Ink with meaning: What we can learn from the tattoos of our ancestors | CNN (2022)

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Chinese tattoo artist Da Hua at his studio. He first started out practicing his designs on pig skin bought at the local market.

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Da Hua shows some of his influences.

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An example of Da Hua's work depicting a quote from the Bible. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." Psalm 23:1.

(Video) Aztec Tattoo Artist Uses Ink to Honor Ancestors

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Da Hua took inspiration from a famous Chinese legend for this design.

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Another design by Da Hua.

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(Video) Icelander REACTS to VIKING TATTOOS

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He Wei, a 37 year old freelance designer from Beijing getting inked up at Creation Tattoo. He says that without tattoos his body would feel so empty.

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Qiao Zhengfei, a tattoo artist who opened up her own studio in her native Xiamen before moving her business to Beijing. She specializes in "blackwork," an intricate form based on a style of embroidery.

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An example of Qiao Zhengfei's work.

(Video) More than Skin Deep: The Significance of Tattoos

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on in 2015.

Story highlights

Tattoos are more popular than ever before

A tattoo speaks volumes about cultural background and personal identity


Eight thousand years ago, a pencil mustache was tattooed onto the upper lip of a young Peruvian man. His mummified body has since become the oldest existing example of tattoo art on the planet.

Today’s world is, of course, almost unrecognizable by comparison. But according to professor Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University – author of a new book about body art – the tattoo has made a powerful comeback.

“There has been an extraordinary, epochal change in the last 25 years,” he said. “When I was a child in the 1960s, we didn’t see tattoos everywhere. But there has been an explosion in popularity, and this tells us a lot about who we are, both culturally and as individuals.”

In fact, according to some studies, up to 38% of Americans and a fifth of British adults have some type of long-term body art.

Many interlocking factors have a bearing on the popularity of the tattoo. Foremost among them is a change in the popular conception of the body.

“Because of advances in technology and medical science, people no longer understand the body as something natural that you’re born with and live with. Instead, we understand it much more as something that is changeable and mutable,” Thomas said.

“People have all sorts of surgical interventions, medical and cosmetic. It is even possible to change your gender. This means that we now see our body as something we have a responsibility to design and make. Even something as simple as a fitness routine or a tan indicates this attitude.”

Society isn’t quite ready for facial tattoos

In addition, as global mobility leads to the increasing pluralization of society, identity is being seen as something to be designed rather than inherited.

(Video) Transforming Lives With Tattoos | Ink Revolution (Body Art Documentary) | Real Stories

“People are no longer simply British or Australian or Californian,” he said. “Our identities are far more particular, linked to our interests, affinities to cultural or spiritual traditions, tastes in music and subcultural allegiances. The tattoo has become a vehicle for that sort of particular identification.”

The recent surge in popularity for tattooing started in the California countercultural scene of the ’60s and ‘70s. During the 20th century, tattoos had become associated with criminals, sailors and members of the military, who had become dislocated from mainstream society and wanted to stamp a commemoration of that experience on their bodies.

Californians took that trend and subverted it, inventing their own designs and viewing body ink as an art form rather than a type of social branding.

More recently, there’s been a return to traditional forms of tribal tattoos. Ancient Celtic designs or those originating in the Pacific Islands provide inspiration for a great number of body ink enthusiasts (although it remains unusual to see a young man with a tattoo of a pencil mustache).

In the past, however, tattoos were not used to form individual identities. Instead, they tended to be a collective cultural project, constituting particular social markers. Sometimes, they created a spectacular appearance when a tribe all shared the same design; in other instances, they were used as initiation or coming-of-age rites.

“In Samoa, men have elaborate tattoos inked on their thighs, buttocks and lower chest,” Thomas said. “It is a painful ordeal that requires a man to submit to the authority of the elders. When he emerges, he is celebrated as a hero.”

Tattoos and piercings: How young is too young?

The Samoans, and many other traditional communities, saw having a tattoo as an important process rather than a possession. The whole body was tattooed at once, and it was rarely supplemented. By contrast, the modern tattoo enthusiast tends to view them as an expanding collection that creates permanent markers of important moments in an individual’s life.

