top of page

A Deep Historical Phenomenon: Tattoos as Identity Markers

Updated: 1 day ago

Written by Dicle Ezgi Ekinci


Tattoos have been part of humanity since the Middle Stone Age. As people developed, tattoos and tattoo technology evolved. Such an ancient practice managed to survive up until today and will no doubt remain as we peer into the future. As such an important body-modification tradition, tattooing has its own culture that comprises tattoo makers, tattooed subjects, and tattooing toolkits. Tattoos had different meanings in different societies throughout history. The meaning attributed to tattoos varied depending on the type and color of pigmentation used, the pattern drawn, and the body part being tattooed. In a broader sense, tattoos have adopted a communicative function in societies with applications in punishment, law enforcement, medical tattooing, art, and cosmetic purposes.1Between these functions and more, the tattoo has served as a vital identity marker over history. Unlike other body modifications such as jewelry and clothes, tattoos are permanent fixtures on one’s body. Whereas other body modifications can be fluid and transient, tattoos are far more rigid by nature since they are carried over an entire lifetime. Beyond the individual functions tattoos may have, tattoos also function as identity markers in a broader sense, since people in the same group sharing similar tattoos will be easily distinguishable from those in other groups.


In my Deep Historical Gallery, first I will show that the first tattoos emerged discerning a group identity. Secondly, I will underline how attributing a meaning to tattoos can create markers for divinity and for gender. Then, I will highlight how the material culture used in tattooing can itself further contribute to our knowledge of the gender-specific identity of the tattoo artist. The fourth object in my gallery sheds light on how tattoos were used intentionally to mark for status in society, and how material culture was used to break rigidity of identity marking resulting from tattoos. Finally I will challenge you to rethink tattoos in the modern world, and how people try to manage identity crises born when their existing tattoos clash with their new identity.


How and when did tattoo culture start? Did the emergence of tattooing predate Homo Sapiens? The first object of my gallery sheds light on the earliest tattoo practices of Homo Sapiens. The bone tools– some of them bearing ochre stains– from Middle Stone Age levels of Blombos Cave, South Africa were excavated by Iziko Museums of Cape Town anthropologist Cristopher Henshilwood and his team between 1992-2000. Henshilwood et al. suggested that


These bone tools might have been used as projectile points and awls.2 Moreover, these bone tools signal “behavioural modernity in Africa” in the Middle Stone Age as these tools bear “deliberate engraving on ochre, production of finely made bifacial points and sophisticated subsistence strategies.”3 Other objects found in the same cave such as abundant ochre were associated with early human “symbolic traditions” as it is thought to be “used to decorate the human body.”4 Eight of these bone tools have red ochre marks on their surface polish.5 Archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf hypothesizes that these red ochre stained bone tools were used to tattoo the cave occupants.6 Red ochre application in the Middle Stone Age is understood as displaying “symbolic intent” in the decoration of human bodies.7 Moreover, red is known to have been important for ritual actions as it is the color of blood.8


To show how this symbolic intent of red ochre application on cave occupants might have acted as a marker for group identity, I will draw upon the work of several scholars to analyze the importance of collective body painting. Aaron Deter-Wolf suggests cave occupants might have had tattoos collectively.9 Durkheim’s point about body painting as “collective representation of ritual action” is helpful to analyze how tattoos indirectly affected discerning a group identity.10 A collective ritual formed the framework of “symbolic communication between group members.”11 The tattoo is one of the visual contributors of this symbolic communication. Therefore, I argue that cave occupants bearing the tattoos for ritual actions had a sense of group identity since these rituals were practiced in groups. It is also possible that those tattoos might have separated the Blombos Cave members from the members of other caves if this ritual was specific to Blombos Cave occupants. This object leaves us with a very intriguing reality: tattoos emerged already bearing their social marking feature.


