A brief history of tattoos

Julian Humphrys looks at the rise in popularity of the tattoo

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This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When did we British start getting tattoos?

It’s often claimed that it originated in the 18th century when sailors serving on Captain James Cook’s Pacific expeditions saw the tattoos of the native Polynesians and decided to get some for themselves. However it’s clear that tattooing was known about and practised in western Europe well before this. Nevertheless, as well as giving us the word ‘tattoo’ (from the Tahitian ‘tatau’), those sailors set a trend that spread throughout the Royal Navy and, by the early 19th century, most British tars sported a tattoo.

Who got tattoos?

For decades after this, tattoos were largely the preserve of minority cultures – at both ends of the social spectrum. While they remained associated with sailors, soldiers and the criminal underclass, by the late 19th century they were also popular with the well-to-do. The future Edward VII was tattooed with a cross while visiting Jerusalem in 1862 and, 20 years later, the future George V obtained a large dragon tattoo while serving with the Royal Navy. Inevitably this set a trend among the upper classes.

Were they restricted to upper-class men?

Decidedly not. Many upper-class women sported tattoos too. Winston Churchill’s mother reputedly had a snake tattooed on her wrist. Virginia Courtauld (wife of philanthropist and patron of the arts, Stephen Courtauld) had one on her ankle.

How was tattooing carried out?

Initially by hand but in 1891 New York tattooist Samuel O’Reilly introduced the first electric tattoo machine. Tattooing was still painful but it was now quicker and cheaper and, as more people started getting tattoos, they fell from favour with the upper classes.

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Why the popularity today?

For much of the last century, tattoos were associated in the eyes of many with groups to be avoided or feared but from the 1980s they began to be seen less as signs of potential social deviance and more as legitimate pieces of self-expression. This process was aided by the popularity of tattoos among role models such as sportsmen, singers, actors, and it’s thought that in Britain today one adult in five has a tattoo.