Ancient & Medieval Women’s Tattoo Art

Ancient Tattooing

Many descriptions of the history of tattooing describe the line and dot tattoos present on Ötzi, the Ice Man, and then jump ahead to the Western world in the 1800s.  They skip thousands of years of history!  I can’t possibly hope to cover all of these years in this one post, but I am going to present an overview of where tattooing has been recorded.  The other generalization there is to be made about histories of tattooing is that women are largely left out.  I want to highlight the history of women in tattooing, as I think it is fascinating and vital to understand the evolution of the art of tattoo.  That being said, I do not intend to highlight women’s tattoo art to the exclusion of other important movements and figures.

One of the innate qualities of the art of tattooing is its impermanence.  People comment often on the permanence of tattoos, but this permanence is relative.  Tattoos are observable only as long as the person wearing them is alive.  From this perspective, tattoo is the least permanent art form.  Until the invention of the camera, tattoo art could be recorded only in drawings done by others.  Several civilizations have preserved tattooing from ancient times to modern ones, and others found ways to mummify bodies in bogs or tombs allowing modern humans to see ancient tattooing.  All of the information I provide in this post should be taken with the consideration in mind that some of what we think we know may be completely wrong because of the impermanent quality of historical tattooing.

It’s important to note also that some of the nations and people I discuss are still very much alive today, as are their tattoo traditions.  I present them in the section titled Ancient Tattooing because their traditions date back to ancient times.

The Ice Man’s Medicinal Tattoos
oetzi tattoos
Photo of medicinal tattoos on Özti.

The Ice Man, also known as Ötzi, is a mummy found in the Ötztal Alps [map] on the border of present day Austria and Italy.  The mummy dates from 3300 BC and is Europe’s oldest human mummy.  Ötzi has around 50 tattoos, all of them small lines, dots, and crosses.  They were made by rubbing charcoal into small incisions.  The Ice Man’s tattoos are not located in visually prominent places on his body, instead repeated marks are found in places where his body also showed much wear and likely caused him pain.  For these reasons, it is widely accepted that Ötzi’s tattoos were intended as a type of medicinal therapy as opposed to a status symbol.  Interestingly, the places Ötzi is tattooed correspond to modern acupuncture points.  [1]

The Tattooed Altai Princess

Perhaps the most famous woman to be tattooed and mummified was the so-called Altai Princess, an approximately 25-year-old woman from 2,500 years ago.  The title of princess is a guess based on what she was buried with (several horses, a full meal, rare silks, cannabis).  One of the things she was buried with was incredible tattoos, distinctly artistic as compared to Ötzi’s medicinal lines and dots.   The level of artistry suggests a poking style of tattooing, rather than an incision.  

tattoo on hand and with a drawing of dear
Photo and recreation of the tattoo of a deer-like mythical creature on the shoulder of the Altai Princess.

On her left shoulder (above), she has a deer with a griffon’s beak and goat’s antlers decorated with more griffon heads.  The griffon head is also on the back of the deer.  The level of detail is unparalleled in prehistoric tattooing.  Lower on her left arm, she has a spotted panther and a sheep.  On her wrist she has a deer’s head with large antlers, and on her thumb, the body of a deer.  Recreations of these tattoos are shown below.

princess fingers arm tattoo
Recreations of tattoos on the arms and fingers of the Altai Princess.

To the Pazyryk people of the Altai region in Siberia [map], tattoos were a means of personal identification, believed to help family members find each other after death.  Tattoos were a sign of age, and thus status.  The longer a person was alive, the more tattoos they would accumulate.  And the highest in status lived the longest, having the best access to food and shelter.  [2,3]

Blue Celtic Body Art
pictish woman
Illustration of a decorated Pictish woman.

The Picts were a Celtic group from Northeast Scotland [map], recorded to have been living from c. 2000 BC to around 845 AD. Caesar famously recorded the tattoos he saw on the Picts, and the name of this Celtic group is taken to mean”painted people” from the Latin pictus or “painted” and the Greek pyktis for “picture”.  It is still unknown what the Picts called themselves, and the term “Picts” is sometimes used to refer to other Celtic groups.  The confusion over the group’s name leads to confusion about records: some records reference Celtic people with tattoos, others describe body paint, and there is much disagreement about whether the Picts wore tattoos or not.