Figure 1. Middle Stone Age Bone Tools from Blombos Cave (photograph courtesy of Francesco d’Errico and Christopher Henshilwood)


The origin of tattoos is predicted to have been related to rituals. Tracing forward in time, it is obvious that the relationship of tattoos with rituals was not a stagnant process. Tattoos played an important role and adopted different meanings, becoming an integral part of many rituals in history. Those attributed meanings created subgroups in the society. In ancient Egypt, as I shall show with my next object, certain geometric patterns represented knowledge of Goddess Hathor creating a divine group.


The female figure made of faience with incomplete legs is a burial object excavated in the 20th century from a tomb near the Memphite region, Lisht North, modern Egypt. The nude female figure is covered with blue paint and it bears black geometrical patterns indicating tattoos all over the body. It has black hair with curls in the front in the style of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Hathor.12 This object is 4000 years old (ca. 1850–1750 B.C.) and is 12.7 centimeters (5 in) tall.


Objects made of faience in Ancient Egypt were perceived as magical and carrying the power of rebirth.13 Female figurines of this type are considered to have “sexual, spiritual, and occasionally monstrous” functions.14 These female figurines were found with the objects needed for Hathoric dance such as clappers and mirrors which were used to honor the Goddess Hathor.15 Hathor was “the Goddess of music, beauty, sexuality, and its attendant fertility in this world and the next”16 Given the other objects found alongside the figurine - clappers and mirrors - the figurines “were almost certainly tied to the creation or reinfusion of new life.”17


In Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual, Columbia University Classics and Ancient Studies Professor Ellen Morris argues that these female figurines may have represented “Hathoric performers who danced for the dead king…” in mortuary temples18. She suggests that these female figurines were dancing for their owners' life to wake them from death.19It is clear that female figurines and the dancers they represent played a significant role in Egyptian mortuary culture and rituals.


Tattooing was a well established practice by the end of the Predynastic Period (3900-3100 BCE) in Ancient Egypt.20 The geometric patterns in different colors on female figurines are identified as tattoos by scholars, moreover these tattoos were not found on male figurines.21 The geometric patterns indicating tattoos on this figurine are important proxies to examine tattoo practices in ancient Egypt. A unique fact is that the tattoo patterns found on this figurine were also identified on several different female mummies. The mummy of a twelve-year-old adolescent dancer girl had a similar geometric pattern to that of our female figurine and other female figurines of the same type (truncated female figurines).22 Furthermore, the mummy of Amunet, the priestess of Hathor (XI Dynasty), also had similar tattoos which suggests that both the figurines and Amunet were associated with the Goddess Hathor.23 Therefore it is clear that the patterns identified on the figurine were real tattoos practiced by some people at that time. Archeologists Aaron Deter-Wolf and Krutak Lars suggest that these tattoos on figurines as well as on mummies “may have expressed initiation in the cult of Hathor and knowledge of the associated rites, as well as perhaps augmenting the wearer’s beauty and effectiveness.”24


These tattoos were associated with “only selected women who may well have been involved in ritual performance.”25 Therefore I argue that tattoos in Middle Kingdom Egypt acted as an identity marker. These tattoos were exclusive to women which acted as a gender identity in the society. More specifically, as these tattoos were exclusive for the woman ritual performers,


Figure 2. Female Figure, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 08.200.18


they also marked a group affiliation. Perhaps, they marked their social status in the society as they were in service of a Goddess. This spiritual engagement with tattoos is what made those tattoos and individuals special. Even if other people want to acquire that tattoo they might not be allowed to do so, and perhaps these technologies were not available to the public.


In sum, truncated female figurines shed a light on exclusive tattoo practices in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Certain geometric patterns of tattoos were correlated with a divine source and ritual, therefore separating tattooed individuals from the rest. Since this practice was only observed in Hathoric female dancers, this pattern of tattoos firstly marked gender identity in ancient Egyptian society and secondly separated dancers from other people creating a divine group that is capable of carrying out magical processes such as transition to afterlife.


