Amazing facts about tattoos

Secret messages

A Portrait of PoeduaPoedua, the Daughter of Orio, b. circa 1758 by John Webber, 1777. The artist has shown the tattoos and jasmine flowers to imply both difference and personal adornment. The meaning of the tattoos is unclear to European eyes but may have marked either membership of a particular cult group or personal preference. Repro ID: BHC2957 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Ministry of Defence Art CollectionTattooing has been used as a way of smuggling secret messages across enemy lines in times of war.

The 5th century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, records how Histiaeus of Miletus, who was being held against his will by King Darius of Susa, sent a tattooed secret message to his son-in-law, Aristagoras. Histiaeus shaved the hair of his slave and tattooed the message on to the man's head. The slave was told that the procedure would cure his failing eyesight. When the slave's hair had grown back sufficiently to hide the tattoo, he was sent to Aristagoras, who shaved his head and read the hidden message. The message instructed Aristagoras to begin a rebellion.

The world's most tattooed person

The world's most tattooed person is Tom Leppard from the Isle of Skye, Scotland, who has 99.9 per cent of his body covered with a leopard-skin design.

Guinness World Records states that the only parts of Tom's body that remain untattooed are the skin between his toes and the insides of his ears.

The claim to be the world's most tattooed woman is shared between Canadian Krystyne Kolorful and American Julia Gnuse. Both have 95 per cent of their bodies tattooed. Julia began to tattoo her body in order to disguise the effects of porphyria, a disease which can leave skin permanently scarred.

Head hunters

Tomika Te Mutu, a chief of the Ngai te rangi tribeTomika Te Mutu, a chief of the Ngai te rangi tribe, 1878 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonIn the late-18th and early-19th centuries collecting tattooed Maori heads became so popular in Europe that many Maoris were murdered to supply the trade.

The Maori people in New Zealand tattooed their heads (moko) and buttocks by chiselling a design into the skin and rubbing ink into it. If one of their chiefs died, they would remove and preserve the tattooed head, keeping it as a treasured possession.

Europeans considered these heads to be curiosities and before long a trade sprang up, with the Maori exchanging heads for firearms. Soon the Maori began to trade the heads of their enemies killed in battle, but when demand started to exceed supply, men began to be murdered in cold blood for their tattoos.

In some cases, slaves were tattooed so that their heads could be cut off and sold. In 1831 Governor Darling of New South Wales took steps to outlaw the practice.


European missionaries in the Cook Islands tried to remove tattoos by scrubbing them off with sandstone. Since the ink lay deep in the skin's dermis, this involved scouring the body raw.

Missionaries in Polynesia condemned the practice of tattooing, quoting the Bible, which states,

Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put marks on yourselves
Leviticus, 19:28

They tried to stamp out the custom and went as far as trying to remove tattoos by rubbing the skin with sandstone in the same way that a ship's deck was scrubbed. This practice was known as 'holystoning'. It was a primitive forerunner of a form of tattoo removal known as dermabrasion, in which the skin is 'sanded' to remove layers. Dermabrasion has now largely given way to laser surgery as a popular means of tattoo removal.

Özti the iceman

Ozti the icemanOzti the iceman. Copyright unknownIn October 1991, the 5000 year-old frozen body of a Bronze Age hunter was found between Austria and Italy. His body bore several tattoos.

The body, nicknamed Özti, the iceman, was found in a glacier and was so well preserved that scientists were able to make out a number of tattoos. These included a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15 cm above the kidneys and a series of parallel lines on the ankles.

Close-up of the tattoos on OztiClose-up of the tattoos on Ozti. Copyright unknownThe position of the tattoos has caused some to speculate that the man had his body marked for therapeutic reasons, because many of the marks correspond to the position of acupuncture points.

Royal tattoo

King Harold II of England had a number of tattoos. After his death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, his tattoos were used to identify his body.

Many other royals throughout history have been tattooed. In 1862 the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm on a visit to the Holy Land. When his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V) visited Japan in 1882 they both had dragons tattooed on their arms. Amongst the Russian royal family, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II all bore tattoos. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sparked the First World War, was also tattooed. Today royal tattoos are less common.

