The History of Tattoo Art

Vogue Philippines April Cover of Apo Whang-Od

I remember my first tattoo experience as clear as day, it was in 2020. As soon as I arrived at work, a former coworker asked me if I wanted to get a tattoo with her and next thing you know, we were in line at a tattoo shop waiting for our turn. My first tattoo was a semicolon on my right middle finger, which holds a personal meaning. Semicolons are a symbol of mental health awareness and suicide prevention. During this time, I worked for a treatment center that dealt with young adult women with mental health issues. I commemorate my first tattoo to these women and my experience working for them, along with my own personal struggles.

Polynesian Tattoo. Image from Zealand Tattoo Studio website.

Ever since I had my first tattoo, I’ve always had an itch for another one. One of the tattoos I would like to get is the traditional tattoo of my ancestors. According to Vogue Philippines, batok is a thousand-year-old hand-tapping practice from the Philippines. During the pre-colonial era, tattoos were “badges of honor, wealth, beauty, and bravery.” For pre-colonial men, they would get Bikking, which is a chest tattoo “with patterns that crawled up the shoulders and down the arms.” Men who received this tattoo are seen as headhunting warriors. Women, on the other hand, were also tattooed but for different reasons, and it is mainly for fertility and beautification. It is said that women who were unmarked “were considered as imperfect and undesirable.”

The years-old practice of batok can only be passed down within their bloodlines. One of the oldest living mambabatok is named Apo Whang-Od, also known as Maria Oggay, who turned 106 this past February. Whang-Od was only 16 years old when she started her career as a tattooist under her father’s wing. She was the first and only female mambabatok of her time. She would travel to other villages, near or far, “to imprint the sacred symbols of their ancestors or on individuals who have crossed or are about to cross a threshold in their lives.” However, Whang-Od never had children of her own, instead passing down the traditional practice to her grandniece, Grace Palicas.

Apo Whang-Od from Vogue Philippines photographed by Artu Nepomuceno.

However, body art goes even further back in time. Tattoos are considered to be one of the oldest forms of art dating back to 3370 BC, more than 5,300 years ago, way before Christ was born. The term tattoo derives from the Samoan word “tatau,” which mimics the tapping sound of the tools used during traditional tattooing. In 1991, a group of hikers in the Otzal Alps discovered a well-preserved mummy in the glaciers. Otzi the Iceman had 61 tattoos that date back to more than 5,000 years ago. The tattoos on Otzi’s mummified body were thought to be marks from fractures and injuries.


However, it is not only Otzi’s fellowmen that performed tattooing. It was theorized that body art in Egypt dates back to 2000 BC. Similar to Otzi the Iceman’s mummified body, tattoos in ancient Egypt were used for decorative or medical purposes. Ancient Egyptian women perform body art on other women as a way to represent fertility and rejuvenation.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo. Image from Kimurakami website.

Another civilization that practiced traditional tattooing are the Polynesians. Traditional tattooing in the Polynesian culture is considered to be a rite of passage and a way to increase one’s desirability, status, rank, ancestry, and skills. At the same time, the placement of tattoos on the body also plays an important role in Polynesian culture. According to Zealand Tattoo, a tattoo studio located in New Zealand that specializes in Polynesian tattoos, the upper body is associated with the spiritual world, while the lower body is associated with the world or Earth.

Eventually, the art of tattooing became popular throughout Europe, particularly among sailors. In 1769, Captain James Cook sailed to Tahiti where he was astonished to discover that the people were covered in tattoos. Therefore, he brought with him a Tahitian man back to Europe, which eventually “[revolutionized] the art of tattooing, making it a worldwide phenomenon.”  The late 19th century marked the modern history of tattooing in Denmark. This was the time when sailors returned back to Copenhagen and showcased their tattoos gathered on their journey. This mentality among sailors getting tattoos to mark their achievements eventually reached the United States of America. Common tattoos among sailors included swallows, nautical stars, and even anchors, to name a few.

Japanese Samurai Tattoo Image courtesy of Kimurakami website.

Even though tattoo art spread throughout the Western culture, tattoo art in the East changed as colonization expanded. Unfortunately, colonization began erasing and banning traditional tattooing. In 1912, Dean Worcester published photographs in National Geographic that portrayed the Cordillera tribes of the Philippines as “bloodthirsty savages” as a way to “justify American control of Northern Luzon.” American missionaries began building schools in the Northern Luzon of the Philippines, making girls cover their tattoos with long sleeves. Unfortunately, it eventually became a stigma that tattooed women “became a point of shame.” Besides the Philippines, traditional Polynesian tattoos were later banned by European colonialism due to religious views.


In other countries, such as Japan, tattoos were used as a form of punishment and were associated with criminals. Japanese criminals were tattooed on either their arms or faces to show that these men were not to be trusted. In 1827, a woodblock print story, which featured a legendary outlaw, was popularized in Japan. Even though tattoos were associated with criminals in Japan, this inspired people to have it tattooed on their bodies. Tattoos are legal in Japan but due to its history, they still carry the same stigma. Therefore, it is recommended that people cover their tattoos whenever they go to public baths or public gyms in Japan. As for Americans, criminals often tattoo themselves behind bars using whatever they have. One former inmate said that he used a guitar string once to get inked. Like any other tattoos, tattooing themselves while locked up is a form of finding a community, with the idea of being feared or respected, as well as protection, while behind bars.

Traditional Filipino tattoo Photo by Elle Festin on BBC.

Despite the negative connotation of tattoos in the past, tattoo art presently became a form of fashion and self-expression. In the 1970s, tattoos became a fashion piece when it got featured in popular magazines like Life Magazine. Then, in 1981, MTV was launched on TV which featured artists with tattoos performing on stage, particularly in Rock ‘n’ Roll bands. Nowadays, people are getting tattoos simply because they enjoy having one and it gives them agency over their own body. As for the traditional tattooing practice, more people are getting it as a way to reclaim their own roots. According to Vogue Philippines, more Filipinos, like myself, are getting indigenous tattoos as a way to “step toward decolonizing aesthetics, reclaiming [their] bodies, and reconnecting with [their] roots.”

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