Preserved tattoos on ancient mummified human remains reveal that tattooing has been practiced throughout the world for many centuries. The Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan, traditionally had facial tattoos, as did the Austroasians. Today, one can find Atayal, Seediq, Truku, and Saisiyat of Taiwan, Berbers of Tamazgha (North Africa), Yoruba, Fulani and Hausa people of Nigeria, and Māori of New Zealand with facial tattoos. Tattooing was popular among certain ethnic groups in southern China, Polynesia, Africa, Borneo, Cambodia, Europe, Japan, the Mentawai Islands, MesoAmerica, New Zealand, North America and South America, the Philippines, Iron Age Britain, and Taiwan. In 2015, scientific re-assessment of the age of the two oldest known tattooed mummies, identified Ötzi as the oldest currently known example. This body, with 61 tattoos, was found embedded in glacial ice in the Alps, and was dated to 3,250 BC.
A tattoo on the right arm of a Scythian chieftain whose mummy was discovered at Pazyryk, Siberia. The tattoo was made more than 2,500 years ago.
It is a myth that the modern revival of tattooing stems from Captain James Cook’s three voyages to the South Pacific in the late 18th century. Certainly, Cook’s voyages and the dissemination of the texts and images from them brought more awareness about tattooing (and, as noted above, imported the word “tattow” into Western languages), but Europeans have been tattooed throughout history. On Cook’s first voyage in 1768, his science officer and expedition botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, as well as artist Sydney Parkinson and many others of the crew, returned to England with tattoos, although many of these men would have had pre-existing tattoos. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy that had acquired his position with Cook by co-financing the expedition with ten thousand pounds, a very large sum at the time. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Raiatean man, Omai, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. On subsequent voyages other crew members, from officers, such as American John Ledyard, to ordinary seamen, were tattooed.
The first documented professional tattooist in Britain was established in the port of Liverpool in the 1870s. In Britain tattooing was still largely associated with sailors and the lower or even criminal class, but by the 1870s had become fashionable among some members of the upper classes, including royalty, and in its upmarket form it could be an expensive and sometimes painful process. A marked class division on the acceptability of the practice continued for some time in Britain. Recently a trend has arisen marketed as ‘Stick and Poke’ tattooing; primitive figures are permanently inscribed by the user himself after he obtains a ‘DIY’ kit containing needles, ink and a collection of suggestions.