Who were the first people to tattoo? The history of tattooing across the world

People have been inked for love, loyalty and rebellion for thousands of years. It is also a sign of rebellion, espionage, or ostracism.

With access to unreported material now, Dr Matt Lodder, a leading expert and author, tells Sally McDonald The Honest Truth About his new book.

Was this the inspiration behind the book?

Tattooing has been viewed as something that divides people. In reality, tattooing binds us. I wanted to show how stories about tattoos are not isolated from larger concerns or histories. Instead, they can provide fascinating and intimate insights into the lives of people.

Art historians study old paintings, for example, not because they’re beautiful, but because they can tell us particular things about the people who made and saw them, and the times and places in which they were made. If that’s true for paintings, it is particularly true for the images people have permanently inscribed on their bodies.

What made you decide to get 21 tattoos?

The book is divided into five historical moments – ancient history, early modern history, the aftermath of the opening of Japan in 1853, the early 20th Century, and the decades before and after the millennium. Each section contains four biographical stories from tattooed people throughout history as well as a context introduction.

My great-grandmother was tattooed by her brother around the turn of 20th century. This is the 21st story. Evidently, she asked him whether it would work and he replied yes.

How long was your research? And where did you go?

I’ve been really immersing myself in tattoo histories since I was a teenager. Since 2005, I’ve been researching tattooing as a profession and since 2010. My research is mainly done in private collections. I did research in the UK as well as America, Europe, Australia, and Japan.

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Dr Matt Lodder.

WhWas there anything that surprised you the most?

In my research on tattooed children’s histories, I came across a late 19th century account of a lecture given in Edinburgh by a scientist. The lecture featured the perfectly preserved skin a tattooed man. According to his older brother, he was tattooed as a child by him.

I contacted the current archivist at the museum to enquire what had happened to this specimen, as it hadn’t been mentioned in the intervening century or so. It turned out that the man’s skin, in two fully-preserved sections and covered in bright sailor tattoos, were still sitting in two frames, almost forgotten, in the depths of a library store. It’s great to be able to include an image of them in the book.

What year was the first tattoo ever created?

Ötzi, a Copper Age man from the border between modern-day Austria and Italy about 5,500 years ago. His tattoos are among the oldest known to exist.

It is possible that the tattoos are meant to be used for medical or magical purposes. They are most commonly found in areas where there was inflammation. However, naturally-mummified individuals from ancient Egypt have tattoos that are approximately the same age and may prove to be even older.

What can tattoos teach us about humanity?

The images people tattoo on themselves are often very basic expressions of some of the most fundamental and universal human experiences – love, hate, patriotism, hope, fear, faith.

William Lithgow, a Scottish pilgrim, was tattooed in Jerusalem 1612 to commemorate his religious journey and also to show his loyalty to King James the Protestant. The crown depicted on his tattoo is a representation of a crown. The Catholic Spanish Inquisition took him prisoner a few years later.

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