as long as we’ve existed as a species. Archaeologists have found evidence of tattooed humans from every corner of the globe, which some finds stretching back as far as the 4th millennium BCE. We’ve found lots of different reasons for branding our skin with ink- social status, personal expression, religion, even medicine in some primitive cultures- but perhaps one of the coolest types of ancient tattoos were those used by warriors.
Tattoos have consistently had a place among the fighters. Oftentimes, they served a practical purpose- a means of identifying one’s body in a battlefield, or of indicating rank. The association of soldiers and sailors being tattooed that we have here in the West began from just such a reason: American sailors and others in the military commonly used tattoos to identify themselves and avoid impressment by British naval ships in the early 1800s. They also used certain images- like crosses, anchors, and lanterns- as symbols of good luck or spiritual protection while traveling overseas.
Nowadays, the presence of tattoos in most military organizations is pretty strictly regulated. But body ink has a long, rich history in the world of war, as we will soon discover.
Ancient Warriors of the East
The art of tattooing was relatively uncommon in ancient China (it was generally considered a barbaric practice, and used to mark criminals… and in rarer periods, slaves). But the Japanese embraced the art form much more wholeheartedly. The Japanese had many reasons for using tattoos, which ranged at times from indicating social status, to religious ceremony, and eventually it became an easy way to identify criminals, like the Chinese were doing. This led to a negative connotation with body ink for a time, until the samurai began to reclaim the art.
Around 600 AD, samurai began getting heavily tattooed. This served a practical purpose: to help their body be identified on the battlefield, so that it could be taken home for the proper funeral services. However, the samurai were eventually forced to disband, and when tattooing was outlawed the Meiji era, they ran the risk of being imprisoned for showing their colorful tattoos. This led to many ex-samurai joining up with the infamous Yakuza, and they flaunted their ink in a show of solidarity… showing that they were more true to their origins, than to the law.
The samurai used an art style called Irezumi for their tattoos, which is a traditional hand-poked method that is very time-consuming, but generally results in beautifully vibrant images with crisp, bold lines. This is the original inspiration for much of the Japanese-style tattoos that are still incredibly popular in the current day and age. You can still find artists who practice this style today… if you’re willing to shell out some extra cash.
Tattooing was also an important practice of the Dayak in Borneo, wherein a warrior would receive special tattoos the first time he brought home an enemy’s head from battle. These generally took the form of anthropomorphic figures that were inked along the fingers. Dayak warriors also often had animals and other nature imagery tattooed onto the rest of their bodies, which often were meant to provide protection against the evil spirits of the forest, or to indicate rank and prestige.
Fighters of the West
Several warrior cultures from the west used tattoos as symbols of their strength or success in battle, and also in some cases to grant luck or special abilities to the individual. Vikings, one of the most famous warrior cultures in history, have been described in a few historical documents as being covered in tattoos of Norse symbols and nature imagery. Norse tattoos have seen a current upsurge in popularity as works like the hugely successful Thor movies from Marvel Comics and American Gods by Neil Gaiman have moved Norse mythology into the spotlight.
The Celts were often heavily tattooed, as they believed that the ink intimidated enemies as they entered battle. Oftentimes Celtic tattoos were thought to have magical or medicinal properties as well, a belief that stemmed from the sects of various pagan cultures. They used dye from the Woad plant for their body art, which generally produced a blue color. Usually the designs took the form of solid bands of color, or of the intricate knotwork designs that the Celtic cultures are famous for.
Scythian warrior women (now commonly thought to be the Amazon warrior women mentioned frequently throughout Greek mythology) were often heavily tattooed, generally with real and fantastical animals, or geometric designs.
While the evidence is somewhat more thin than for other cultures, it is thought that the Aztecs of South America used tattoos to symbolize victory in battle, among other things. Though the Aztecs were one of the fiercer warrior cultures to have ever existed, they were also a highly artistic people, and many of their designs remain a popular subject for tattoos and other art forms to this day.
In many Native American cultures, young men received tattoos as symbols of victory for killing enemies in war. Much of the time, the warrior in question would keep track of just how successful they had been in battle by creating a mark for each person they had defeated. Though tattoo designs varied from tribe to tribe, most Native American tattoo styles involved simple geometric shapes and straight, bold lines.
No matter what corner of the world they’re in, it seems that warriors of every kind have always had an affinity for the bold and personal expression of tattoos. So if you’re looking to get inked so that you can represent that fierce, fighting spirit inside of you, don’t worry: you’re definitely in good company. While the art of tattooing may have had a colorful reputation (no pun intended) in other realms of society, on the battlefield it seems that body ink consistently has been chosen to represent strength, discipline, and physical prowess.