Tattooing has always had kind of an edgy quality in Western culture. Though tattoos are becoming exponentially more commonplace, there is still the mindset that getting inked is representative of “alternative” or non-conformist tendencies. While today’s current young generations are working towards rebranding body art as a form of self-expression rather than rebellion, many people still associate tattoos with criminal, violent, or negative behaviors. But have we always viewed body ink this way?

Ancient Ink 

A lot of people believe that tattoos got their start in Western culture as a result of sailors and soldiers who got their art done overseas, and say that the art form was reintroduced to European culture after sailors experienced it in the Polynesian islands. There is no doubt that the tribal art forms associated with that part of the world came to the West this way, but the practice of tattooing has actually existed in the Occidental world for about as long as it has anywhere else.

Many of the ancient Pagans over in Europe used tattoos as spiritual symbols of protection or power, as spells for healing, or even to denote status. A tattoo could indicate a powerful shaman, a high-ranking member of royalty, or even a criminal. The oldest example of a tattooed human is Otzi the Iceman, a mostly-intact mummy with over 50 tattoos. Otzi was discovered in the Alps above Northern Italy, and is believed to have originated from approximately 3300 B.C.E.

Early Christians often had the image of the cross tattooed somewhere on their body (or an anchor, which was a once-common Christian symbol that has since fallen into antiquity). This is a practice that likely carried over from the Pagan faiths after Constantine led the charge in European conversion to the Christian religion. Tattooing became a markedly less common practice when the Church outlawed all forms of tattooing around AD 787, believing that any form of bodily modification or mutilation was sinful and against the original design of God. The Church’s firm disapproval of tattoos was certainly a large part of their later demonization in Western culture, but the practice of getting inked was far from over in the West.

The Royal Rebels of the English Elite 

Let’s fast-forward a few hundred years. There are a lot of things one thinks of when considering the English aristocracy, but tattoos aren’t generally one of them. However, tattoos were in fact very common among the English nobility. King Harold II’s body was actually identified post-mortem by his plentiful tattoos after he was killed in the Battle of Hastings (1066 A.D.).

King Edward VII started a radical new trend of getting inked in the aristocracy when he got tattooed before ascending to the throne in 1862 (a Jerusalem cross, meant to represent the Christian crusades). For quite a while tattooing was a sign of high status among the aristocracy (with both men and women), as it was time-consuming and expensive to get any kind of artwork done on one’s person. This fell out of fashion with the elite once the invention of the electric tattoo machine came around; it made tattoos more affordable and thus more popular with the lower classes. And of course, anything that the poor were fans of simply couldn’t be tolerated.

Tattoos Branch Over to the U.S. 

Like many other tribal cultures, the Native Americans were into tattooing long before it became a fashionable form of self-expression for European immigrants. Native Americans used tattoos to identify their tribe, as a sign of conquest, as rites of passage, etc. To this day tribal tattoos remain an important part of Native American cultures.

However, modern tattooing did happen to get its start from sailors and the military in the U.S., with individuals like Martin Hildebrandt blazing the trail. Hildebrandt is actually said to have opened the first-ever tattoo parlor on American soil, in New York City in 1846. Parlors like his- which made great use of the electric tattoo machine and other such innovations- became responsible for the sort of “mass-produced” tattoo art styles we see today.

WWII was considered a “golden age” of tattooing culture, and this was when much of the traditional art style of tattoos got its start (think bold lines, simple designs, and bright primary colors). Tattoos were looked down upon by many higher members of American society; like their counterparts across the ocean, by this time many saw tattoos as representative of lower or poorer classes. Eventually, tattoos even began to develop criminal connotations as gangs (such as the infamous Hell’s Angels biker gang) started to use tattoos as a means of identifying their members. The negative connotations got stronger when felons began to use tattoos to identify their allegiances and crimes or experiences in prison (the tear drop tattoo perhaps being the most well-known).

The negative portrayal of tattooed individuals in the media and in pop culture led many to associate the art form with the criminal and the rebellious for several decades. It has only been recently (within the last ten years or so) that younger generations have begun to fight back and reclaim the art form as one of self-expression, rather than rebellion.

Nowadays, tattooing has very much moved into the mainstream in the Western world. You can be hard-pressed to find an individual who does not have some form of ink on their body. People of all ages and from all different kinds of backgrounds- old, young, highly professional, blue-collar, etc.- are finding their way into tattoo studios. 

Many tattoo artists are receiving high levels of technical and fine arts training, and the quality of the work out there has begun to push the art form back into the realm of social superiority. Because of the cost and time associated with tattoos, they are once again becoming a sign of wealth and status in the Western world… and often are representative of good taste and originality if done well.

So though the popularity (and social acceptance) of tattoos has fluctuated up and down over the years, the art of tattooing has maintained a strong, consistent presence in Western culture. And by the looks of things, body ink is definitely here to stay.