Luckily, the Picts were a bog people, and preserved bodies have been found.  These bog bodies show no visible tattoos but the skin contains high levels of copper.  The Picts are known to have used a copper-based ink, resulting in the famous blue coloring, but it is unlikely that tattoos would dissipate in a bog when the rest of the body did not decompose, suggesting these designs were merely painted on.  Given the mixed bag of evidence, most people conclude that tattoos may have been worn by a small number of individual Pictish people, but that they were not worn universally. [4]

Egyptian Women’s Tattoos

Ancient Egyptians are well-known for their dramatic eyeliner, but makeup is not the only form of body art Egyptian women took part in.  Statues from 4000 BC – 1200 BC show women with dot pattern tattoos and several female mummies dated from 2000 BC have similar tattoos.  Evidence suggests that tattooing in Ancient Egypt was an exclusively female practice.  It is thought that older women gave them to younger women.

egyptian tattoo instruments
Bronze instruments believed to be used for tattooing in Egypt c. 1450 BC.

Tattoos were applied with bronze instruments, shaped like flat needles and frequently strapped together to form groups of needles.  These instruments bear resemblance to instruments found in 19th century Egyptian tattooing, a practice which usually included using a group of seven needles (still a standard needle grouping today) to puncture the skin and then a black ink made from ash was applied to the skin.  Romans visiting Egypt would sometimes get tattoos themselves, though infrequently, as in ancient Rome tattoos were used to mark criminals.

egyptian womens tattoos
Recreations of tattoos found on female Egyptian mummy c. 2000 BC.

Women’s tattoos tended to be on the abdomen, upper legs, and chest.  Male excavators of sites in Egypt who found female mummies with tattoos often dismissed them as dancers or concubines, despite these mummies being buried in areas known to be associated with the elite.  Because the women found with tattoos were originally assumed to prostitutes of some kind, the original theory of the meaning behind these tattoos was to protect against STDs.

Better research has shown that one of the women found in Deir el-Bahari was a revered high priestess known as Amunet and a more careful look shows parallels between women’s tattoo imagery and other Egyptian customs that suggests the tattoos were used to guide women before, during, and after pregnancy.  Women tattooed dot patterns over their stomach, which during pregnancy would expand to more obviously resemble nets similar to those placed over mummies, thought to keep everything in and safe.  Other tattoos included statues of Bes on the upper thigh: Bes is the protector of women in labor and this tattoo placement is thought to be an amulet for safety during childbirth.  [5,6]

First Nation Facial Tattooing
Recreations of chin stripe tattoos from St. Lawrence Island.

Arguably the most well-known indigenous North American practitioners of tattoo art, are the Inuit people in northern Canada and Alaska.  Archeological evidence suggests that tattooing has been practiced since 3500 BC.  St. Lawrence Island [map] is the home of a complex and long history of tattoo art.  Life on St. Lawrence Island includes exposure to bitterly cold wind and a spiritual connection to the animal world.  The facial tattoos of the Inuit people on this island are both an offer to the mystical and a protection from the elements.  The artists who applied the tattoos were, as a rule, respected female elders.  Women were skilled seamstresses with various kinds of hide, and the practice of tattooing with needles is not so different.  Needles were threaded through the skin, followed by a piece of string holding pigment.  The women of St. Lawrence Island acquired their chin stripes during rites of passage, such as those around puberty, and during religious rituals based in animism.  One Russian anthropologist wrote that women who are more serious and hardworking smile less, and thus the ink spreads less, keeping the lines on the chin very thin and sharp.  Therefore, thin, sharp tattoo lines are an indicator of a serious, hardworking wife.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuit Filmmaker, wears Inuit facial tattoos.

In addition to lines on the chin, and rounded parallel lines on the cheek bones, Inuit Women from some mainland nations wear tattoos in the shape of a V on their forehead, drawn with two thin parallel lines and have done so for thousands of years.  Traditionally only the facial tattoos are thought of as necessary, but many women choose to wear tattoos on their arms, hands, legs, feet, and torso.  The woman shown wearing this tattoo to the right, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, [site] is an Inuit filmmaker who has created a documentary about her experience of acquiring her traditional facial tattoos in modern times. [6,7]

Illustration of Cree woman with facial tattoos and vermillion face paint.

The Inuit women were not the only North American First Nation women to wear parallel lines on their chin. Cree nations cover a large expanse of southern Canada, from the Plains Cree across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to the Moose Cree of Ontario, with many more Cree groups in between and surrounding.  While Cree men would frequently cover their bodies with tattoos, Cree women were more likely to wear tattoos on their face alone.  Women’s facial tattoos were frequently accompanied by red face painting, and their main purpose is enhance a woman’s beauty.  [8]

Photo of Mohave woman with facial tattoos and body paint.

In addition to the Cree in southern Canada, the Mohave nation in the southwestern United States [map] is another indigenous nation of the Americas famous for their women’s facial tattoos.  Like the Cree, the tattoos are primarily to enhance the aesthetic of a woman’s face.  The Mohave women’s tattoos were more complex than sets of lines, and facial tattooing could be much more extensive, sometimes covering nearly all of the face.  Mohave women’s chin tattoos signify a rebirth, and accounts of witnessing tattoos being applied describe witnessing a new person emerge after the tattoo was complete.  [9]

Photo of a Toba woman of Gran Chaco wearing traditional facial tattoos, c. 1900.

