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In 1991, a Neolithic mummy within a glacier was found. The mummy had all its back tattooed. From this discovery, it can be said that the tattoo is as old as man himself. However, not all the cultures that used tattoos used them for the same reason. Next we will make a list of the most outstanding cultures and how they used their tattoos. We will try to keep a chronological linearity as much as possible.

Polynesia: Apparently, this region of the world is the one that has the longest history of tattoos. The different tribes of Polynesia used tattoos as a body ornament, without losing their strong communal sense. The tattoo started at a very young age and they continued tattooing themselves until there was no area left to tattoo. Beyond its esthetic sense, the tattoo indicated hierarchy and it gave communal respect to the person who wore them: the more tattoos you had, the more respected you were. In a special way, Maoris used tattoos to go to battle. The drawings on their skins were part of their strategy to scare their enemies.

Egypt: In this case, women were the ones who got tattoos. Tattoos had a protective and magical function. The tattoo’s supernatural feature did not belong only to Egypt. Many cultures gave this meaning to tattoos.

America: In North America, Indians used tattoos as part of a rite of passage. When a person passed from puberty to adulthood, he was tattooed in order to protect his soul. However, this was not the only usage of the tattoo in this region. In Central America, tribes used tattoos as a symbol for those lost in battle and as a way to worship gods.


East: The tattoo came to Japan approximately in the 10th century B.C. From its insertion into the Japanese culture, the tattoo was used by the most powerful sectors, until it was used by an Emperor in the 5th century as a body ornament. We point out its esthetic usage because in Japan tattoos were used to mark criminals. This mark worked as a way to repudiate those disobeying the law for the rest of their lives and everywhere due to this shameful mark on them. Suikoden is a Chinese novel that was translated into Japanese in the 17th century. This novel renewed interest in tattoos, making them a popular way of decoration and collecting.

In Japan one of the most important tattoo’s traditions has been constituted. Nonetheless, in 1842, Matsuhito, the emperor, decided to prohibit tattoo practice. This was so because the country was interested in opening to the world market and they did not want to give the idea of savagery.

West: It came to the West by sea. The expeditions of Captain Cook to the Polynesian islands were the starting point of tattoos in the West. In these expeditions sailors had relationships with the Maoris and with other tribes, which «taught» them the art of tattooing. When they returned, sailors opened their own tattoo shops and spread this discipline among the popular sectors. In 1870, the first tattoo shop was opened in New York. During the Civil War the art of tattooing grew a lot and it became very popular. Fellows, Hildebrandt and O´Reilly, the inventor of the tattoo machine, were the ones in charge of making this art a profession.

However, the tattoo did not lose its inhuman tradition. During Nazi Germany (as the most known example, though it is not the only one), the tattoo was used to mark prisoners in the concentration camps.

In the last few years, the tattoo has been progressively incorporated in society and nowadays it fulfils purely esthetics functions and it does not make differences among social sectors. Even though tattoos are not accepted in certain parts of the society, it is making its way through prejudice and drawing lines on people all around the world.

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