top of page

The History of Tattooing across the Western Imagination

Traditionally involving the rubbing of ink into deep cuts for reasons such as spirituality or right-of-passage, ‘tattoo’ is derived from the Tahitian word ta-tu, or ‘to strike’. Widely attributed to Australasian, Micronesian and Papuan communities, ancient hand-poked tattooing has been recorded across the world (Deter-Wolf, 2013), from the Romans and Vikings of Europe to the Aztecs and Native tribes of the Americas, representing status and often indicating life achievements. Yet across modern Western landscapes, the popularity of tattoos has fluctuated. Oscillating between periods of embracement and fascination, to criminal associations and demonisation, this article unpacks the the dynamic production and consumption of tattooing across Europe and North America, to highlight how this ancient social practice has become a form of identity and individuality in the Western world today.

Tattooing has been practiced across Western Europe "from time immemorial" through to "the sailors of the Mediterranean, the Catalans, French, Italians, and Maltese" (Claret de Fleurieu, 1801), tattoos resurged within 18th century Europe with the return of Captain James Cook from Polynesia (Werner, 2005). Embedded in imperialist and orientalist themes, aristocratic European society held a fascinated horror with the tattooed body, corporealising imaginative geographies of the exotic Other (Said, 1979). Despite this initial popularity, the proliferation of exoticised entertainment through ethnic shows and ‘habitat exhibits’ across Europe and North America, such as the display of tattooed Tahitian communities (Werner, 2005), fetishized the tattooed body as primitive and ‘freakish’ (Kerchy and Zittlau, 2012). Tattoos were simultaneously exonerated or demonised through structures of class and social background, as well as position in colonial worlds as either subject or oppressor.

Figure 1: Abel Tarrant, 'The Tattooed Man', as one of DC's antagonists (Winnick, Raney and Parsons, 2004)

The short-lived rise of beach-combing in the late 18th century, where white European sailors returned from living amongst Polynesian communities adorned with tribal tattoos, uncovered the vulnerability of whiteness, rendering such bodies as liminal figures; many such beachcombers went on to earn their living through performing in side shows as "made freaks" (Fordham, 2007; Cummings, 2003), cementing their marginalised status. Through subverting racially-instigated white, unblemished ideals, tattoos became associated with the "underbelly of society" (Gilman, 1985), plus the pathlogisation of the body in the early 20th century alongside the positivist revolution shifted associations of tattooed individuals from exotic to criminal and mentally unstable. Studies of tattooed males in psychiatric wards and prisons (Gittleson et al., 1969), reaffirmed public conceptions of tattoos as degenerate and abnormal , increasingly cementing tattoos as symbols of societal outcasts. This affiliation with deviant bodies such as the military, gang members and prisoners (Kosut, 2006) — traditionally male dominated groups - further masculinised the practice of tattooing and promoted aggressive associations. This even led to the illegalisation of tattooing across certain parts of the United States, such as New York City in 1961.

Figure 2: A tattoo artist working on his client's skin (n.d.)

Nevertheless, this defiance to norms of "unblemished skin" (Irwin, 2003) encouraged many marginal groups to celebrate tattooing as a sign of resistance and collective identity. Post-War discontent left communities, especially working-class youths, at economic and societal margins eager to materialise their own collectives (Hall and Jefferson, 1993; Steward et al., 1990). Collective membership around traditional and structural agencies such as class and non-confirmative ideologies could be reinforced through indelible ink (Rosenberg and Sharp, 2018), as specific tattoos became used to express a group identity towards certain subcultures. From anti-establishment Punks who rocked skeletons, skulls, and corpses, to a working-class Skinhead solidarity reinforced via chest tattoos of a crucified skinhead martyr, tattoos became a form of subversive symbolic capital for post-War youth subcultures to identify with.

Figure 3: Examples of old school punk tattoos, focused heavily on skeletal and deathly imagery (n.d.)

Alongside these discourses of deviance and resistance, attitudes towards tattoos began to widen throughout the latter half of the 20th century. The ‘Tattoo Renaissance’ was pioneered by ink artists in the 1950s and 1970s, with one key figure, American tattooist Don Ed Hardy, being widely credited with pioneering modern tattoo styles. His emphasis towards neo-Japanese styles after studying in Japan under traditional tebori master Horihide in 1973 indicated a modernising shift in the way Orientalist practices of acquisition were carried out under discourses of globalisation and creative hybridisation (Yamada, 2009). Tattoo styles began diversifying, becoming avant-garde through Japanese, single-needle and tribal styles rather than fixating on bold Traditional American or scripture, encouraging personal agency and creative expression regarding the unlimited choice of tattoo style individuals now possessed.

Figure 4: Don Ed Hardy, prominent artist the rise of American tattooing, drawing a design. (N.d.)

