A History of Tattooing Traditions Around the World

July 31, 2023

Tattooing is not new. While there has, admittedly, been an uptick in the number of tattoo parlours opening to meet the ever-growing demand, various civilisations have been practising tattooing across the globe for thousands of years. With a history rich in diversity, each culture has unique traditions that have shaped the world of tattooing as we know it today.

So, let’s explore a brief history of tattoos, tattooing practices and their origins.

1. Ancient Egypt and Nubia

One of the earliest examples of tattooing can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Nubia (modern-day Sudan) around 2000 BCE. An archaeologist discovered a mummified female body adorned with tattoos in geometric shapes on her arms, legs, and abdomen. These tattoos are believed to have been protection symbols during pregnancy and childbirth.

2. Polynesian Tradition – Ta Moko

Many cite Polynesian culture as one of the most influential in the history of tattoos. The art of tattooing in Polynesian society, known as “Ta Moko,” is deeply rooted in religious and spiritual beliefs. Each design is unique, representing a person’s identity – their lineage, social status, and significant life events. Tattoo artists, called “Tufuga Ta Moko,” use traditional tools made of bone, wood, and shell to create intricate patterns and symbolic designs. The most famous example of Polynesian tattooing is the Maori facial tattoo, known as the “moko,” worn by men and women to symbolise status and genealogy.

3. Japanese Tradition – Irezumi

Originally, the Japanese art of tattooing, called “Irezumi” or “Horimono,” was based on the belief that tattoos protected against evil spirits, with common motifs including mythological creatures and religious icons such as dragons, phoenixes, and Buddhist deities.

In the Edo period (1603 - 1868), tattooing took on a new meaning as a form of punishment for criminals who were marked with distinct symbols to denote their offences, making it difficult for them to reintegrate into society- a sentiment that persisted to the present day (although there is a shift away from this mentality).

4. Native American Tattooing

Various Native American tribes are known to have practised tattooing as a spiritual and cultural form of expression. The symbolism and designs used varied greatly between tribes, with tattoos often depicting social status, tribal identifiers, achievements in battle, or spiritual connections.

5. Indian Tradition – Mehndi

Originating in ancient India, “Mehndi” is the practice of applying intricate designs on the body using a paste made from crushed henna leaves. Predominantly associated with Hindu and Sikh wedding ceremonies, the bride and her female relatives receive traditional henna tattoos on their hands and feet as a symbol of beauty, spiritual enlightenment, and joy. While not permanent, the designs typically last 1-2 weeks; Mehndi is significant in expressing cultural identity and marking important life events.

6. Western Tattooing

The word “tattoo” itself can be traced back to 18th-century Europe upon the return of British explorer Captain James Cook and his crew from Polynesia, where they encountered the indigenous Ta Moko tradition. The European sailors adopted the practice, leading to the popularity of tattoos among the working classes. In the 19th century, the invention of the electric tattoo machine fundamentally revolutionised the industry, making tattooing and tattoo parlours more accessible and prevalent.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, tattoo parlours have continued to evolve by offering an ever-expanding range of styles, themes, and techniques such as realism, watercolour, abstract, and geometric designs.


The history of tattooing is as diverse as the designs, reflecting people’s unique beliefs, values, and aesthetics worldwide. So, as you seek to connect with an expert tattoo artist, remember you are participating in a seemingly ageless tradition that links people and cultures through time and location.


I believe in making the impossible possible because there’s no fun in giving up. Travel, design, fashion and current trends in the field of industrial construction are topics that I enjoy writing about.

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