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History of tattoos

Whilst Danny "The Count" loves to customise a sweet ride or two, he also enjoys creating and sporting tattoos and runs his own parlour in Vegas. So we thought we'd delve into the world of inking and bring its colourful history to life.

These days it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry off One Direction has a tattoo. From premiership football players to the wives of coalition prime ministers, tattoos are more common than the common cold. 

The original Polynesian word ‘tatau’, or ‘tatu’, is likely to be an onomatopoeia derived from the sound of the tools required to mark the skin, or more specifically, the dermis. James Cook brought the word and the modern Western practice of tattooing back to Europe in the 18th Century following his voyage on HMS Endeavour. Indeed, plenty of Cook’s crew members carried the ink on their own skins but prior to the rugged sailors setting foot on these shores, sealing the fate of their dubious reputation, these types of tattoos were seen in their native land as symbols of status and wealth. Created by placing sharp ink-tipped shell, or bone, onto the skin and tapped into place with a baton, this was the preferred method of indelible mark-marking in the South Pacific.

In China the ink was more commonly applied by pushing, literally, ink-tipped thorns into skin. From here the practice spread into the wider Asian Pacific but in these ancient times the Chinese associated tattoos with the more undesirable members of society. In Japan, tattooing (or Irezumi) went through phases of acceptability -anything Chinese was frowned upon- however, during the Edo period it had become fashionable for men to be seen emblazoned with beautifully rendered images depicting acts of bravery and derring-do. By the end of the 19th Century tattooing was outlawed as relations with China deteriorated and once again ink became associated with skulduggery. 

In 1948 occupational forces legalised tattooing in Japan giving the country their first taste of the tattoo machine, already fifty years old and still very much in use today. Indirectly invented in 1876 by the prolific American inventor Thomas Edison as an electric pen, its original purpose was to duplicate marks by pouncing ink through paper. In 1891 Samuel O’ Reilly discovered the machine could be modified to apply ink into skin and rest, as they say, is history.

The basic machine is pretty much unchanged today, in recent years variations of the theme have crept into the market, namely Manfred Kohr’s Rotary gun of 1976 or Carson Hill’s pneumatic machine that uses compressed air rather than electricity, but the principle is essentially the same.


There is little question the modified electric pen revolutionised tattooing, especially in the western hemisphere but its arguable if there has been any change in the way it’s generally perceived. Tattooing will always involve pain and blood so to its detractors it’ll always be controversial, and fans of the needle perceived with suspicion. Especially if you’re Justin Beiber with ‘Patience’ scrawled down your neck.

Either way, with a known 5000 year history -a figure we can pretty much quadruple in real terms- tattooing is set to continue to fall in and out of favour with fashion, society and your mum.

Jamie Dwelly