Traditions of women’s facial tattooing continue into South America.  In the Gran Chaco region  [map], an inland arid lowland far south of the Amazon, many indigenous groups practice extensive traditional tattooing.  In all of these groups, it is typical for women to be much more tattooed than men, and in fact unusual to find men as tattooed as women.  Tattoo artists were nearly all women.  In some groups, girls acquire their first facial tattoo as young as 5, and it is added to until they are ready for marriage.  In other groups, girls’ tattoos are done all at once when they enter puberty.  Because all women in the Gran Chaco region were tattooed in very similar ways, the tattoos are not thought to have been done to increase beauty over others.  Instead, given the rituals of the tattoos and beliefs about magical properties of the pigment and saliva of the tattoo artist, it is thought that women’s tattoos were used for protection against evil spirits that caused illness.  [10]

peruvian mummy arm tattoos
Still image taken from video of intricate arm tattoos on the Moche woman found mummified outside Trujillo, Peru.

Recently, the mummified body of a young woman was found in a pyramid outside Trujillo [map] in northwest Peru.  She was a member of the Moche group, who had not previously known to tattoo.  Her tattoos are mostly geometric and images of mystical animals, including spiders.  The tattoos are thought to have been applied with a needle or cactus spine using charcoal as pigment.  She was buried with many items suggesting she was high in stature.  [11]

Ancient Pacific Island Tattoo
modern maori woman with face tattoo
Photo of a modern Maori woman wearing traditional facial tattoos.

Tattooing on the islands of the Pacific Ocean has a long rich history, and there are thousands of islands in both Polynesia and Micronesia that each practice varied forms of tattooing.  The incredible skills possessed by all island people needed for navigating the Pacific Ocean  has led to many similarities between islands geographically far apart.  The people of Samoa [map], possibly the most famous Pacific Island for tattooing, have legends of the birth of tattooing that tell a story of men being tattooed, and not until contact was made with the Fijians, did the Samoans tattoo women.  Fijian [map] women’s tattooing was especially common on hands and fingers, and were usually reserved for women of a certain status.  In Fiji, women nearly exclusively tattooed other women.

pohnpei womens tattoos
Drawings of Pohnpei women’s tattoos, c. 1870.

However on the island of Pohnpei [map] northwest of Fiji, women began to acquire tattoos on their hands after reaching puberty, and continued to accumulate tattoos on their arms, legs, and torso until marriage.  Many women wore tattoos around their hips, some extending lower.  These were sometimes done by a husband, but could also be done before marriage by a male or female tattoo artist.  Some women would have these tattoos redone after every child they gave birth to, scarring the skin to keep it taut after multiple pregnancies.  [12,13]

ainu woman
Photo of Ainu woman with traditional facial tattoos and a child, taken c.1930.

In the North Pacific Ocean, the Ainu (which means ‘people’ in the Ainu language) have lived on Hokkaido [map], the northernmost island of Japan, for thousands of years, and are thought to be direct descendents of the Jomon people of Japan, who date back as far as 12,000 years ago and are thought to have existed for an incredible total of 10,000 years.  Ainu art is a tradition that spans one hundred centuries.  The tradition of tattooing among the Ainu was restricted to women and focussed on facial tattoos.  Ainu facial tattoos surround the lips and the corners extend outwards onto the cheeks.

ainu woman mouth tattoo
Photo of Ainu woman’s mouth tattoo.

Mouth tattoos worn by Ainu women were believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the body and causing sickness, ensure an afterlife, and were used to mark the transition into adulthood.  They were seen as a prerequisite for marriage as well as a way to make the mouth appear more beautiful.  Ainu tattoos were typically done by an older woman in the family, using a sharp obsidian point wrapped in fiber to control the depth of the incision.  Soot was then rubbed in the incisions while prayers were said.  Lip tattoos were begun at an early age and expanded until the girl was ready for marriage.

ainu forearm tattoos
Recreation of Ainu women’s forearm and hand tattoos.

In addition to the tattoos around their mouths, Ainu women frequently wore geometric arm tattoos as well.  These, like the facial tattoos, were used to ward off evil spirits and protect the wearer.  Ainu arm tattoos consisted of a braided series of lines, similar to plaits made with other materials by Ainu women.  These braided forearm tattoos could consist of three, five, or seven sets of lines.  Ainu legend tells us that the art of tattooing was received from deities, and that the wives of male deities wore arm tattoos similar to the Ainu so that evil spirits would mistake them for deities themselves and leave them be.  It is thought that each variation in Ainu forearm tattoos is then related to a specific Ainu deity.  [14]

Medieval Tattooing

Crusade Souvenirs & Christian Minority Tattoo
jerusalem cross tattoo
Drawing of Jerusalem cross pilgrimage tattoo c. 1600.

