Tattooing is an ancient art form; it has been practiced in the UK for thousands of years. Tattooing has gone through many changes and influences, from tribal markings to sailor symbols, from royal fashions to popular culture. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the key moments and people that shaped the UK tattoo scene. As a small taste of what’s ahead, here are some of the key figures in the history of tattoo in the UK.
- The Lindow Man: The oldest tattooed person in the UK. He lived around 300 BC and had several simple tattoos on his body, made by rubbing charcoal into punctured skin. His tattoos may have had a religious or social meaning or served as a way of identification or protection.
- The Picts: The "painted people" of ancient Britain. They were known for their elaborate tattoos of animals and patterns, which they made by using bone or metal needles to inject ink into the skin. Their tattoos were a sign of their culture and identity, and impressed the Romans who invaded their lands in the first century AD.
- Captain James Cook: The explorer who introduced tattooing to the modern world. He and his crew visited the Pacific islands in the 18th century, where they learned about the art of Tatau, the origin of the word tattoo. They also brought back tattooed natives, such as Omai from Tahiti, who became a sensation in London. Cook himself got a tattoo of a cross on his hand during his first voyage.
- King George V: The monarch who made tattooing fashionable among the upper class. He had a dragon tattoo on his arm, which he got during his visit to Japan in 1881. His example inspired many other aristocrats and celebrities to get tattoos, such as Winston Churchill's mother Jennie Jerome, who had a snake tattoo on her wrist.
The history of tattooing in the UK is a fascinating and rich one, dating back to ancient times and spanning diverse cultures and influences. Let’s now explore some of the origins and milestones of this art form.
The earliest evidence of tattooing in the UK comes from the mummified remains of a man who lived around 300 BC, known as the Lindow Man. He was found in a bog in Cheshire, and had several tattoos on his body, including a horizontal line across his lower back, a ring around his right arm, and a series of dots on his left leg. These tattoos were probably made by puncturing the skin with a sharp object and rubbing charcoal into the wounds, creating a permanent mark. The Lindow Man's tattoos may have had religious or social significance or served as a form of identification or protection.
There is also evidence from the Iron Age when the Celts inhabited the British Isles. The Celts were known for their intricate and symbolic designs, often depicting animals, plants, spirals, and knots. They used a technique called puncturing, which involved making small holes in the skin with a sharp instrument and rubbing in charcoal or woad, a blue dye extracted from plants. Some of the most famous examples of Celtic tattoos are the Picts, a tribe that lived in Scotland and northern England, who were said to be covered in tattoos from head to toe.
The next wave of tattooing in the UK came with the Roman invasion in the first century AD. The Romans were fascinated by the tattoos of the native Britons, whom they called Picts, meaning "painted people". The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Picts "make their bodies hideous with various patterns and pictures of all kinds of animals". The Romans also used tattoos to mark their slaves, soldiers, and criminals, as a way of branding them and controlling them. Some of these tattoos were simple letters or numbers, while others were more elaborate designs, such as the name of Emperor Hadrian on the forehead of a slave who tried to assassinate him.
The Romans also practiced tattooing, but for different purposes. They used tattoos as a way of marking slaves, criminals, and soldiers, often with words or symbols that indicated their status or allegiance. For example, some gladiators had the letters SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning "The Senate and People of Rome") tattooed on their arms. The Romans also introduced the use of needles and ink for tattooing, which allowed for more detailed and colourful designs.
The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who arrived in Britain between the 5th and 11th centuries, also brought their own styles and traditions of tattooing. The Anglo-Saxons were influenced by Christianity and used tattoos as a way of expressing their faith or devotion. They often had crosses, saints, or biblical scenes tattooed on their bodies. The Vikings, on the other hand, were more influenced by Norse mythology and paganism, and used tattoos as a way of showing their bravery, strength, or loyalty. They often had runes, animals, or geometric patterns tattooed on their arms, legs, or faces.
