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Brief introduction to the

History of tattooing

A journey from prehistoric times to the present day.
Whenever I have wanted to research the origins and development of tattooing in the world, I have always come across records that dealt with small parts of this long history, that is, they focused on documenting the history of tattooing in a specific region, such as the Pacific, Japan, Europe or the United States.

I also came across many curious facts and interesting characters that do not have so much historical relevance, but deserve to be remembered. And how not to mention the countless illustrations and photos worth seeing and collecting, which often tell more than what has been written on the subject.

Perhaps because of my limited historical knowledge, I was never able to mentally organize a timeline to understand the chronological order of all these stories from different corners of the planet for so many centuries.

This is the origin of my desire to organize this timeline with the most important and striking events in the history of tattooing.
This timeline is far from complete, yet with what it has already helps to understand what and when some of the significant events of the tattoo past have happened. It also helps to perceive what the act of tattooing really is, beyond the current perspective, sometimes so superficial and full of prejudices.

I have tried to be concise with each of the events added to the timeline, and on the other hand I wanted to leave bibliographical references and links for those who want to know more about each topic. And when I have some time I will come back to add more information to this session of the web, there is so much more to tell!

Welcome to all the curious, I hope you enjoy this brief history of tattooing!
Historia del Tatuaje - Charles Darwin
"You can't name a single great country, from the polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which Aborigines didn't get tattoos."
Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)

Brief history of tattooing

Years 2010
Laser tattoo removal is becoming more and more effective and the demand for tattoos on the most visible parts of the body is increasing. 
eliminacion de tatuajes mediante laser

Laser tattoo removal treatments began to be developed in the 1960s, but it took many decades to find techniques that did not cause deep wounds, ugly scars and too much ink residue under the skin. Time has passed and research has...
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A more modern mechanism for tattooing
Un mecanismo más moderno para tatuar

The Cheyenne brand from Berlin (Germany) presents a tattoo machine with a different mechanism from previous machines. They are small, quiet, light and easy to clean. Shortly afterwards, Cheyenne introduces the so-called cartridges, disposable needle modules for tattooing. Cheyenne machines have been very successful mainly because of their...
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United States
Tattooing triumphs in the form of a reality show
El tatuaje triunfa en forma de reality show

Miami Ink, the first of many reality shows filmed in tattoo stores, was born. Miami Ink has been an international success and has helped a lot to demystify the tattoo stores and to diminish the various prejudices with tattooists and tattooed people. After Miami Ink, came LA Ink, London Ink and...
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United States
Tattooing as a motif for fashion design
El tatuaje como motivo para el diseño en la moda

Fashion designer Christian Audigier buys the rights to produce a clothing line called Ed Hardy, which is based on designs by the artist. Eventually, a series of fragrances bearing Hardy's name was also launched. These products have been marketed worldwide. Red Eyes, Ana...
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Sale of soldered needles and better access to tattooing material
Venta de agujas soldadas y mejor acceso a material para tatuar

Finally, there started to be easier and cheaper access to quality tattooing material. And in these years there is an important milestone in the history of tattooing: the commercialization of already welded needles for tattooing. Until then, learning how to weld the needles used for tattooing was always a challenge...
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United States
MTV Begins Broadcasting
MTV Inicia sus transmisiones

MTV, then a television channel entirely dedicated to music, begins broadcasting. Television, movies and music are becoming more and more accessible to everyone. The cultural production seen through the screens influences young people all over the world, mainly that generated by the United States....
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1980s and 1990s
Fear of AIDS affects the practice of tattooing
El miedo al Sida afecta a la practica del tatuaje

AIDS became known at the beginning of the 80's, it spread around the world and until the end of the 90's it was still a very lethal disease. As it is a blood-borne disease, tattooists adopt new hygienic and sanitary protocols, many of them of their own free will and others of their own...
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United States
A new era in tattooing

