How Freaks and Warriors Made America Obsessed with Tattoos

Similar to the great Renaissance art, tattoos have a long and fascinating history. From mummies to sailors we look back on how we got so obsessed with tattoos.

Body modification, more specifically tattoos, have been around for at least 5,000 years. Some art historians and archaeologists theorize that it’s been around longer however, it’s not likely mostly due to the lack of organic evidence. Which basically means there’s no way to get prehistoric skin but there are few exceptions.

Otzi, a frozen mummified Paleolithic man contains the earliest evidence of tattoo. They were basically rudimentary and boring tattoos, mostly just lines and small crosses nothing too complex.


However, fast forward 2,000 years to East Asia in areas such as Japan, China and Polynesia you start to see tattoos get more complex as well as flourish in much of these areas. Warriors in both Japan and Polynesia donned tattoos as trophies for victories over their enemies as well as signs of manhood.


The process was long and excruciatingly painful but to these warriors it was worth the pain.



However, Western society took longer to get into it. Finally, by the 1700s sailors on Captain James Cook’s crew first chose to get tattoos as mementos of their journey to the great tattoo cultures of Japan, China and the Pacific Islands. And that’s pretty much how it stayed for the next 200 years or so.

The closest tattoos brushed against accessibility was on the arms of enlisted servicemen (mostly sailors), freaks and hobos. Pretty much the underground/ back culture of those times.


Then came World War II and American sailors and marines were thrust into the East Asia for war. As they battled some saw the body art that was seen on the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers and were fascinated by their complex art.

Many chose to either get stuff just like it or imitate their art and through these soldiers and artists many copied Japan’s traditional big bold style and gave it an American feel. Instead of a dragon flying around, you’d have an eagle with an anchor and a US flag wrapped around it.


They were bright, beautiful, easy, and simple and through its simplicity it gave many artists ideas on how to approach their art and create new styles of original work, unlike those of Otzi the Iceman 5,000 years prior. As soldiers and sailors continued to get tattooed so did their kids and their kids and so on.

However by the end of World War II and through out the later part of the 20th century, tattoos were still seen as a part of the counter-culture and less desirable but as more and more people started getting tattooed the more it became acceptable.

Of course you still have to hide the occasional embarrassing tribal or lower back tattoo but that shouldn’t stop anyone from being a little weird and like all art, tattoos are subjective.


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