The Middle Ages saw a decline in tattooing in the UK, as Christianity spread and condemned it as a pagan practice. However, tattooing survived in some isolated communities, such as the Norse settlers in Orkney and Shetland, who brought their own style of tattooing from Scandinavia. They used needles made from bone or metal to create geometric patterns and animal motifs on their skin. Some of these tattoos have been preserved on mummies found in peat bogs, such as the Skrydstrup Woman from Denmark, who had a tattoo of a cross on her left shoulder.
However, tattooing continued to flourish in other parts of the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. Some of these cultures developed elaborate and sophisticated techniques and styles of tattooing, such as the Japanese irezumi (full-body tattoos), the Polynesian Tatau (hand-tapping tattoos), and the Māori moko (facial tattoos).
The modern era of tattooing in the UK began with the voyages of exploration and trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. British sailors encountered tattooed cultures in Polynesia, Japan, India, and Africa, and adopted some of their techniques and designs. They also brought back tattooed people as curiosities and exhibits, such as Prince Giolo from the Philippines, who was displayed in London in 1691 as "the Painted Prince". Tattooing became a mark of adventure and exoticism for sailors, who often got tattoos of anchors, ships, mermaids, flags, and names of loved ones.
Some of these sailors and explorers decided to get tattooed themselves, either as souvenirs of their travels or as signs of their adventurous spirit. One of the most famous examples is Captain James Cook, who visited Tahiti and New Zealand in 1769 and brought back a Tahitian word "Tatau", which later became "tattoo" in English. He also brought back a Tahitian man named Omai, who had intricate tattoos on his body and became a sensation in London.
Cook's journals described the process and meaning of Tatau among the Polynesians, who used bone or shell tools to tap ink into the skin. Cook himself got a tattoo of a small cross on his hand during his first voyage. He also brought back several tattooed natives to England, such as Omai from Tahiti, who became a sensation in London society.
However, tattooing also faced some challenges and prejudices in this period. Some people considered tattoos to be vulgar, immoral, or unhealthy. Some laws were passed to regulate or ban tattooing, such as the Tattooing of Minors Act 1969, which prohibited tattooing anyone under 18 without parental consent. Some social movements also emerged to oppose or criticize tattooing, such as the anti-tattoo league founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1898.
The popularity of tattooing spread from sailors to aristocrats and celebrities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some of the notable figures who got tattoos during this period were King George V, who had a dragon on his arm; also, Winston Churchill had an anchor. Tattooing was seen as a sign of fashion and rebellion among the upper classes.
The invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891 by Samuel O'Reilly revolutionized the art of tattooing. (“Who Invented the Tattoo Machine? Complete Guide”) It allowed for faster, easier, and more precise application of ink on the skin. O'Reilly was inspired by Thomas Edison's electric pen, which was used to make perforated copies of documents. He modified the pen to insert a needle and a tube of ink, creating the first prototype of the modern tattoo machine.
The electric tattoo machine soon spread across the world, and especially in the UK, where tattooing had a long and rich history.
In the 20th century, tattooing became more diverse and accessible to people from all walks of life. Tattoo artists experimented with distinctive styles and techniques, such as realism, tribal, Japanese, and new school. Tattoo parlours opened up in various locations across the country, catering to different tastes and preferences. Some of the most renowned tattoo artists in the UK were George Burchett, Les Skuse, Alex Binnie, and Lal Hardy.
Today, tattooing is one of the most popular forms of self-expression and art in the UK. According to a 2015 survey by YouGov, 19% of British adults have at least one tattoo, and 14% have two or more. Tattooing is also a thriving industry, with an estimated value of £80 million per year.
If you are interested in getting a tattoo or learning more about its history and culture, you should visit Sacred Gold Prime Tattoo Parlour in Central London. We are located on Stable Street Unit 74, in the heart of London, close to such locations as the Kings Cross Station, Granary Square and the Camley Street natural park.
We have a team of amazing and specialized artists who can create any design you want, from traditional to modern, from simple to complex.
Sacred Gold Prime Tattoo Parlour is more than just a place to get inked. It is a place where you can express yourself, connect with others, and celebrate your individuality.Come and join us today!