By: Anzel Veldman, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


Tattooing has been a part of human culture since the earliest beginnings of modern civilisation, and it has been an enduring fixture in human history. Archaeological evidence of tattooing has been found on mummies from various locations, but the earliest direct evidence of this practice is from the remains of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy recovered in the Alps. The earliest written record of tattooing or branding is from the 4th millennium BCE onward, with the emergence of the cuneiform writing system, yet the actual antiquity of the practice, both on a regional basis and as a worldwide phenomenon, remain unknown. However, branding as a mechanism for distinguishing human property probably began in 2000-1800 BCE with Babylonian slaves. The word tattoo is an anglicism, derived from Tahitian tatau meaning ‘to mark’. It was noted by Captain James Cook who recorded the practice of tattooing in Polynesia in 1769 CE (e.g., Grumet 1983; Gustafson 1997; Fisher 2002; Deter-Wolf et al. 2016; Ditchey 2017).

During the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the practice of permanently marking humans by branding or tattooing functioned as a means of marking slaves and temple servants for purposes of identifying a human and to prevent the loss of human property. Secondly, branding and tattooing were used as punitive measures against runaway or otherwise insubordinate slaves. Punitive messages were marked on the foreheads and hands of slaves who attempted to flee from their masters. This practice was adopted by the Greeks and Romans and tattooed persons were perceived to be of a lower status, as tattooing was usually reserved for slaves and criminals. Within the Roman judiciary system, those that were condemned to work in the quarry mines or sent into exile were tattooed. As such, tattoos served a penal function in the ancient Mediterranean world (e.g., Gustafson 1997; Ditchey 2017).

The penal and ownership function persisted well through the centuries, during the Transatlantic slave trade. As early as the 1440s CE, the Portuguese branded slaves to identify who bought them. Similarly, slaves that tried to escape were also branded upon recapture. Using branding as a punishment was adopted by England, during the early 1500s CE when vagabonds and gypsies were ordered to be branded with a large V on the breast, and “brawlers” with a F for “fraymaker”; Slaves who ran away were branded with a S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in 1550 CE and finally abolished in 1829, except in the case of deserters from the army, who were marked with the letter D, by tattooing it with ink or gunpowder. Infamous bad soldiers were also branded with BC (bad character). This practice was abolished in 1879. Similar practices were adopted in British America. Another example of tattoos serving castigating purpose was during World War II, where prisoners in German concentration camps were tattooed with identification numbers on their arm. Using tattoos for penal purposes by permanently marking a person against their will visibly robbed them of agency over their own bodies, ensuring their humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization (Earle 1896; Grigg 2008; Johnson 2015; Bloch 2022).

However, tattoos served different purposes during warfare, such as to create a bond between soldiers, signifying loyalty to their country as well as for informative purposes. Roman soldiers used marks as a way of identifying themselves within a certain unit. Soldiers that fought in the Crusades were also known for tattooing themselves to reveal the kind of burial that they wanted in the event of their death. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), tattooing was an acceptable practice for soldiers, especially tattoos that were overtly political and were symbols of allegiance to their ‘side’ in the war.

During both World War I and II, service men were getting their military service number and blood types tattooed on their bodies as a means of identification in case they were injured or killed in service. During World War I, George Burchett a famous tattooist inked regimental crests, portraits of loved ones and the lions of England onto the arms, torsos, and legs of soldiers as they headed off to the frontline. His office was near Waterloo, the station where many soldiers were heading to the frontline from. It was so popular to get a tattoo that Mr Burchett worked long hours, as queues of both British and Allied forces’ soldiers lined up outside the door. After the war, the sombre mood over the millions who had lost their lives meant tattoos changed from patriotic and brave images to memorials, images of graves and crossed flags to show the unity of nations (Burchett 1958).

Military tattooing during World War II was especially popular among sailors, where tattoo design was informed by superstitious beliefs and the context of the time. For example, pig and rooster tattoos on the feet were symbols that were to save you from drowning, as on ships these animals were kept in containers that would float in the event of the wreck. This led to a surprising survival rate of pigs and roosters, making the act of tattooing a rooster on your right foot and a pig on your left a powerful omen against drowning at sea. Other tattoos were signifiers of how long you had served and your accomplishments. Swallows were tattooed for every additional 5,000 nautical miles travelled. Shark designs were about what you’ve overcome and been willing to stand your ground tattoos of anchors were for stability within the life of chaos that the war produced. The crossed rifles and US Army sign were popular among infantry, and airmen typically got aviator girls and skulls in aviator helmets. Eagles were popular among all soldiers. Unfortunately, tattooing one’s allegiance can have the opposite effect too, such as Nazi soldiers who had had the swastika proudly tattooed on themselves certainly regretted it when they were captured by Allied forces (Govenar 1982; DeMello 1993; Fisher 2002).

During and after the wars tattooing can also have psychological benefits, such as getting inked over scars and wounds. For individuals who have experienced trauma or injury, tattoos can serve to reclaim their bodies and take control of their appearance. Tattoos can also serve as a reminder of strength and resilience, providing a source of empowerment and healing (Grumet 1983; Fisher 2002). Perceived as an adventure, and oblivious to whether they would be returning home, sailors and soldiers were not often apprehensive about how they permanently marked their bodies. Experiencing locations and cultures that were like nothing they had seen before, these military members often got patterns and objects tattooed on their body of things to remind them of where they had been and what they had accomplished.



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Burchett, G., 1958. Memoirs of a Tattooist: From the Notes, Diaries, and Letters of the Late” King of Tattooists,” George Burchett. Crown Publishers.

Deter-Wolf, A., Robitaille, B., Krutak, L. and Galliot, S., 2016. The world’s oldest tattoos. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 5, pp.19-24.

Ditchey, M., 2017. Body language: tattooing and branding in Ancient Mesopotamia. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History, 3(1), pp.1-24.

Earle, A.M. 1896. Curious punishments of bygone days. Rutland: C.E. Tuttle Co.

Grigg, J.A. ed., 2008. British colonial America: People and perspectives. ABC-CLIO Inc.

Grumet, G.W. 1983. Psychodynamic implications of tattoos. AmeBlrican Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 3(53), 482-492.

Fisher, J.A., 2002. Tattooing the body, marking culture. Body & Society, 8(4), pp.91-107.

Govenar, A.B. 1982. The changing image of tattooing in American culture. Journal of American Culture, 5(1), pp.30-37.

Gustafson, W.M., 1997. Inscripta in fronte: Penal tattooing in late antiquity. Classical antiquity, 16(1), pp.79-105.

Johnson, S., 2015. Branded: Trademark Tattoos, Slave Owner Brands, and the Right to Have Free Skin. Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev., 22, p.225.

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