As I have shown with the Female figurine, tattoos can have gender specific applications. Until this point we have spoken about tattoo bearers, but what about tattoo artists? The toolkits involved in the application process leave us with a further question: Did the people who apply the tattoos have a separate identity from those who bore them? Were the people who used the tattoo toolkits also distinguished based on their gender, status, age, or identity? The next object in my gallery highlights this important point. This Sarmatian bone tattoo marker with the leather pigment bag predates the fourth century BCE.26 These tattoo toolkits were discovered from a female burial in Filippovka I region during the excavations pursued between 2004 and 2007 in Orenburg, Russia.27 The bone tool is approximately 10.3 cm and the bag has the size of 5.1cm to 2.3cm.28


Figure 3. A Bone Tattoo Marker With Leather Pigment Bag (Photography by Alexander Mirzokhanov, Courtesy of the Orenburg Governor’s Museum of Local Lore and History)


Archaeologist Yablonsky suggested in his field report that this bone stenciling tool might have been used for drawing on human skin and the pigment bag is used for storage of tattoo related pigments.29 Other objects– needles, pigments, mirrors, and whetstones– found along with Figure 3 also further suggest that the bone marker and the pigment bag was the part of a larger tattoo kit.30 These tattoo toolkits of Sarmatian culture were only found in female burials.31 Yablonsky suggests that this incidence is the result of tattoos being only worn by females.32 Since Sarmatians women were pursuing the ritual actions, Yablonsky hypothesizes that tattoos were used in ritual aspects by women.33 Another interpretation of Sarmatian female tattoos is that they might have been used for cosmetics.34In both possibilities, it is clear that females carried the tattoos. Since these tattoo toolkits are found only in female burials and females were the conductors of the rituals, it has been suggested that females were the only tattoo professionals of this culture.35


This object shows that tattoos acted as a gender marker in this society, but more importantly attributed a gender identity to the tattoo application process. Whoever was involved in the usage of tattoo toolkits were also females. Therefore, besides marking female identity in the culture, it also assigned gender specific roles for the tattoo artists.


It is important to note that although some voluntarily adopted tattoos are not specifically aimed at marking identity, they are inherently accompanied by the natural function of tattoos. For example, female dancer tattoos were meant to encode for ritual knowledge but ended up marking a divine group. Other tattoos are intended to explicitly mark for status and social identity in societies and are done involuntarily (i.e. branding). One of the most important examples of intentional marking are slavery tattoos. Punishment tattoos for slaves were used throughout the Hellenistic Period.36 Punishment tattoos were “practised in late antiquity (from c. AD 250) and into the Byzantine period.”37 Slaves who try to runaway were tattooed on their forehead indicating their crime.38 However, there were some cases in the Roman Empire that mitigated the application of forehead tattoos. We see that material culture somewhat replaces the function this punishment tattoos serve. The fourth object in my gallery is a signifier of this type of material culture – a copper alloy tag from a slave collar that translates to “Hold me, lest I flee, and return.”

Emperor Constantine discouraged the facial marking of slaves in 316 AD.41 As a result of this discouragement some scholars suggest that the “many Christian slave owners may have heeded Constantine's directive and abandoned the practice of tattooing recalcitrant slaves.”42 Most of these slave collars are found to be produced after the directive of Constantine.43 Therefore, it can be suggested that material culture replaced the function of punitive tattoos in some cases.


Slaves were able to upgrade their status upon salvation.44 However, their tattoos were not leaving their past behind– their previous identities were not in agreement with their new identities. This collar played a role as a vehicle for slaves to escape not from slavery, but from the identity tattoos that marked them as slaves.


Building on this idea, my final museum piece considers the question, what do people in the modern world do when their tattoos do not reflect their identity anymore?


