Table of contents for Tattoo history
It appears that tattooing in Asia is as ancient a practice as it is in the rest of the world. While we have no Asian equivalent to the tattooed Iceman, prehistoric figurines have been found that show distinct markings on their skin that are thought to represent tattoos.
As in other cultures, markings on the “skin” of the figurines are thought to be representations of fertility. It seems common world-wide for women (or statues of women) to be marked on belly, breasts and pubic area.
We have written records from Asia that are very ancient and as early as 3oo BCE there are mentions of tattoos and their symbolic meanings. It is clear that in Asia, as in other parts of the world, tattoos were not just for decoration but for punishment–criminals were often permanently marked.
A mark of status
Chinese archaeologists have excavated tomb sites containing well-preserved tattooed mummies in western China. These decorated people were not usually Asians, and are thought to have been connected to the Celts and Scythians. Some of their tattoos are said to be extremely elaborate, but the archaeologists haven’t published much. Heavily tattooed bodies identified as Scythians have been excavated in the area of what is now Siberia, and it appears that at least one of those people was indeed Asian and not Caucasian. Tattooing appears to have been a mark of high status and to record the person’s accomplishments in life.
…or the mark of an outcast
By the Middle Ages, the Chinese appear to have begun to associate tattoos only with criminals and we do not have much in the way of descriptions of decorative tattoos. By about the 1600s in Japan, tattoos were not acceptable among “polite society” and were considered strictly a practice of the lower class and criminal elements. It is thought that the design of the elaborate “body suit” tattoo came about so that a person’s everyday robes could completely cover the tattoo.
While the body art in today’s Japan is astonishing in its beauty and complexity, it is still not a widespread practice and there is still a common association (warranted or not) with lower class and criminal elements.
Archaeologists still have a lot to learn and discover about the decorated people of the past.