In the last three decades, the tattoo industry has experienced rising popularity, with estimations of 40% of British adults being 'inked' (Dalia Research GmbH, 2018). Individuals traditionally distanced from the marginalised tattoo community (Pitts, 2003), including middle-classes, professionals and women (Irwin, 2001), are becoming inked. This limbing attraction has been attributed to greater tattoo sanitisation, accessibility to tattoo removal and positive media and trend-setting through celebrity influence (Velliquette et al., 1998), but the shifting mindset of society towards individualism and employing personal agency demonstrates how the relationship between subcultural capital, conceptualisations of authenticity and tattooing is changing.

Even so, it is this very labelling of tattoos as subversive to conventional society that subcultural scholars such as Hebdige (1979) argue to be part of the sequence of the incorporation of subcultures into the mainstream (Heath and Potter, 2006). In this sequence, confrontation becomes conformation, and rebellion is redefined as fashion. Hebdige's post-War analysis of society explored how subcultures such as Punks, Teddy Boys and so forth emerged as challenges to social normalisations, situating each subculture within historic, racial, socioeconomic and class backgrounds (Torode, 1981). He posited that subcultures follow the same trajectory: stemming from common resistance and utilising style as symbolic subversion, the dominant society then assesses such groups as radical and dangerous to social order, thus finds ways to appropriate and commodify their style to containing recklessness, making it available to mainstream society (Heath and Potter, 2006). Style, ranging from music to drug-use, becomes incorporated into the fashion system — a "supermarket of style" where everything is up for grabs and holds little meaning (Sweetman, 1999). Applying Hebdige’s theory to the context of indelible inking, tattoos can be considered as transforming from being socially ‘othered’, to core components of resistive movements, and eventually being incorporated by discriminating mainstream society (Hebdige, 1979). The proliferation of tattoos across Western society thus arguably showcases the transition of tattoos from the margins to the core of society as a form of incorporation.

Figure 5: Statistics about tattoed population in United States and United Kingdom (2020).

Yet, it is imperative to reflect how tattoos evolved into reflections of the individualism within contemporary Western society rather than static repurposed symbols of mediated and neutralised insurgence by dominant society. Tattoos are valuable as they inhabit a unique position within subcultural discourses, as enthusiasts may get inked for purely aesthetic reasons or on a whim (Thomas, 2012; Eubanks, 1996), but may also embody rich and multi-layered meanings representing an interaction of body and mind (De Certeau, 1984). In a neoliberal world where individual agency is often valued over the traditional and structural agencies of the post-War era, tattoos allow for the embracement of individualism regardless of hegemonic narratives or subversive discourses that lay claim to the shifting attitudes towards this body art.

Bibliographical References

Atkinson, M. (2004). Tattooing and civilizing processes: Body modification as self‐control. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie, 41(2), 125-146.

Cummings, W. (2003). Orientalism's Corporeal Dimension: Tattooed Bodies and Eighteenth-Century Oceans. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 4(2).

Dalia Research GmbH. (2018). Global Tattoo Survey Results. 16_Pressrelease_Tattoo_Survey.pdf

Eubanks, V. (1996). Zones of dither: Writing the postmodern body. Body & Society, 2(3).

Fordham, B. A. (2007). Dangerous bodies: Freak shows, expression, and exploitation. UCLA Entertainment Law Review, 14(2), 207-246.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (A. Sheridan, trans). Allen Lane.

Heath, J. and Potter, A. (2006). The rebel sell: How the counterculture became consumer culture. Capstone Publising.

Irwin, K. (2003). Saints and sinners: Elite tattoo collectors and tattooists as positive and negative deviants. Sociological Spectrum, 23(1), 27-57.

Kerchy, A. and Zittlau, A. (2012). Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows and ‘Enfreakment’. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Kosut, M. (2006). Mad artists and tattooed perverts: Deviant discourse and the social construction of cultural categories. Deviant Behavior, 27(1), 73-95.

Kosut, M. (2006). An ironic fad: The commodification and consumption of tattoos. The journal of popular culture, 39(6), 1035-1048.

Pitts, V. (1999). Body modification, self-mutilation and agency in media accounts of a subculture. Body & Society, 5(2-3), 291-303.

Pitts, V. (2003). In the flesh: The cultural politics of body modification. Springer

Sweetman, P. (1999). Anchoring the (postmodern) self? Body modification, fashion and identity. Body & Society, 5(2-3), 51-76.

Thomas, M.L. (2012). Sick/beautiful/freak: nonmainstream body modification and the social construction of deviance. SAGE Open, 2(4).

Werner, A. (2005). Savage skins: The freakish subject of tattooed beachcombers. Kunapipi, 27(1).

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Emily Duchenne

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page