“Globalization is exposing us to a whole range of traditions from many places,” Thomas said. “Body art is becoming the opposite of conformity, a sort of badge of travel or internationalism. People visit places and make them parts of themselves, so that they will forever bear marks of their unique visit.”

As Johnny Depp once put it, “My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.” But does this indicate an underlying cultural anxiety? Are we literally growing less comfortable in our own skin?

“That’s part of it,” Thomas said. “As the world opens up culturally and economically, there are fewer certainties than there ever were before, and far more multiplicity. So people are trying to invent themselves and make it permanent.”

Often, he continues, people who feel that a spiritual dimension is missing in contemporary Western life may be attracted to the spiritual symbols of traditional cultures around the world, which are often “understood naively in terms of spirituality.”

Suffering from ‘tattoo regret’

The decline of Christianity in the West has also had a degree of influence on the rise of the tattoo. Some streams of Christianity have condemned body art due to the perceived sanctity of the body. But this is far from universal.

During the Renaissance, for example, European devotees who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land often had tattoos of Christian symbols or scenes to commemorate the experience. Many were carried out by the Razzouk family in the Old City of Jerusalem (members of that family are still carrying out the service today).

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    But whatever your type of tattoo, research has shown that it profoundly alters the way in which you will be perceived. Adults with tattoos have been shown to be more sexually active, to engage in riskier behavior and to have stronger self-esteem and body confidence, though this sharply declined in women three weeks after the tattoo.

    Moreover, academic studies of first impressions of people with tattoos have revealed that they were expected to have had more sexual partners, be less inhibited and be probable thrill-seekers.

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    Whether tattoos are the cause or the effect of such personality types is a moot point. But one thing is certain: given that the fragmentation and diversification of modern life shows no sign of reducing, body art is going to be here to stay.


    Did our ancestors have tattoos? ›

    Preserved tattoos on ancient mummified human remains reveal that tattooing has been practiced throughout the world for millennia. In 2015, scientific re-assessment of the age of the two oldest known tattooed mummies identified Ötzi as the oldest example then known.

    Why are tattoos important? ›

    The history of tattooing goes back for thousands of years, and the reasons for getting tattooed are many. These permanent markings are always personal, they can be plain or elaborate, and they serve as amulets, healing and status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religion, adornments and even forms of punishment.

    Where did tattoos originally come from? ›

    The oldest documented tattoos belong to Otzi the Iceman, whose preserved body was discovered in the Alps between Austria and Italy in 1991. He died around 3300 B.C., says Jablonski, but the practice of inserting pigment under the skin's surface originated long before Otzi.

    What is in the tattoo ink? ›

    Organic chemicals used include azo-chemicals (orange, brown, yellow, green, violet) and naptha-derived chemicals (red). Carbon is also used for black. Other elements used as pigments include antimony, arsenic, beryllium, calcium, lithium, selenium, and sulphur.

    What does the Bible say about tattoos? ›

    But in the ancient Middle East, the writers of the Hebrew Bible forbade tattooing. Per Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.” Historically, scholars have often understood this as a warning against pagan practices of mourning.

    What were tattoos originally used for? ›

    The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians, and used it to mark slaves and criminals so they could be identified if they tried to escape. The Romans in turn adopted this practice from the Greeks.

    Are tattoos good for your health? ›

    Tattoos breach the skin, which means that skin infections and other complications are possible, including: Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes — especially red, green, yellow and blue dyes — can cause allergic skin reactions, such as an itchy rash at the tattoo site. This can occur even years after you get the tattoo.

    What is the value tattoo? ›

    Value indicates the lightness of a color. The scale of value ranges from 0 for pure black to 10 for pure white. Black, white and the grays (as shown in figure 2) between them are called “neutral colors”. They have no hue.

    How Are tattoos a form of self expression? ›

    Tattooing is an art form which lets a person express their inner self. Those who are familiar with this art can tell you a lot about someone's life, interests and beliefs without having an actual conversation with that person. In popular culture, tattoos are also trendsetters.

