When reviewing the history of tattooing, you’ll find a rather large gap dead center in the timeline. Tattooing was extremely popular for a wide range of time, approximately 3299 BC to the early tenth and eleventh centuries AD. But then the timeline falls silent, that is, until the early 1800s. While some of the undiscovered tribal cultures continued to utilize this practice, the majority of cultures ceased the practice. So what happened? How did something that was once so mainstream suddenly come to a halt?
As history progressed, and societies became mobile, cultures began to change and meld together. Mainly, as religions spread and crossbred into other areas. This is most clearly seen in regards to Christianity – which began to proliferate across the globe in the early to mid 300s AD, shortly after Emperor Constantine (who reigned from 306 to 337 AD) claimed Christianity as the official state religion in Rome. As the Roman Empire continued to grow and invade, so did the Christian faith.
During the height of the Roman Empire, it is said that approximately 65 million people were considered to be under Roman rule. That’s 65 million people in an age when social media, streamlined travel, and automatic weapons did not exist. Think about that for a second. Obviously, the Roman Empire had some serious pull. It is said that the Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, as they ransacked and claimed countries and islands for their own. Several territories in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of England were at one time under Roman control. So it is no surprise that the beliefs of the Roman Empire made their way across these locations in addition to their rule.
When it comes to tattooing, the Romans had quite a nasty opinion of the practice. In early Rome, tattooing was only used to mark slaves, criminals, traitors, and prisoners of war. Originally, this was done by tattooing markings on the face, arms, hands, and neck. However, once Rome accepted Christianity as their official religion, this process began to change. Emperor Constantine illegalized the practice in 325 AD, except for use on slaves. In this case, they were able to be tattooed to mark their indentured status; however, they were no longer allowed to be inked on the face. The Romans disdained the practice and believed that anyone who willingly tattooed themselves was a barbaric – uncivilized. As they spread across the globe, they instilled their beliefs in the locations they visited, converting many indigenous people along the way.
When it came to the belief of the religion, tattooing was severely frowned upon in the early days. In fact, in 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattooing, stating that God made man’s body in his image and to deface it in any way was to deface God’s gift.
Of course, it was not only the Romans who left behind their values and culture on their travels. After the fall of the Roman Empire, in 476 AD, other cultures began to extend their reaches across the globe as well. With the founding of the ‘New World’ (being the Americas, mainly), many different Christian nations began to lay claim to new land and people, giving them another opportunity to spread their faith and societal norms. This included the French, English, and Spanish explorers. As lands were claimed, missionaries began to spread out, exploring new lands and coming into contact with tribal cultures they were once unaware of. These explorations led to many changes, as the Missionaries would settle in these areas in an attempt to integrate their faith and convert the ‘savages.’
These changes did actually alter the history of the tattoo practice. Many cultures ceased tattooing altogether, such as the Polynesian tribes and some Native American tribes. These tribal communities, which once revolved around tattooing as a way of life, began to abandon the practice under the guidance of the Christian missionaries. As cultures began to adapt, integrate, or dissolve, a gap in the practice of tattooing appeared. This gap spanned from roughly 711 AD to the late 1600s, when sailors began to return home with native tattoos as souvenirs of their exotic travels.
While Christianity was not the only religion expanding across the globe, leaving their mark on the history of the tattoo culture, they did seem to leave the largest impression. In today’s society, there are still members of this faith that frown upon inking the skin. However, others believe they can show their devotion to their faith by permanently marking symbols, phrases, or prayers into their skin. It is left to each participant to make that decision. Luckily, tattooing is accepted by most – including most religions – as a way of life, of modern culture, and seems to be only gaining in popularity as time marches on.