The technique of tattooing was probably discovered by accident. It is believed that early men rubbed soot and crushed plant parts on their bodies and discovered that some substances left permanent markings on their skin.
In 1991, hikers in the Otztal Alps discovered the frozen corpse of a man who lived more than 5,000 years ago. Incredibly, researchers found more than 50 points tattooed on his relatively well-preserved body. These points corresponded to acupuncture points used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is believed that his people not only knew the technique of tattooing but also acupuncture treatment. The oldest known tattooed people are probably the Picts who lived in present day Scotland as far back as 7,000 BC.
The discovery of this technique led many societies to adopt tattooing as a means to mark rites of passage. Iban and Dayak tribes in Borneo believed that a man without tattoos is invisible to the gods. When Captain Cook explored Tahiti in 1769, he and his crew were fascinated with the tattooed bodies of the islanders. They learned the technique from the Tahitians and on the long, 2-year voyage back to Europe, they practised the newly-learned craft on each other.
In China, some 2500 year-old mummies were found to be tattooed. Philosopher Mencius wrote about people from the kingdom of Yue who kept their hair short, tattooed their bodies and went around without much clothes on. Most Chinese associate the practice with uncivilised tribesmen. During the Qin Dynasty, convicts had their faces tattooed. In Japan, comprehensive guides for penal tattooing have been preserved.
On a more positive note, China’s national hero of the Song Dynasty, General Yue Fei had the words尽忠报国 tattooed on his back by his own mother. It was his mother’s way of reminding him to serve his country to the utmost of his abilities.
In the Chinese classic The Water Margin水浒传, characters like Nine Dragon Shi Jin and the bandit monk Lu Zhi Shen and Yan Qing the wanderer were described as heavily tattooed people. Like Robin Hood, these outlaws were remembered as the good guys.
Ancient bandits evolved into modern gangsters. Tattooing in the Chinese triads was seen as an expression of courage and endurance. A dragon on the left shoulder and a tiger on the right shoulder completes the image of a typical Chinese gangster. Understandably, most respectable Chinese people frowned upon tattoos.
As times changed, tattoos and gangsterism were gradually dissociated. When Hongkong superstar Faye Wong and Nicholas Tse were dating, they had similar lower back tattoos done. In spite of the examples set by celebrities, the Chinese civil service and high society are still pretty intolerant to tattoos.