    What is the oldest tattoo? ›

    Researchers have discovered the oldest figurative tattoos in the world on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.
    • The oldest example of tattooing is found on the Alpine mummy known as Ötzi who is thought to have lived between 3370 and 3100 BC. ...
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    1 Mar 2018

    How do tattoos work? ›

    The ink is injected into the dermis by a machine that delivers thousands of tiny pricks per minute via needle. The ink-filled needles push color into the skin, allowing the tattoo artist to create permanent designs, images and masterpieces.

    What is tattoo ink called? ›

    To put it as simply as possible, tattoo inks of any kind comprise a tattoo colorant or pigment, and a carrier. Tattoo colorants or pigments, contrary to popular opinion, are not dyes; these are colored compounds used to give the tattoo the needed color while remaining visible in the skin.

    What was ancient tattoo ink made from? ›

    Earliest inks were made of charcoal, ash and other materials that could be found in nature. As the time passed more complex recipes for ink were invented. Roman physician Aetius had a recipe for tattoo ink that consisted of pine bark, corroded bronze mixed with vinegar, insect eggs and vitriol.

    What does the Bible say about ancestors? ›

    The Bible expressly forbids any practices which have a remote connection with any form of idolatry. Ancestor worship which has the notion of divine appellation intrinsic to it is therefore clearly forbidden by the Scriptures.

    What is the meaning of having a tattoo? ›

    If you're dreaming about getting a tattoo, it could represent your impulsive nature. You might even be silently fretting about previous decisions, or how you may have treated people badly during an impulsive moment in the past. It could even hint at your having insulted or hurt someone.

    Is tattoo a sin in the Bible? ›

    The Hebrew prohibition is based on interpreting Leviticus 19:28—"Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you"—so as to prohibit tattoos, and perhaps even makeup.

    How old are tattoos? ›

    Tattoos are considered one of the oldest forms of art. The oldest evidence of tattoos dates back to 3370 BC. If we're measuring from the present day, that's 5,390 years ago. Yes, that's a whopping 3,370 years before Christ was born.

    How were tattoos viewed in the past? ›

    Cultural attitudes towards tattoos have shifted, as well. In ancient times, people used tattoos for a variety of purposes. With the rise of Christianity, many cultures began to frown on tattoos and view them as unholy and sacrilegious. Today, attitudes are shifting back more in the direction of our ancient ancestors.

    How many people get tattoos? ›

    Three in ten (30%) of Americans have at least one tattoo, an increase from 21% in 2012. The vast majority of those with at least one tattoo (92%) say they are happy with it, and forty-six percent of respondents have had at least one tattoo for more than ten years.

    Do tattoos make you stronger? ›

    According to new research from the University of Alabama (UA), receiving multiple tattoos can actively strengthen immunological responses and increase the body's ability to fight off generic infections such as the common cold.

    Why do tattoos make me happy? ›

    The endorphins your body releases during tattooing can make you feel good and cause a euphoric feeling. This feeling may linger for a little while, and it's not unusual to want to experience it again.

    Does tattoos affect your blood? ›

    Introducing ink, metal, or any other foreign material into your body affects your immune system and may expose you to harmful viruses. This can affect what's in your bloodstream, especially if you got your tattoo somewhere that isn't regulated or doesn't follow safe practices.

    Why are there so many tattoos? ›

    Given the rich history, perhaps it's not surprising that tattoos have become more and more popular once again. In part, this is because they are being worn by public figures such as celebrities, athletes, and people within the fashion industry.

    When did tattoos become popular? ›

    And then there were the tattoos that were truly mainstream: In the 1930s, when Social Security numbers were introduced, people flocked to tattoo parlors to get their numbers inscribed on their arms, chests or backs as a memory aide.

    What Are tattoos a form of? ›

    A tattoo is a form of body modification made by inserting tattoo ink, dyes, and/or pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the dermis layer of the skin to form a design.

    Why do people get tattoos? ›

    Peer pressure, media influence, and personal expression are some of the common reasons for wearing tattoos today. The desire to be part of a group, to be accepted by one's friends or peers, can have a great influence on what a person does. Sometimes, wearing a tattoo can be a sign that you belong to a certain group.

    How Are tattoos a form of communication? ›

    Since the tattoos are on such visible locations, they act as a form of nonverbal communication aimed at other players and fans. In this way, the bodies of players become communicative texts through the presence of tattoos. The presence of tattoos also acts as nonverbal communication about skill.