Janis Joplin may have been the first celebrity of her time to get a tattoo, and she did it in the early 70's in San Francisco with the great Lyle Tuttle, also known for tattooing...
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Reintroduces Japanese tattooing in the U.S.
Gifu Horihide
Gifu Horihide - (Kazuo Oguri)

In the city of Gifu - Japan, in 1933 was born Kazuo Oguri, now an institution in the world of Japanese tattooing. He moved to Tokyo when he was 20 years old to study traditional Japanese tattooing for 5 years with Hideo Murai, the Horihide of Tokyo. He then returned to his hometown...
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United States
Hepatitis epidemic affects New York City
Epidemia de hepatitis afecta a Nueva York

A hepatitis epidemic affects New York in 1961 and consequently causes a rejection of the practice of tattooing, which is no longer so well regarded since the previous decade.

United States
Repression of tattooing

The American authorities began to strictly control the tattoo artists, which caused many of them to retire or move away. At the same time, there began to be a great moral opposition to the circus artists of the time. Tattooing began to be associated with the marginalized and the criminal world.

1939 - 1945
World War II
Tattoo business booms with World War II
El negocio del tatuaje aumenta con la Segunda Guerra Mundial

Soldiers and marines line up to get tattooed, mostly with military motifs.

Europe - North America - Oceania - Africa
Great Omi and the king of tattoo artists
El “Gran Omi”, antiguo teniente del ejercito británico visita al tatuador londinense George Burchett para empezar su transformación

The Great Omi, a former lieutenant in the British army visits London tattooist George Burchett to begin his transformation into one of the most famous tattoo artists of the 20th century. George Burchett was known as the "king of tattoo artists", and in his day he became the tattoo artist of choice for...
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United States
Sailor Jerry and the traditional American tattoo
saylor jerry

Norman Keith Collins is born. Better known as "Sailor Jerry", he is one of the great exponents of the traditional American style. Sailor Jerry made several contributions to the world of tattooing, among them improvements in machines, needles and power supplies for tattoos, in addition to expanding the range of existing colors up to...
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United States and France
Charlie Wagner and Tom Riley
Charlie Wagner, aprendiz de Samuel O´Reilly,

Charlie Wagner, Samuel O'Reilly's apprentice, patents a new version of an electric tattoo machine, inspired by that of his master. In the same year, the already famous London tattoo artist Tom Riley, known for tattooing royalty and high society, tattoos a buffalo during an exhibition at the...
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Late 1890s
United States
The first Tattoo Flash
“Lew The Jew” Alberts

"Lew the Jew" Alberts begins producing and marketing tattoo drawing sheets in New York, creating the well-known "Tattoo Flash". "lew the Jew" Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Drawings Tattoo Archive  

United States
First electric tattoo machine
Samuel O´Reilly patenta la primera máquina eléctrica de tatuajes

Samuel O'Reilly patents the first electric tattoo machine, thus making the act of tattooing much faster and less painful and thus much more popular, of course! It is the adaptation of an electric pen that had not been very successful, previously patented by Thomas...
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United States
The first tattooed woman in show business
Nora Hildebrandt

Nora Hildebrandt makes her first professional presentation. She is the first fully tattooed woman to exhibit her body in a circus in the United States. Like other tattooed circus performers, her performance was accompanied by a fantastic story to justify her tattooed body.

Japan - Meiji Era
Horimono style tattooing is banned and prosecuted
Hombre japonés del siglo XIX con el cuerpo tatuado. Autor desconocido

Before the Meiji era (1868-1912), ornamental tattooing, including horimono, was a fairly visible cultural feature in Japan. However, during the reign of Emperor Meiji Tennō the country goes through a phase of modernization and westernization. Then the Meiji civilization campaign considered the horimono as a...
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United States
Captain George Constentenus
Prince Constantine, Albania, c. 1870

Captain George Constentenus Captain George Constentenus joins Barnum's New and Greatest Show on Earth, inspiring many young people to enter the world of tattooing, including Charles Wagner of New York. Captain George Constentenus, also known as Tattooed Prince, Prince Constantine or...
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Mid 1800s
United States
First great American tattoo centers

New York and Chicago become the first two major centers of tattooing in the United States. At the same time, railroad routes were extended and made it possible for circus attractions to reach more cities, which facilitated communication and learning among tattoo artists.

