top of page
  • Writer's pictureSally

Tattoo Origins: The Ancient, The Traditional and The Contemporary

Updated: Feb 15

a banner for an article on tattoo origins

The Ancient

Tattooing has been around as far back as the Neolithic times (New Stone Age), with evidence of the practice found on mummified skin as well as on ancient art, and through archaeological findings of tattoo tools.

The oldest detection of tattooed human skin was found in the glacial ice of the Ötztal Alps in Italy, on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, dated to around 3250 BCE – though he wasn’t discovered until September 1991 (20th century)!

Otzi the Iceman photo from Britannica

Ötzi the Ice Man

Photo Credit: Britannica

otsi iceman's mummified body in a museum

He had a total of 61 tattoos, and these were found on his rib cage, lower back, wrists, ankles, knees and calves. Check out the video (timestamp 26:07) which shows you the tattoos on a life-size replica of the man himself.

markings or tattoos on Otzi Iceman's body

(Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

However, these tattoos were not done with a needle, rather they were small incisions on the skin, and the wound then filled with a mixture of charcoal and water. Researchers believe these tattoos were more for medical/therapeutic purposes rather than decorative, but they’re super impressive all the same!

There are at least 49 other archaeological sites which have recovered tattooed mummies, including Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Sudan, the Philippines, and the Andes. Though a particularly significant discovery is that of Amunet, priestess of the goddess Hathor, from the 11th Dynasty of ancient Egypt (c.2134-1991 BCE)…

Faience Figurines

tattooed ceramic

Egypt is bountiful with its discoveries of preserved historical finds, and tattooing is no exception! Despite there being no textual evidence of tattooing in ancient Egypt, there are many iconographical records which suggest the practice existed, such as engraved ceramics known as faience figurines, which are displayed in the University College London, Petrie Museum.

tattooed ceramic


These decorative, or ‘tattooed’, ceramics consistently depict the female figure, suggesting that the practice of tattooing was something exclusively done by women.

These decorative, or ‘tattooed’, ceramics consistently depict the female figure, suggesting that the practice of tattooing was something exclusively done by women.

The figurines were often found in tombs as they were believed to ensure resurrection. Which is potentially why the dotted geometric patterns found on these figurines are similar to those found on the mummified body of Amunet who, as mentioned previously, was priestess of the goddess, Hathor.

a diagram of abdominal tattoos on the Dynasty XI mummy

Detail of the abdominal tattoos visible on a Dynasty XI mummy

of Amunet (re-drawn by Colette Standish, after Bianchi 1988, fig. 2; from Keimer 1948, fig. 9).

Much like Ötzi the iceman, these bodily markings were understood to be for medicinal or therapeutic purposes, a belief established by Dr. Daniel Fouquet in his 1898 article regarding the discovery of the mummies.

Though Egyptologist Dr. Bob Bianch proposed the markings held “an undeniably carnal overtone. The eroticism that is undoubtedly associated with Egyptian tattoo of the Middle Kingdom correlates with the prevailing religious attitude that linked physical procreation with the loftier aspirations of resurrection in the Hereafter.”

potential ancient tattoo instruments

Metal instruments potentially used for tattooing (Photo Credit:

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones practicing ancient tattooing, it was a traditional artform commonly used by the Austronesian people, though it was the Pre- Austronesians who developed the skills in Taiwan and coastal South China as early as 1500 BCE (15th century), before their expansion across to the islands of the Indo-Pacific.

Despite being spread across the Pacific islands, the Austronesian-speaking peoples shared similarities in their tattooing practices. The method would typically involve instruments with a perpendicularly hafted needle that was tapped on the handle with a mallet (usually a length of wood) to break through the outer layer of skin (epidermis), and pierce through to the underlying skin (dermis) to distribute the permanent ink markings. This traditional process is known as ‘hand-tapped’ or ‘hand-poked’ in English.

Polynesian Tattoo Instruments

Polynesian tattoo instruments

Photo credit:

The needle points would often be made of materials such as Citrus thorns, fish bone, bone, teeth, and turtle & oyster shells.

The Traditional

Sadly, traditional skilled methods of tattooing are disappearing somewhat as a result of colonisation and influences of Western religions. However, we’ve included a link to a great article on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs portal, New Southbound Policy, which details the Austronesian ways of tattooing and how it’s being rediscovered.