    What is thought to have been used as ink for the earliest tattoos? ›

    Ancient Egyptian tattoo needles were thought to be made from bronze. Needles came in different sizes, in order to create both intricate and basic designs. The first tattoos used homemade inks. These inks were likely made from ash or soot, mixed with oil or breast milk.

    What cultures have tattoos? ›

    Buddhism and Hinduism use tattoos extensively, while Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in general frown on or forbid the use of tattoos. Many of today's cultures still embrace tattoos for a variety of reasons.

    Why did early Filipinos tattoo their bodies? ›

    Depending on the region, tattoos were seen as a sign of bravery, a symbol of social standing, and a rite of passage. Visayan warriors who were covered with tattoos were called Pintados. Each tattoo etched on the fighters' bodies, according to Ocampo, symbolizes social class and bravery.

    What are word tattoos called? ›

    Words and Phrases

    Word and phrase tattoos, which are sometimes called "script" when referring to cursive designs, are popular because there are no real rules or structure to them—other than that they have to contain letters.

    What is the most common tattoo in the world? ›

    When it came to less-specific trends, animal tattoos were the most popular choice - making up 16.3 per cent of inks. While script tattoos, such as Chinese characters and quotes, came second with 13.6 per cent - and flower tattoos came third, with 12.5 per cent.

    Can tattoo be removed? ›

    Credit: Unwanted tattoos can be removed gradually over a series of sessions using a laser. The energy from the laser breaks down the tattoo ink into tiny fragments, which are eventually absorbed into the bloodstream and safely passed out of the body.

    How do tattoos last forever? ›

    French researchers say they have found the answer, and it's a little bit surprising. They found that immune system cells called macrophages eat the ink, and then pass it to their replacements when they die. So the tattoo ink doesn't stain skin cells, as many people had believed.

    What happens to tattoos over time? ›

    Every single tattoo you get will fade over time; some tattoos will start fading after only a couple of years, while others will start fading in your older age. Tattoos done at a young age will start fading in your 40s and 50s, while the tattoos done later in life will take longer to start fading.

    What happens after you get a tattoo? ›

    The tattoo healing process is fairly straightforward. Swelling, pain, and oozing typically resolve by day three and are followed by itching and peeling for another week, in our experts' experience. Your tattoo may even look darker and duller than expected for the first month.

    What is ink made of? ›

    Ink can be a complex mixture, containing a variety of substances such as solvents, resins, alcohol, lubricants, carbon, pigments, dyes, aniline, dextrine, glycerine, fluorescents and other materials.

    How much ink is used in a tattoo? ›

    Taking into account that a single square inch of your skin takes roughly 1/25 oz. of pigment to fully saturate. The normal, small sized ink cap (#9) requires 1/25 oz. to fill.

    What does red ink tattoo mean? ›

    It connotes passion, love, blood, anger, and fire. Those are all things that can consume and destroy you. They also make life thrilling. Perhaps Jenner chose to go with red ink as a contrast to the tattoo's meaning.

    Is there a difference in tattoo ink? ›

    Different types of inks have different purposes and will produce varying results. Some inks are made specifically for lining, whereas others are others are intended for colouring solid areas, and the style of tattooing you do will have an influence on the type of ink and coverage you go for.

    Can you mix tattoo ink? ›

    Luckily, tattoo inks can be mixed, diluted, blended, they can be made darker or lighter. A professional can create one's own tattoo ink combining some new colors. Mixing gives a great opportunity to turn few colors into many tints.

    What happens in the skin that allows tattoo ink to remain and become permanent? ›

    The dermal cells remain in place until they die, and when they have completed their life span, they are absorbed by younger cells. This means that the ink travels from one generation of cells to the next, and so the tattoo remains in place.

    How did they make tattoo ink? ›

    In the past, pigments used to be made with ground-up carbon or ash to create a black ink. Many ancient tribes used the soot from charred woods for their tribal markings. Today's inks still use some original mineral pigments, in addition to modern industrial organic ones.