United States
First tattooed storyteller emerges in the U.S.
James F. O'Connell

Irishman James F. O'Connell is the first tattooed man to be exhibited in the United States, where he recounted his incredible adventures during the years he spent in the Caroline Islands (Micronesia). He has also left an extensive written account. The Life and Adventures of James F. O'Connell, the Tattooed Man (1845) The Story...
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Kuniyoshi leaves his mark on tattoo history
Kyumonryu Shishin por Utagawa Kuniyoshi

These days Suikoden is already a very successful work and even more since the illustrated publication made by Hokusai. In 1827, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) was invited to make some woodcuts on the novel. Then the still unknown artist represents six heroes, two of them tattooed. The publication...
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The first tattooed English showman
El primer showman ingles tatuado

The first English tattooed showman was John Rutherford. He has been a great circus attraction showing his tattoos and telling the story of his amazing adventures among the Maori of New Zealand. A love story between tattoo and circus History of a Tattooed Attraction: John Rutherford

1805 - 1838
Hokusai is the first to represent figurative tattooing in a Japanese publication.

The first Japanese translation of Suikoden where the visual content is as relevant as the written content is published. Firstly, it is a collaboration between the writer Kyokutei Takizawa Bakin (1767-1849) who intends to make a faithful translation of the Shuihu zhuan and the Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). This...
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Japan - Era of Bunka and Bunsei
The evolution of the horimono and the first professional tattooists
La evolución del horimono y los primeros tatuadores profesionales

A revitalization of the entertainment industry took place and the government relaxed controls on tattooing, allowing the technique to evolve more rapidly and the first professional tattoo artists to emerge, who were often the same carvers who engraved the Ukiyo-e style plates. With this, the...
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The first European to live off his tattoos
El primer europeo que vive de sus tatuajes

Frenchman Jean Baptiste Cabri is the first European to make a living from showing his tattoos. He does it after deserting from the British Navy and spending a season tattooing and living in the Marquesas Islands. History of a Tattooed Attraction: Jean Baptiste Cabri

Horimono, Ukiyo-e and tattoo as protest

At the end of the 18th century, Japanese ornamental tattooing became more elaborate, took on larger dimensions and became more and more popular. Japan has been living under a feudal military dictatorship since 1603 and citizens begin to develop a strong class consciousness. These elaborate kimono-like tattoos worn by the...
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Omai London's elite impress
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Omai, c.1776

After his second voyage to the Pacific, James Cook returns to London accompanied by Omai, a native of Raiatea, who visits the city causing great admiration for his tattooed body. Wikipedia

The first modern circus
El primer circo moderno

The first modern circus was established in Vauxhall Gardens in London. In the United States, the first modern circus appeared in 1793. In both countries, circuses would become powerful spaces to spread the tattoo culture. References:

1769 - 1771
The origin of the word "tattoo".
El origen de la palabra “tatuaje”

Marco Polo and John Hawkins had told stories of tattooed people before, but not so relevant. After a voyage through the Pacific and a visit to Tahiti, Captain James Cook (English navigator and explorer) in the company of Joseph Banks tells how the people of this place painted in a way...
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1751- 1772
Japan - Hōreki era and Meiwa era
Ornamental tattooing is gaining strength

Decorative tattooing is gaining more and more space and begins to approach the traditional Japanese style we know today. In the Hōreki era (1751-1764), ornamental tattooing began to become popular in the form of small drawings representing family crests and namakubi (freshly severed heads). In the Meiwa era...
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First translation of the Shuihu zhuan published
SHUIHU ZHUAN Se publica la primera traducción del Shuihu zhuan

