A History of Tattoos

How do tattoos remain in the skin?
24 October 2017

Interview with 

Dr Matt Lodder, University of Essex


Hands covered in tattoos


We couldn’t talk about skin without mentioning an ancient practice that is still very much popular today. The art of Tattoos. Like them, or loathe them, we’ve been using our skin as a canvas for thousands of years. Tattoo Art Historian, Dr Matt Lodder, from the University of Essex explained the tattoo process to Georgia Mills...

Matt - The biomechanics of tattooing is quite straightforward. It’s simply the insertion of ink particles into the dermal layer of your skin - you heard about that earlier on. It’s essentially an immune response, as your body’s trying to remove this strange foreign body. It send cells called macrophage which try and remove the particles but the particles are too big for the immune system to remove, so they just sit there encompassed in this immune cell and it doesn’t go anywhere for the rest of your life.

Georgia - I suppose they’re deep down enough that the layer isn’t shed off?

Matt - Absolutely. There is a bit of movement over your life but not a huge amount.

Georgia - Yeah. You see sometimes that they get a bit stretchy.

Matt - Yeah, and a bit blurred.

Georgia - I was surprised this isn’t a modern practice, this has been going on for a long time. So what’s the oldest evidence that we have of a tattoo?

Matt - We can infer tattooing through things like anthropomorphic sculpture back to the Neolithic. But the earliest evidence we have of an actual piece of preserved tattooed skin was dug up in the Austro-Italian alps in the early 90s and it dates back to about 5½ thousand years ago, so 3½ thousand years BC. Essentially we think tattooing is about as old as humanity but 3½ thousand years before the common era is about as old we can go.

Georgia - I’m trying to imagine what a tattoo from 5 thousand years ago would look like. What was it?

Matt - This specimen is called Otzi - Otzi the Iceman - he’s got kind of little crosses and tally marks on various sites of his body: on his ankles, his knees, his wrists, and his stomach. It’s thought, although we can’t prove this, it’s inferred that they’re some kind of magical or medicinal because the tattoos are found on sites where there are signs of things like arthritis and other kinds of injury. So perhaps they were magical or intended as medicinal in some way.

Georgia - Oh, right. And I suppose looking back through history do tattoos always seem to fulfil the same roles - are all cultures using them?

Matt - We find tattooing or other forms of skin marking in pretty much every culture we’ve ever encountered but the uses vary. Often they’re decorative, sometimes they’re symbolic and ritual, other times perhaps they’re magical or intended for some medicinal purpose.

Georgia - How were these tattoos being done all this time ago - do we know?

Matt - For Otzi we don’t know, but to make a tattoo you just really need a sharp stick and some ink, or a sharp needle of some kind. We find the very basic poking type of tattoo across the world and that’s a needle made from bone or from literally sharpened sticks. In some cultures you find really interesting practices, so Inuit tattooing in North America, for example, tattooing was made by sewing sinew of Cariboo coated in ink through the skin, which produces a particular dot/dash kind of pattern.

Georgia - Oww! People really suffer for their art then?

Matt - Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think it was very pleasant.

Georgia - The modern technique, it’s thankfully not being sewed through with Cariboo?

Matt - No.

Georgia - So how did that get developed?

Matt - You can still get that done. There are still friends of mine who still do that on people if you want that. But the modern tattoo machine is an invention of the Victorian era really. It comes with the era of the novel electric device. In fact, the first ever handheld electric device, which was a machine for filling dental cavities, and very, very quickly got turned into a tattoo machine in the 1880s and 90s

Georgia - Looking back through history, what’s your favourite example of tattoo use - how people are using tattoos on their bodies?

Matt - I’m an art historian, so I like seeing things people are copying. In the Victorian era, which I’m really enamoured with, you find people getting these amazing, beautiful copies of their favourite paintings. Huge back pieces done over the course of several days. It probably also wouldn’t have been very pleasant, but the tattooist in the Victorian period used to inject cocaine as an anaesthetic.


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