As time passes, how we identify ourselves might change. Thoughts and belongings to certain groups might be transient. People can feel uneasy about what their tattoos signal to the rest of the world. For example, certain gangs have distinguishing types of tattoos. Those tattoos mark group affiliation, ranking in the group, and status.45 However, when people decide to quit the group, unfortunately their tattoos do not go away. When ex-gang members try to adapt to society they face “stigma towards tattoos and tattooed persons.”46 To help ex-gang members to transit back into society there exist services providing tattoo removal.47 Therefore, tattoos do not allow these people to leave their past behind. Their tattoos do not allow them to acquire a new identity in society. The final object in my gallery– the modern tattoo removal process– is highlighting this phenomenon of identity conflict. The laser tattoo removal machine (Qs Laser) applies different wavelengths of laser beams onto tattooed skin creating a photoacoustic effect which ablates the pigmentation.48 This removal process is not perfect as it might result in scars.49 The person featured in the picture below decided to remove their Aztec inspired tattoo. Maybe this was due to a stigma they faced or just an aesthetic choice. However, no matter what reason motivates people to remove their tattoos, leaving your tattoos is per se leaving old identities behind. Even though tattoo removal is not turning the skin back into its original form, to some extent it allows people to rethink their choices and adopt different identities over their life-time.


Figure 5. An Aztec inspired tattoo removal with laser (photograph courtesy of David Hardenberg)


Tattoo at its zero point helps to recruit an identity. Then, tattoos have served several explicit functions throughout history as they continue to do in the modern age. The tattoo culture goes beyond the tattoo itself: the tattoo affects the person who has it, the people who are involved in the tattoo making process, and the communities affiliated or not affiliated to it.


Due to its permanent nature the tattoo adopts the role of an identity marker whether intentionally or unintentionally so. However, this rigid structure of identity and belonging do not overlap with human nature. Our identities and sense of affiliation to groups can change over time. While our thoughts are fluid and transient, we can not expect people to keep their tattoos for their whole lifetimes. To break the rigidity of certain identities that tattoos imprint on us, humans started to rethink alternatives that can replace tattoos and ways of deleting tattoos. These technologies are indicators of the human desire to change oneself, just as they are indicators of the powerful effect of tattoos as identity markers.



References:
  1. Bazan, Luis Enrique, Liliana Harris, and Lois Ann Lorentzen. 2002. “Migrant Gangs, Religion and Tattoo Removal.” Peace Review (Palo Alto, Calif.) 14 (4): 379–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/1040265022000039150.

  2. Deter-Wolf, Aaron.“The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing.” Philippe Della Casa & Constanze Witt (eds) Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity. Proceedings of the sessions at the EAA annual meetings in The Hague and Oslo, 2010/11. Zurich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9, 2013, 15-25.

  3. “Egyptian Art, Female Figure.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Art Collection. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544220

  4. “Greek, Roman & Etruscan, tag.” The British Museum. Greek and Roman Department. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544220

  5. Gustafson, Mark, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond.” Caplan, Jane (ed). 2000. Written on the Body : the Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

  6. Hardenberg, David. Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt Having His Aztec-Style Tattoo Removed. July 9, 2022. The Guardian.

  7. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jul/10/when-ink-dries-the-regrets-that drive-tattoo-removal.

  8. Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francesco D'errico, Curtis W. Marean, Richard G. Milo, and Royden Yates. 2001. “An Early Bone Tool Industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: Implications for the Origins of Modern Human Behaviour, Symbolism and Language.” Journal of Human Evolution 41 (6): 631–78. https://doi.org/10.1006/jhev.2001.0515.

  9. Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francesco d'Errico, Karen L. van Niekerk, Yvan Coquinot, Zenobia Jacobs, Stein-Erik Lauritzen, Michel Menu, and Renata Garcia-Moreno. 2011. “A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 334 (6053): 219–22. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1211535.

  10. Jones, C. P. “Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.” The Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 139–55. https://doi.org/10.2307/300578.

  11. Kent, Kathryn M., and Emmy M. Graber. 2012. “Laser Tattoo Removal: A Review.” Dermatologic Surgery 38 (1): 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1524-4725.2011.02187.x.

  12. Krutak, Lars F., and Deter-Wolf, Aaron. 2017. “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing.” Seattle: University of Washington Press.

  13. Morris, Ellen. 2017. "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual." In Company of Images: Modelling the Imaginary World of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1500 BC). Proceedings of the International Conference of the EPOCHS Project held 18th-20th September 2014 at UCL, London, edited by Gianluca Miniaci, Marilina Betrò, and Stephen Quirke. Leuven and Paris and Bristol, Connecticut: Peeters Miniaci, Gianluca, Maria C. Betrò, and Stephen Quirke. 2017. Company of Images : Modelling the Imaginary World of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1500 BC). Leuven: Peeters.