No other source has offered as much inspiration for Japanese tattooing as the adaptations of the Chinese narrative Shuihu zhuan. This will happen only from the 1820s, but in Japan this narrative becomes known in 1728 and gradually gains strength. Attributed to the writer...
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Tattooing as a way of sealing a commitment
Irebokuro significa “lunar insertado”

In Japan, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice of irebokuro arose in the pleasure districts. Irebokuro means "inserted mole" and are tattoos of black dots as a symbol of sentimental attachment. Eventually the practice spread throughout the country, even in the upper classes. The moles...
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England's first contact with tattooing
El primer contacto de Inglaterra con el tatuaje

He was an enslaved man known as Prince Giolo (Gioli or Jeoly), originally from Miangas Island (near what is now Davao Oriental). He spent time in England, where he was exhibited as an exotic animal and died three months later due to smallpox.

1661- 1871
Japan - Edo Period from Kanbun era onwards
Criminal tattooing drives decorative tattooing

Tattooing was used as a form of punishment to stigmatize criminals for more than 200 years in the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Japan. Then the expression irezumi (insert ink) began to be used to refer to tattoos for criminal use. These were usually people who had been...
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Japan - Edo Period
Art and leisure for the working class

The Edo period (Tokugawa shogunate) begins, a feudal military dictatorship that will last until 1868. Japan is unified and the shogun's rule is consolidated in Edo, now Tokyo. This time accompanies a growing economic expansion and a renaissance of Japanese art. Until then, art was reserved for the elite,...
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457 - 479
Japan - Empire of Yūryaku Tennō
The practice of tattooing as a punishment continues

The Nihon Shoki (second oldest book on the history of Japan, published in 1720) tells how the emperor Yūryaku Tennō punishes one of his servants with a tattoo on his face. References: Wikipedia

400 - 405
Japan - Richū Tennō Empire
Early accounts of tattooing used as grief

The Nihon Shoki (second oldest book on the history of Japan, published in 1720) mentions the story "of the eye of Azumi", where the emperor Richū Tennō uses tattooing as a punishment for a crime. References: Wikipedia

Chinese writer tells the story of Japanese tattoos

Chen Shou, a Chinese writer who lived between 233 and 297, mentions the tattoos of the inhabitants of Wa (Japan). He tells that the Japanese tattooed their bodies and faces, and that the practice was between women and men, adults and children. References: Wikipedia Wikipedia

The earliest written mention of the Chinese about Japan cites tattoos
libro de han china

In the Book of Han (Chinese historical book concluded in the year 111), Japan, then called by the Chinese as the "country of Wa", is mentioned for the first time and it is reported that the Japanese wear tattoos. Penal_tattoo_o_irezumi

71 - 130
Japan - Keikō Tennō Empire
The most ancient Japanese writings talk about tattoos
Nihon Shoki

The first written sources originating in Japan are the Kojiki (year 712) and the Nihon Shoki (year 720) and they relate the existence of tattoos since the 1st century in Japan. It is worth remembering that the first review of the Nihon Shoki book mentions the tattoos of the Emishi people during the reign...
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400 B.C.
A tattooed princess
La princesa de Ukok - Una princesa tatuada

The tattooed princess of Ukok, also known as ice lady or princess of Altai was found in 1993 in Siberia (border between Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan). This Scythian woman lived in the 5th century B.C. and has a very elaborate drawing that seems to be of a deer on...
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3351 to 3017 B.C.
Tattoos in ancient Egypt
Tatuajes en el antiguo Egipto

Recent research shows that the mummies of the Gebelein man and woman have tattoos. These findings conclude that tattooing was practiced during the pre-dynastic period in Egypt. Two horned animals were identified on the man and four small drawings in the form of horns were identified on the woman....
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3255 BC.
Ötzi, the tattooed ice man

Ötzi the Iceman, remained frozen in the Italian Alps until 1991 when he was found by German mountaineers. Ötzi bore several tattoos of parallel stripes and some of crosses.

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