A trend ignited by footballers, musicians and celebrities who showed that one can be successful even with tattoos.
The latter have once again become a mainstream phenomenon over the past few years. In comparison to the tattoo craze of the 19th century however, our century’s generations could almost appear timid.
„Not one great country can be named, from the polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which the aborigines do not tattoo themselves.“
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Optimizing and decorating our bodies is a concept as old as humanity itself and, so observantly documented by Darwin, tattooing culture is one of the most widespread practices within this pursuit.
Tattooing in Western culture has seen a magnificent renaissance over the last decade. From the mid 20th to early 21st century however, tattoos were associated mostly with sailors, prisoners, rebellious sub-cultures, and a number of questionable ink choices in the late 90s and early 00s pop-scene.
Whereas traditional tattooing, within cultures such as the Polynesian, Maori, and Native American, was considered acceptable, people from the West followed a general consensus of disassociation from one of humanities oldest art forms.
Sporting some clearly visible ink was a tried and tested method of ensuring significantly reduced employment opportunity.
It is not surprising therefore that the West’s rich history of tattoo culture pre-1930s was pushed aside and lay widely forgotten for more than half a century.
Yet it was in the European Alps, between Austria and Italy, that the oldest preserved tattoos on a physical body were found. Ötzi the Iceman (3300-3200 B.C.) has a grand total of 61 tattoos.
The picts, the ancient confederation of tribes who lived in what is today Scotland, got their name from the Romans’ Latin word Picti, meaning ‚painted (or tattooed) people‘.
1000 AD Crusaders were known to tattoo themselves with a cross, to ensure their Christian burial in the event of a worst case scenario, and we all know of the sailors during the long Age of Discovery getting inspired by tattooed natives of various countries.
One needn’t go as far back as that though, and this could come as a surprise to some. It may be a myth that Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, crowned King of Sweden and Norway in 1818, ironically had a tattoo from his days as a Republican soldier that read „Death to Kings!“, yet tattoo popularity flourished in Europe in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, with an estimated 20% of it’s population supposedly tattooed.
Soldiers got their regiment inked into their skin, artisans their guild mark or tools, fully tattooed people were paid good salaries to work as circus attractions, and, notably, tattoos were all the rage with the European nobility and royalty!
At the end of the 19th century up to 75% of high society ladies in New York are said to have been tattooed. In Berlin and other European capitals a tat was something a lady could simply not do without, while members of pretty much every European royal house are known to have had tattoos. Those who could, invited Japanese tattoo masters into their homes to do the job.
With half the British royal family inked, we should maybe say it’d be more surprising if the following top ten historic personalities with tattoos hadn’t had any body art to flaunt!