According to a study done in 2019, about 30% of Americans had at least one tattoo. In a similar study conducted in 2012, only about 21% of Americans had a tattoo. As you move backward through history, tattoos become rarer and rarer, something reserved for criminals, sailors, and outcasts from society.
With that being said, tattoos are certainly nothing new. The oldest evidence of a tattoo dates back to the 4th millennium BC, and other tattooed mummies have been found all over the world from China to Greenland to Egypt to the Philippines. As Christianity came into global prominence, however, the tradition of tattooing came to be considered disgraceful and barbaric in the Western world, and so the practice all but disappeared from Western society for many generations.
Tattooing is thought to have been reintroduced to Western society around the time of Captain James Cook’s expeditions in the South Pacific in the 1770s, during which he came in contact with several different societies in which tattooing was very prominent. Then, after the electric tattoo machine was invented in 1891, the popularity of tattoos steadily rose in the Western world.
While tattoos were far from popular for a large portion of the history of the Western world, they were never completely absent. In fact, you’d be surprised by some of the well-known historical figures who were inked up.
1. Thomas Edison
One of the lesser-known of Thomas Edison’s many inventions, the electric pen was originally meant to help duplicate handwritten documents and drawings. However, when Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine, much of the technology he used was borrowed from Edison’s electric pen. Thus, Edison is partially to thank for the buzzing electric tattoo guns that are inking pictures into people’s skin all over the world.
Edison wasn’t just largely responsible for the resurgence of tattoos in the Western world, he was actually tattooed himself. The famous inventor had five dots arranged in a cross, a pattern known as a quincunx, tattooed on his arm. Interestingly enough, the quincunx eventually became a symbol for someone who had served prison time, with the four outer dots representing the prison walls and the inner dot representing the prisoner.
2. John Wilkes Booth
After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold went on the run. After several days of being chased down by Union soldiers, Booth was eventually shot in the neck and died. Among the unique marks used to identify Booth’s body was a tattoo of his initials that he had on his left hand.
In her memoir The Unlocked Book, John Wilkes Booth, a Sister’s Memoir, Asia Booth Clarke had said, “He had perfectly shaped hands, and across the back of one he had clumsily marked, when a little boy, his initials in India ink.”
3. Winston Churchill
Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and national hero Winston Churchill represented all the strength and sturdiness that the British have always admired. Fittingly, he had the classic macho-man tattoo, the anchor, inked into his forearm.
Winston wasn’t the only Churchill who was tattooed, though. His mother Lady Randolph Churchill had a tattoo of a snake wrapping around her wrist, which she could easily conceal with an ornate bracelet when she wanted to.
4. Dorothy Parker
One of the most influential American poets, critics, and satirists of the 20th century, Dorothy Parker ceaselessly challenged the status quo with her sharp-tongued wit and unapologetic observations. Parker was no stranger to controversy throughout her career, so much so that she was even investigated by the FBI for being a Communist sympathizer as part of a smear campaign by Republican senator Joseph McCarthy. Upon her death, she bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King Jr., and then to the NAACP after King’s death.
Apparently, when Dorothy Parker wasn’t accomplishing incredible things, she would occasionally let loose on the streets of New York City. She wore a tattoo of a small blue star near her elbow that she got during a drunken night out in New York in the 1930s. Perhaps even cultural icons can have a few too many once in a while.
5. Andrew Jackson
The first President of the United States to appeal to the mass of voters rather than the party elite, Andrew Jackson was often considered a president for the common person. Jackson was also the first president to sport a tattoo. The image was of a giant tomahawk on the inside of his thigh.
No one really knows why Andrew Jackson decided to get a tomahawk tattooed on his leg; however, it does seem quite ironic given his seemingly insatiable desire to kill and displace as many Native Americans as possible.
6. James K. Polk
Another U.S. President who had a tattoo was James K. Polk, who is primarily remembered for extending the scope of the United States to the Republic of Texas and the Oregon territory during the Mexican-American War.
It might surprise you to know, however, that the president had a Chinese character tattooed on his body. While polk believed the symbol was supposed to mean “eager,” he couldn’t read Chinese and there was no way to Google search it back then, so let’s just have fun imagining that it meant something totally different.
7. King Harold II
The last Anglo-Saxon king of England, King Harold II, was infamously killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Although his face had been mutilated beyond recognition in the battle, his allies were able to identify his body by the tattoo of his wife’s name, Edith, over his heart.
It’s pretty fascinating to think that the tradition of getting your significant other’s name tattooed on your body can be traced back to 11th-century English royalty. At least King Harold II and Edith never got the chance to have a bad breakup.
8. Czar Nicholas II
Czar Nicholas II, known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer in the Russian Orthodox Church, was the last Emperor of All Russia. In 1890, the czar set out on a world tour with his younger brother George that brought them to Egypt, India, Singapore, Thailand, and Japan. During his time in Japan, Nicholas II received a large dragon tattoo on his arm from a tattoo artist named Hori Chyo.
Years later in 1904 and 1905, Nicholas II would experience a crushing defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War. I wonder how he felt about the tattoo after that?
9. George Orwell
Esteemed English essayist and author of the classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell had quite a different profession before he began gaining notoriety for his writing. In the 1930s, Orwell worked as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. While a part of the force, Orwell made some changes to his appearance that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
Orwell began sporting a pencil mustache like many other members of British police regiments stationed in Burma. He also got blue circles tattooed on each of his knuckles, a Burmese pattern that is said to protect the wearer.
10. Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand, the archduke whose assassination by a Serbian nationalist set off the beginning of World War I, went on a journey all around the world in 1892. He went hunting for tigers in the foothills of the Himalayas, hunted stingrays in India, hunted crocodiles in Jakarta, and hunted just about everything else there was to hunt.
One animal, however, that he seemed to like more than the rest of them was the dragon. In fact, he apparently liked dragons so much that he decided to get one tattooed on his arm while visiting Japan.