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A History of Tattoos in the UK

Subject: Blog Posts

Description: A history of tattoos from ancient times to the present day

Posted by David Caldwell on 15/12/13 at 17:33

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Ancient Tattoos

The ancients had tattoos. Ӧtzi was alive five thousand years ago and his frozen body was found in the Alps near the Austria РItaly border. He had tattoos around his ankles and wrists and had linear lines on this back.

In ancient Egypt mummified bodies had tattoos however it was mainly only woman who wore them.

Tattoos in ancient Rome were common and legionnaires were famously tattooed with the letters SQPR (The Senate and the people of Rome).

In 1993 the preserved bodies of three people a woman and two men were unearthed from the Siberian permafrost dating from around two and a half thousand years ago. Their skin was covered in tribal tattoos that wouldn’t look out of place in modern times.


The Celtic tribes of England and Europe probably only painted themselves and did not have tattoos at the time of the Roman conquest. The name of the Scottish tribe the Picts may have come from the Latin ‘to paint’  and sources indicate that they were the last of the Celtic tribes to have skin markings possibly using copper or iron as a pigment to produce a bluish colour.

Dark Ages

The Vikings had knot work tattoo designs said by observers to resemble green trees however not much is known about tattoos in the dark ages or Medieval times possibly due to the prevalence of Christianity tattoos carried a stigma and mainly only religious tattoos are recorded as these were endured as part of a spiritual ordeal.


As westerners explored the world sailors came into contact with societies where tattooing was widespread such as Africa, India the Orient and Polynesia. This is why sailors were connected with tattoos and they were also used as a form of identification. Tattoo artist began to spring up in the ports of 19th century England however the practice was frowned upon by the mainstream who associated tattoos with sailors and criminality.

In 1862 the future Edward VII had a Jerusalem cross tattoo and started somewhat of a craze amongst the aristocracy in Europe.

The Tattoo Machine

In 1876 Thomas Edison dubbed ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’ invented the electric engraving machine this was adapted by Samuel O’Reilly to be used for tattooing skin.

The machine, powered by an electric motor, used a hollow needle filled with ink to puncture the skin up to 3,000 times a minute.

The tattoo machine revolutionised tattooing which had before been done by the slow process of tapping needles dipped in ink into the skin. Many still advocate the old method as it does not rip the skin, is less painful and heals quicker than modern machine tattoos.

Keywords: history, tattoos, tattooing, tattoo machine