    What makes the tattoo ink stay in your skin? ›

    To be clear, most of the tattoo pigment stays put after a person gets a tattoo. The ink that's not cleared away by special repair cells, called macrophages, stays in the dermis within trapped macrophages or skin cells called fibroblasts.

    What is the psychology behind tattoos? ›

    They have found that individuals with tattoos report that they feel more attractive, stronger and more self-confident—having overcome the fear of pain. [ii] For some, tattoos seem to go deeper than just underneath the skin, creating a deep personal change, which makes him or her mentally stronger.

    What does having tattoos say about a person? ›

    A study completed in 2007 in Germany evaluating tattooed and non-tattooed individuals using a Big Five Personality Inventory found that tattooed individuals scored higher on the subscale of extraversion, and lower on the subscale of neuroticism (Wohlrab, 2007).

    Why are tattoos empowering? ›

    Tattoos can have deep meaning, a permanent reminder of something powerful in life or an experience that cannot and should not be forgotten. Many times, tattoos can give people a feeling of empowerment, a design that inspires and reminds them of something they have overcome.

    What are the pros and cons of having a tattoo? ›

    Top 10 Tattoos Pros & Cons – Summary List
    Tattoos ProsTattoos Cons
    Tattoos can make you more attractiveTattoos can be expensive
    Can cover up your skinGetting tattoos can be painful
    Getting tattoos may increase your confidenceTattoos will fade over time
    Tattoos can help you remember loved onesYou may choose the wrong design
    6 more rows

    What kind of person has tattoos? ›

    Men were more likely than women to report a tattoo, but the highest rates of tattooing were found among women in their 20s (29.4%). Men and women ages 20-39 were most likely to have been tattooed, as were men with lower levels of education, tradesmen, and women with live-out partners.

    Why do tattoos make me happy? ›

    The endorphins your body releases during tattooing can make you feel good and cause a euphoric feeling. This feeling may linger for a little while, and it's not unusual to want to experience it again.

    Are people with tattoos mental? ›

    A study of a community sample of women (Reference Romans, Martin and MorrisRomans 1998) found that being tattooed was associated with more psychiatric symptoms, borderline personality characteristics as well as increased alcohol use. Childhood sexual abuse was reported more often in women with tattoos.

    Do tattoos have meanings? ›

    Tattoos may be skin deep, but their significance sometimes goes deeper. The messages sent by body art are an individual's self-expression, but there are recurring motifs that can often tell you something about the wearer.

    Why do people love tattoos? ›

    People get tattoos for many reasons: for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, a visual display of a personal narrative, reminders of spiritual/cultural traditions, sexual motivation, addiction, identification with a group or even drunken impulsiveness (which is why many tattoo parlors are open late) ...

    What do you call people who love tattoos? ›

    the_definition_of_words Stigmatophile: a person who loves tattoos; piercings. ...

    What tattoo represents life? ›

    The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that represents life.

    Are tattoos spiritual? ›

    They are spiritual birthmarks, soul prints of our consciousness. They hold space for an inner archetype to come forward and are also a modality for inviting new energy into your being. Their mystical value goes deeper than your skin. Consciously tattooing can be a vehicle for self-empowerment.

    Which tattoo is good for success? ›

    Lavender Tattoo

    Lavender is an auspicious plant representing good fortune, happiness, and success. This plant is also known for its natural mood-lifting effects, and it delivers a slew of benefits. Lavender is also a symbol of purity, love, and dedication to one's significant other.

    Does tattoos affect your blood? ›

    Introducing ink, metal, or any other foreign material into your body affects your immune system and may expose you to harmful viruses. This can affect what's in your bloodstream, especially if you got your tattoo somewhere that isn't regulated or doesn't follow safe practices.

    Can we give blood after tattoo? ›

    You must be in good health at the time you donate. You cannot donate if you have a cold, flu, sore throat, cold sore, stomach bug or any other infection. If you have recently had a tattoo or body piercing you cannot donate for 6 months from the date of the procedure.

    Can someone with tattoo donate blood? ›

    Yes, you can donate blood if you have tattoos

    If you got a tattoo in the last three months, it is completely healed, and was applied by a state-regulated facility, which uses sterile needles and fresh ink—and you meet all donor eligibility requirements—you can donate blood!


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