7 Amazing Tattoos From History

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Tattoos are no new thing...

While they dip in and out of fashion, throughout history tattoos have been used for all sorts of purposes: for decoration, for rituals, for identification, for punishment, for health,  or even to provide a new career choice. Today I want to bring you seven amazing tattoos from history to inspire your next inking session.

1. The Siberian Princess

The 'Princess'  beautiful arm tattoo

Also known as the "Ukok Princess" or "Altai Princess" , she is believed to be part of the nomadic Pazyrk people that were described by Herodetus in the 5th century BC, making her some 2,500 years old. She is thought to have been around 25 years old, and was dressed in a long silk shirt and intricately decorated boots, wearing a horsehair wig, leading researchers to dub her a woman of importance or alternatively a healer or storyteller. She was buried alongside two men and six horses.

She is remarkable because of the level of preservation of her tattoos on her arm and hands, which was aided by the freezing conditions of her burial ground. While controversy surrounds whether she should have been removed from her burial site (including rumors of a 'mummy's curse' following the crash of the helicopter that carried her remains), it's nevertheless clear that she is a priceless discovery.

The warriors that accompanied her were also beautifully tattooed, and it is thought that these were more extensive then that of the 'princess' due to their advanced age.

 All drawings of tattoos by Elena Shumakova, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

2. Otzi the Iceman

You may soon come to notice that this week's post is rather mummy-heavy...
Back on the very first post of this blog in the article 'Why Do We Pierce Our Ears?' I introduced you to Otzi the Iceman, who has is ears pierced and gauged to the point of making any goth,rocker or hipster proud. In addition to impressive piercings, he is also famous for being perhaps the oldest mummy in the world. At 5,000 years old, he is sporting the oldest tattoos we know of in history.

In comparison to the Siberian 'Princess'' ink, Otzi's self modification is quite subtle. his tattoos mostly consist of a series of small horizontal lines that are often in groups of three or four. There was a significant number of these - 61 in all - and were made from black charcoal that had been rubbed deep into the skin.

Tattoos under different wavelengths by Marco Samadelli
The sheer number and simplicity of the tattoos suggested that they were not simply a form of decoration, but instead served a medicinal purpose or a ritual purpose. Initially, given the discovery that the mummy had suffered from heart disease and the fact that many tattoos were located around the joints, it was thought that the tattoos acted as a form of acupuncture. the anthropologist Albert Zink, however, challenged this following the discovery of a new chest tattoo that seemed to be inconveniently placed and instead suggested a more ritualistic property to the markings. We may never know, but it serves as a fascinating glimpse into an ancient way of life.

3. Nora Hildebrandt, America's First Professional Tattooed Lady

A more modern example of some beautiful and intricate tattoo designs comes in the form of Nora Hildebrandt, reportedly America's first professional tattooed lady. Nora was born in the 1850s to a father who was apparently America's first professional tattoo artists, primarily catering to professional soldiers and sailors. While tattooed men were a common occurrence, Nora decided that by working with her father she could carve out a career by exploiting this feminine flourish to the interest of any onlookers willing to pay. She toured in the 1890s with Barnum and bailey circus and, like many Freak-Show performers, knew how to work an audience. In her 'biography' she claimed that her tattooes had been forced upon her by American Indians who tied her to a post and assaulted her skin every day for a whole year. Unsurprisingly, this story didn't stand the test of time, but it certainly inspired the imaginations of those willing to pay to admire her.
Unfortunately for her career, she rather set a precedent. Nora's career dwindled away when newer, younger and prettier tattooed ladies took the spotlight from her.

4. Tarim Basin Mummy

Mummies really are remarkable things, the state of preservation gives you a real wonder into elements that are so easily lost to decomposition. in the Tarim Basin, China  - a notoriously barren desert - there was found another tattooed mummy that dates from between 1,000-600 BC and bears a remarkable similarity to Otzi's older tattoos. Also made from a mixture of charcoal and soot, the mummy of a woman was found with beautiful tattoos. She held moons on her eyelids, ovals on her forehead, 'scrolling' on her long and delicate hands. This was all part of a beautiful appearance: her hair was brown with white streaks that has been braided and tied with red wool.

5. Polynesian tattoos

We can thank the polynesian people for the word "tattoo" itself. In 1771 when Captain James Cook returned from his first voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand the word "tattoo" appeared in europe, coming from the word "tattaw" that he observed as part of polynesian culture. The tattoo became widely famous because of the Ma'i, who often tattooed european sailors when they visited. As these sailors returned home the designs came across with them and intrigued onlookers.

Polynesian culture is made of of many different tribes and communities of people, across a triangular spread of islands, but on the whole tattooing had a ritualistic purpose. Before the tattooing process a person would take place in a long period of cleansing, and the tattoos often told a story about important events in a person's life.

Many of these tattoos are still used in modern designs and for many people of Polynesian ancestry they still hold a special place in their hearts. For example Dawyne 'The Rock' johnson has used his tattoos to embrace his Samoan ancestry. You can hear his throughts on his tattoos here.

6. The Punishment Tattoos of Edo Japan

Images from Edo Wonderland
Tattoos were not always a positive experience. Throughout history punishments have involved mutilation of the body. In times when individualism has not been fully realised and the community was everything, being publicly branded as a criminal was a very serious fate indeed. In Japan's Edo Period (1603-1868) this particular form of mutilation took the form of facial (and later arm) tattoos.
These were often reserved for more minor crimes (such as stealing) and were combined with other forms of corporal punishment, but it is worth noting that tattoos themselves (to an even greater extent than today) were a painful process, and the humiliation of living with these after the fact could do lasting damage. However the tattooing replaced the amputations of noses and ears in the judicial system, so perhaps it could have been much worse. By 1875 the practice had been abolished and tattoos gradually became fashionable.

7. Winston Churchill

Finally, did you know that one of the most famous historical figures in british history actually had a tattoo? Winston Churchill himself had an anchor on his forearm in true popeye style, taking full advantage of the advances in tattoo gun technology of the time. What's more he was following in the footsteps of his mother, who before him famously had a snake tattooed around her wrist, which she often chose to cover with a thick bangle.
It just goes to show, you never know what creative little secrets someone is hiding.

-Siberian princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos
-Siberian Princess Fantastic tattoos
-Siberian iron Age mummy
-Nora Hildebrandt, the first tattooed lady
-Otzi the Iceman
-(Otzi) mapping 61 ancient tattoos on 5,300 year old mummy
-Criminals of Japan's Edo period were often punished by getting a facial tattoo
-The History of Tattoos: Smithsonian Magazine
-Polynesian Tattoo History
-Tarim Basin Mummy
-Historical Figures you probably didn't know had tattoos
-The Rock's tattoos

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