Sailors' tattoos

 Up the conning towerOn board an S-Class submarine: up the conning tower by Stephen Bone, circa 1944. Repro ID: BHC1553 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonA pig tattooed on one foot and a rooster on the other were said to protect a seaman from drowning. Neither animal can swim and it was thought they would help get the sailor swiftly to shore if he fell into the water.

Other popular tattoos amongst sailors are also attributed with particular meanings:

  • A full-rigged ship shows the seaman has sailed round Cape Horn
  • An anchor indicates he has sailed the Atlantic Ocean
  • A dragon denotes that the bearer has served on a China station
  • A shellback turtle shows the sailor has crossed the Equator
  • 'Hold' tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and 'fast' on the other were said to allow the bearer to grip the rigging better.

Copyright tattoos

American George C. Reiger Jr boasts over 1000 tattoos based on Disney characters, including all 101 dalmatians.

Reiger had his first Disney tattoo – an inked version of Fantasia's sorcerer Mickey – at the age of 18. Since then he has been adding characters and now the tattoos cover over 80 per cent of his body.

The tattoos are carefully positioned. Villains are consigned to his legs below the knee, while anything under the sea is situated below his stomach. Other characters are also grouped by theme.

Because the characters are copyright, Reiger has had to seek permission from Disney and now claims to be the only person in the world with such authorization. He says he received it on the condition that he's not allowed to go to a tattoo parlour, appear in a tattooing magazine or make money out of his tattoos.

Samoan tattoo ceremonies

In the Pacific island of Samoa a chief would pay for his son and other lower-ranking males to be tattooed in the same ceremony.

The tattooing ceremony was considered so important in Samoa that houses were erected specially for the event. Lavish feasts were prepared and entertainments laid on for those attending. Although the ceremony revolved around the tattooing of the chief's son, his lower-status contemporaries were also tattooed at the chief's expense. These youths supported the chief's son and shared his pain. By subjecting himself to the painful process of tattooing, the chief's son was demonstrating his bravery at the same time as showing his respect for his elders by submitting to their will.


Landing at Mallicolo (Malekula), one of the New Hebrides. William Hodges c. 1776Landing at Mallicolo (Malekula), one of the New Hebrides. William Hodges circa 1776. Repro ID: BHC1904 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThe word 'tattoo' is derived from the Tahitian word 'tatau', meaning to mark.

The word 'tattaw' was first used in the published account of Captain Cook's first voyage, which appeared in 1769. It has been suggested that 'tatau' is an onomatopoeic word. 'Tat' refers to tapping the tattooing instrument into the skin; 'au' to the cry of pain from the person being tattooed.

Early tattoo techniques

Urine was sometimes used to mix the colouring matter of early tattoos.

Early colouring materials for tattoos included soot or ink for blue-black and brick dust for reds. To work, these needed to be bound together by a mixing agent. Often the tattooist used his own spittle to mix the colour but occasionally urine was used instead. Until 1891, when the first electric tattooing machine was patented by Tom Riley, all colours were applied by hand. Early tattooing tools were rather like pen holders with a number of needles set into them.

The tattooing machine is based on the design of the doorbell. The quick poking action of a tattooing machine, which injects the ink into the skin, is driven by an electric circuit very similar to that which operates the household doorbell. Modern tattoo artists work with a number of tattooing machines, each reserved to inject a different colour. The number of needles set in the machine and their fineness depends on what the machine is being used for. Finer needles are used for outlines, while coarser needles are used for filling in or for shading.

In prison, where tattooing machines are banned, inmates have been known to make their own makeshift tattooing machines using guitar strings and the motor from a tape deck.

Fashionable tattoos

Lady Randolph ChurchillLady Randolph Churchill. The National Maritime Museum has not been able to ascertain the copyright status of this image and would welcome any information that would enable us to update our records regarding ownership.Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had a snake tattooed on her wrist.

It became fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for aristocrats, including women, to be tattooed. At the time, tattooing was very expensive and people paid large sums for their designs. Later, as the costs were reduced, tattooing was adopted by the lower classes and the practice fell out of favour with the social elite.

The strategic positioning of Lady Churchill's tattoo meant that she could choose not to display it by wearing a bracelet to cover it.