  14. Ojeda, Victoria D, Christopher Magana, Sarah Hiller-Venegas, Laura S Romero, and Arisa Ortiz. 2022. “Motivations for Seeking Laser Tattoo Removal and Perceived Outcomes as Reported by Justice Involved Adults.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 306624X221102807–306624X221102807.

  15. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624X221102807.

  16. Phelan, Michael P. and Hunt, Scott, A. 1998. “Prison Gang Members' Tattoos as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral Careers.” Symbolic Interaction, 21: 277-298. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1525/si.1998.21.3.277

  17. Riccardelli, Carolyn. 2017. “Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production.” In the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/egfc/hd_egfc.htm

  18. Rubin, Arnold. 1988. “Marks of Civilization : Artistic Transformations of the Human Body.” Los Angeles, Calif.: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles.

  19. Watts, Ian. "Red ochre, body painting, and language: interpreting the Blombos ochre." Botha, Rudolf P., and Chris Knight. (eds). 2009. The Cradle of Language. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

  20. Yablonsky, Leonid T. "The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia." Ancient ink: The archaeology of tattooing (2017): 215-230.

  21. Yatsenko, Sergey A. "The tattoo system in the ancient Iranian world." Philippe Della Casa & Constanze Witt (eds) Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity. Proceedings of the sessions at the EAA annual meetings in The Hague and Oslo, 2010/11. Zurich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9, 2013, 15-25.


[1] Wymann, “Tattoo: a multifaceted medium of communication,”50

[2] Henshilwood, “An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language,” 631

[3] Henshilwood, “An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language,” 631

[4] Deter-Wolf, “The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing,” 22

[5] Deter-Wolf, “The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing,” 23

[6] Deter-Wolf, “The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing,” 23

[7] Henshilwood et al., “100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South

Africa,” 219

[8] Watts, “Red ochre, body painting, and language: interpreting the Blombos ochre,” 68

[9] Deter-Wolf, “The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing,” 23

[10] Watts, “Red ochre, body painting, and language: interpreting the Blombos ochre,” 62

[11] Watts, “Red ochre, body painting, and language: interpreting the Blombos ochre,” 64

[12] Morris,"Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 310

[13] Riccardelli, “Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production”

[14] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"306

[15] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"307

[16] Krutak and Deter-Wolf“Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,”25

[17] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"311

[18] Morris,"Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 285

[19] Morris,"Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 311

[20] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,” 11, 17

[21] Rubin, “Marks of Civilization : Artistic Transformations of the Human Body,” 21

[22] Morris,"Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 289

[23] Rubin, “Marks of Civilization : Artistic Transformations of the Human Body,” 22

[24] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,”25

[25] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,” 26

[26] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia,"217

[27] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia," 217

[28] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia,"218

[29] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia," 228

[30] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia," 230

[31] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia," 230

[32] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia," 230

[33] Yablonsky, “The discovery of a Sarmatian tattoo toolkit in Russia," 230

[34] Yatsenko, “The Tattoo System in the Ancient Iranian World,” 100

[35] Yatsenko, “The Tattoo System in the Ancient Iranian World,” 101

[36] Jones, “Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 148

[37] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 17

[38] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 25, 26

me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus.”

[39] “Greek, Roman & Etruscan, tag.”

[40] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 26

[41] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 21

[42] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 21

[43] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 21

[44] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 19

[45] Phelan, “Prison Gang Members' Tattoos as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral Careers, 277

[46] Ojeda et al., “Motivations for Seeking Laser Tattoo Removal and Perceived Outcomes as Reported by Justice Involved Adults,” 127

[47] Bazan et al., “Migrant Gangs, Religion and Tattoo Removal,” 379

[48] Kent et al., “Laser Tattoo Removal: A Review,” 3

[49] Kent et al., “Laser Tattoo Removal: A Review,” 8

Comments


bottom of page