Taiwanese traditional tattoo method

Photo Credit:

Taiwan is considered the homeland of the Austronesian peoples, which include Filipinos, Indonesians, Polynesians and Malagasy peoples. Each with strong tattoo traditions…

The indigenous peoples of Taiwan, known as the Atayal, Tayla, and the Tayan people, traditionally tattoo the face, called ptasan, as a coming of age/rite of passage into adulthood. For boys it signifies their mastery of hunting, for girls it signifies their mastery in the craft of weaving.

photo of Iwan Kainu

Photo of Iwan Kainu, who was one of the last Atayal aborigines in Taiwan left to have a traditional facial tattoo, she died in 2018 at the age of 103. Photo Credit: Tobie Openshaw

Across the Philippine Islands, tattooing – known as batok, batek, patik, batik – was practiced by practically all indigenous groups during the pre-colonial era.

photos of mummified body of Apo Anno

Mummified body of Apo Anno

Photo Credit:

Burial sites in northern Luzon, for instance, unearthed mummified remains of the indigenous Igorot peoples in various caves and hanging coffin burials. A particularly interesting discovery was that of a 700-900-year-old mummy, indigenous to the Kankanaey peoples (part of the collective Igorot peoples), nicknamed ‘Apo Anno’, and has tattoos covering the soles of the feet and fingertips.

In September 1519, during the first voyage around the world (which proved that earth was not flat!) Antonio Pigafetta, who took over the Spanish expedition from Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, referenced the distinct tattoos adorned by the Visayan people, an indigenous group from Luzon…

"These are the tattoos of the body so greatly practiced among Visayans… and was a mark of nobility and bravery, to tattoo the whole body from top to toe when they were of an age and strength sufficient to endure the tortures of the tattooing which was done (after being carefully designed by the artists, and in accordance with the proportion of the parts of the body and the sex) with instruments like brushes or small twigs, with very fine points of bamboo."

"The body was pricked and marked with them until blood was drawn. Upon that a black powder or soot made from pitch, which never faded, was put on. The whole body was not tattooed at one time, but it was done gradually. In olden times no tattooing was begun until some brave deed had been performed; and after that, for each one of the parts of the body which was tattooed some new deed had to be performed. The men tattooed even their chins and about the eyes so that they appeared to be masked. Children were not tattooed, and the women only one hand and part of the other. The Ilocanos in this island of Manila also tattooed themselves but not to the same extent as the Visayans."

Excerpt from Labor Evangelica, a primary source written by Francisco Colin, S.J. (1663)

drawing of "The Painted Ones" tattooed Visayan people of the Philippines

Spanish depiction of the tattoos of the Visayan people (“The Painted Ones”) of the Philippines, 1590

Today, these traditional methods of tattooing are still practiced by Filipina artist, Whang-od Oggay, also known as Maria Oggay, from The Province of Kalinga, and part of the Butbut people of the larger Kalinga ethnic group.

Having been tattooing since the age of 16, Whang-od is considered to be the oldest and potentially last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) at 106 years old.

You can find out more about Whang-od Oggay in her recent Vogue interview here.

Vogue magazine cover featuring Whang-Od oldest tattoo artist in the world in 2023

Whang-od Oggay on the cover of Vogue, April 2023

Photo Credit:

The Contemporary

Let us take you to New York 1891, where Samuel O’Reilly invented and patented the first tattoo machine.

a photo of Sam O'Reilly tattooing in 1899

Sam O’Reilly tattooing with a machine. Ev’ry Month Magazine, Oct 1899.

Now, O’Reilly conceded that his invention was adapted from Thomas Edison’s failed electric pen (1876/75), though unlike the electric pen, the tattoo machine was a resounding success.

T.A Eddison's tattoo machine diagram patent

Sam O'Reilly tattoo machine patent drawing

Thomas Edison’s Electric Pen Samuel O’Reilly’s Tattoo Machine

It’s understood that Sam learned the art of tattooing from Martin Hildebrandt, an American tattooist from Germany, who served in the United States Navy from 1846-1849, which is where he learned tattooing from other sailors. Tattooing was a common practice amongst sailors in the 18th-19th centuries, having been popularised in Britain for instance, by sailors of the Captain James Cook expedition between 1768-1771, where the sailors learned the skill from the native Polynesians– check out our other blog post for more on this!

Back to O’Reilly though, and not twenty days after filing the patent for his tattoo machine, tattooist Thomas Riley of London filed a patent for the first electromagnetic single-coil tattoo machine, which is the technology used in many modern machines.

The tattoo machine went through many reinventions thereafter; Alfred Charles South repositioned the coils side by side, only to find the device too heavy to operate; then Charlie Wagner in 1904 redesigned the machine so the coils were in line with the chassis; then in 1920 Percy Waters designed many prototypes, of which several are still used to this day.

Alfred Charles & Charles Wagner tattoo machine patent drawings

Carol Nightingale patented the first ‘adjustable’ tattoo gun, which paved the way for other tattoo machines, such as the pen tattoo machines which have revolutionised tattooing. The lighter, more portable, and quieter the machines have gotten, the better for the tattoo artist as there’s less cramping and more control.

Carol Nightingale tattoo machine drawing or diagram patent

And there you have it!

We’ve only touched upon the ancient, the traditional, and the contemporary methods of tattooing, but we hope this has provided some insight into the practices and origins of the amazing artform that is tattooing!

Better still, KTREW Tattoo offers both machine and hand-poke methods, so if after reading this post it’s inspired you to get a tattoo, please enquire at

or use this booking form

153 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page