Sacred power

A Night Dance by Men, in HapaeeA Night Dance by Men, in Hapaee by John Webber [artist]; William Sharp [engraver]. Repro ID: PAI4137 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonTahitians believed that the process of tattooing the body served to contain its sacred power.

The Polynesian view of the body differed from that of the Europeans. Polynesians believed that there were two worlds: the world of light and ordinary life (ao) and the world of darkness and gods (po). Humans came from po at birth and returned there at death. This gave the body a potentially dangerous primal power, which would overcome the present world if it was not contained. A number of rites from infancy onwards were designed to restrain this power by lessening the body's sacredness.

In Tahiti, these rites culminated in the act of tattooing the body around the time of puberty in order to 'seal off' its power.

Tattoo removal

Removing a tattoo can cost up to three times more than the design itself.

Tattoos last and sometimes a tattoo can become an embarrassment in later life. Because tattoos lie in the deep layer of skin known as the dermis, they are very difficult to remove. Early forms of tattoo removal included the injection or application of wine, lime, garlic or pigeon excrement.

Unsurprisingly, none of these methods was effective. Later removal techniques include dermabrasion, when the skin is effectively 'sanded down', and excision, in which the tattoo is surgically removed. Both methods result in scarring.

In the late 1980s laser surgery became popular for tattoo removal. However, the treatment is not cheap and can cost thousands of pounds, depending on the tattoo's size, type and location.

Signs of faith

Early Christians often had the sign of the cross tattooed on their bodies, particularly their face or arms.

Such tattoos were seen as a permanent mark of the believer's faith. However, around AD 325 the Emperor Constantine outlawed tattooing of the face because he believed that the face was in God's image and should not be disfigured. In AD 787, a council of churches renounced all forms of tattooing and sealed the fate of the practice in the eyes of the Christian church once and for all.

Much later, a representation of the crucifixion tattooed on a slave's back was said to preserve the bearer from a whipping. It was thought that no Christian, however cruel, would lash the image of Christ.

Prince Joely

The first tattooed man to be shown publicly in England was a Pacific islander known as Prince Joely.

Prince Joely, also known as Giolo, was brought to England in 1691 by William Dampier, a famous buccaneer and author of a Voyage Around the World, an account of his travels with privateers and pirates. Dampier explained to those who came to view the Prince Joely that his tattoos were done in the same manner as the crosses and arms of visitors to Jerusalem, but using the sap of a certain tree instead of gunpowder.

Sadly, Prince Joely never returned home to the Pacific. He died in England of smallpox.

Close to the bone

The severity of pain experienced when being tattooed depends on the location of the tattoo. The most painful areas are those where the skin is very close to the bone, such as the ankles, elbows and knees. It is less painful to be tattooed on more fleshy areas such as the chest or upper arms. Pain was an important part of tattooing for Polynesian societies.

In Tahiti, the chief's son was watched closely as he was tattooed for signs of pain. In Samoa, it was often said that tattooing was the equivalent for men of the great pain a woman endured when giving birth.


OmaiOmai by William Hodges, 1777. Repro ID: PW6429 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London A portrait of a tattooed man by Sir Joshua Reynolds sold at auction for £10,343,500 in November 2001. The painting, which was sold by Sothebys in London, depicts Omai (Mae), a tattooed Tahitian man who came to England in 1774.

Omai was taken around the country by Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to the Pacific in the Endeavour. While he was in England, Omai was fêted by society. He was introduced to King George III and taken to the state opening of Parliament.

The novelist Fanny Burney described him as 'tall and very well made, much darker than I expected to see him.' She added;

he seems to shame Education for his manners are so extremely graceful, and he is so polite, attentive and easy that you would have thought he came from some Foreign Court ... he appears to be a perfectly rational and intelligent man, with an understanding far superior to the common race of us cultivated gentry.

Omai returned to Tahiti with Captain Cook's third voyage in 1776.

Samoan tattooing

Samoan tattoo artists used combs to apply their designs.

On the Pacific island of Samoa, tattooist carried out their art by dipping the pointed teeth of combs into ink and placing them on the surface of the skin. The comb was then tapped so that the teeth punctured the skin, inserting the ink. Both men and women had their bodies tattooed and elaborate designs could take several months to complete. In Samoan tradition, tattoos were restricted to the lower part of the body.