Early Christian leaders in the 5th century AD looked down upon tattooing as a non-Christian practice, but three centuries later in Christian history, leaders began distinguishing between Christian tattoos and non-Christian tattoos.  Crusaders who reached the Holy Land, present day Palestine, would tattoo themselves as a mark of their journey.  [15]

In the Mediterranean and Middle East, Christian tattooing was a means to unite and protect Christian minorities.  In Bosnia, Croat women tattooed themselves to prevent kidnapping by invading Turks during the Ottoman empire.  For Croat women, the most common tattoo was crosses on the back of the hands, which prevented them from being converted to Islam in case of capture.  [16]

Another Christian minority group to practice this kind of tattooing is the Copts in Egypt.  Common Coptic tattoos, similar to Bosnian Christian tattoos, were small Coptic crosses on the insides of the wrist.  In a society where Copts were a minority, the crosses were a means of bonding the community.  These cross tattoos served as a protection against forced conversion, just as they did for the Bosnians.  [17]

christian womens tattoos
Photos of Christian women’s tattoos. Center: Coptic tattooing. Left & Right: Bosnian tattooing.

While tattooing continued sporadically in the Western World, the traditional tattooing in Japan, Polynesia, and the Americas continued from medieval times on.  The most prolific form of tattoo beginning in Medieval times continues to be one of the most well-known tattoo styles today: Irezumi.

Irezumi: Japanese Storytelling Tattoo

Apart from the ancient tattoo traditions of the Ainu, tattooing in ancient Japan has been sporadic and for differing purposes.  Occasional decorative tattoo designs popped up, tending to be tattoos on the hand completed when holding hands with a husband or wife, and around the turn of the millenia Chinese visitors wrote of tattoo symbols that signified societal status.  Later, tattoos tended to be used to mark criminals.  It was not until the Edo period of the 17th century that Japanese tattooing began to take the form it is now known for.  As decorative tattooing became popular, criminal tattooing died out, as criminals punished with tattoos would cover them with more artistic, illustrative tattoos.

japanese irezumi
Painting of Irezumi tattoo on a Japanese man.

In the early 18th century, tattoo was not the only art form gaining popularity and attention in Japan.  Playwrites and other artists needed to advertise their work, and woodcut art provided a means to reproduce images with relative ease.  The influx of woodcut art directly parallels the development of pictorial Japanese tattooing.  Irezumi mimicked not only the style of woodcut art, but also the traditional stories.  Tattoos were favored by laborers such as firemen and others considered at the lower end of the societal spectrum.  Members of Yakuza gangs chose to get tattoos to prove their courage in suffering the pain as well as life-long loyalty.  Women were infrequently as tattooed as men, with the exception of the wives of tattoo artists and collectors.  Despite the small numbers of women getting tattooed, women were favored for tattoo by artists, as a pale woman with well-cared for skin was the ideal canvas to them.  [18,19]

In several thousand years of human tattooing, with the exception of Irezumi, hardly any tattoo art up to this point is truly illustrative.  Pictorial tattoos, such as those of the Altai Princess, were rare in the ancient world.    Most tattoos were medicinal, like the Ice Man’s and Egyptian women’s pregnancy tattoos, or ritual, like the indigenous tattooing of the Americas and Pacific Islands; these tattoos consist nearly entirely of intricate sets of lines and dots.  The Irezumi tattooing of Japan marked a beginning of a new kind of creative, large-scale, illustrative art in tattooing.

In the ancient history of women’s tattooing, one major theme surfaces.  In Ancient Egypt, Ainu, Chaco, Inuit, and other indigenous nations of North and South America, there is a long-standing history of women tattooing women.  In some of these places, it is exclusively women who are tattooed and who do the tattooing.  These tattoos are extremely similar both in visual representations, including lines on the chin and around the mouth and tattoos on the pelvis and in intention, to beautify the female body.  Almost all women’s tattoos exist to protect from sickness or assist in important transitions like puberty and pregnancy: parts of the female human existence that are inherently traumatic to different degrees.

NEXT: SOCIETY WOMEN & CIRCUS LADIES | The next installment in this series will pick up in the early 1800s where tattoo begins to reemerge in Western culture in curious ways.  Westerners invade further west in North America and eventually into the Pacific Ocean.  Sailors begin to return home with tattoos, and a young woman, taken in and tattooed by the Mohave as one of their own, tours as the first tattooed attraction.


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