Life & Style

Body Art Forms: A History of Tattoos Their Popularity Today


In the United States, more women than men have tattoos. But body art in general isn’t a gendered practice. In fact, various body art forms date back centuries and have been a crucial part of cultural practices around the world.

Come along with us as we take a look at the history of body art as well as dive into a bit more detail about some of the different types. Let’s get started.

What Is Body Art?

Body art refers to a number of different forms of modifications that people make to their bodies — both temporary and permanent — for a variety of different reasons. The practice has been around for thousands of years across countries and across cultures.

It tends to be a very personal choice, and it’s something that someone may do for personal expression or for a deeper reason.

The History of Body Art

Researchers have discovered that body art is one of those nearly universal practices that can be found in almost any culture on the planet. Although forms and techniques for body art vary, as well as the reasons behind it, it’s a big part of groups of people around the world.

Someone may adorn themselves with some form of body art for a number of reasons. Historically, some of these reasons could include:

  • Changes to achieve the culture’s idea of ideal physical beauty
  • A rite of passage to signify social maturity
  • Personal identification
  • Representations of social status
  • Protection against spirits or other superstitious beliefs

Many of these historical body art traditions were heavily influenced by social beliefs and taboos of particular societies, and they varied greatly from one place or culture to the next.

Today, we often use body art as a form of:

  • Self-expression
  • A means of critiquing larger societal values
  • A representation of our spirituality
  • A fashion statement
  • An enhancement of our appearance

Some of our reasons for engaging in body art have changed, but it’s still part of an old tradition of body modification. Forms of body art and techniques also tend to change with the times as we’re more able to use technology to incorporate new innovations.

Types of Body Art

The ways that we can change our bodies or use them as a sort of artistic canvas are nearly as endless as our imaginations. While many of these types of body art have been around for thousands of years, that’s not to say we might not think of new ones in the future.

Body Piercings

Piercings are perhaps the most common form of body art. How many women do you know that had their ears pierced while they were in school? It might not seem like anything crazy, but it’s still a body piercing. 

Ear piercing has actually been a practice for thousands of years, and researchers have been able to trace it to ancient times. Earrings were, in fact, even mentioned in the Bible.

In some cultures, certain piercings can be used as symbols of different types of conformity. For the most part, though, we use piercings as fashion statements or as different forms of self or cultural expression.

The list of possible piercing locations can seem astonishing. Popular piercings include lip piercings, nose piercings, belly button piercings, and a variety of ear piercings such as cartilage or tragus piercings.

Nose piercings, like ear piercings, date back centuries. While they didn’t gain much popularity in the United States until the 1990s, nose rings were worn by Native American tribes, Australian aboriginals, and indigenous groups in South America such as the Incas and the Aztecs.

Body Tattoos

Most of us these days know about tattoos. We probably assume they’re the most popular form of body art since they’re the most visible. Tattoos are a means of adding permanent designs to the skin with colored inks that are injected with the use of a tattoo gun. 

Like many other forms of body art, tattooing can be traced throughout history to various cultures and time periods. Some forms of tattooing were even around during the Neolithic era. Our modern form of tattooing, however, dates back to around the 18th century when European explorers encountered members of native tribes with this sort of body decoration.

It’s possible for nearly any amateur to dabble with temporary tattoo options such as Henna, but for real, permanent skin artwork, you have to become a tattoo artist. This, like any other sort of artistic occupation, requires talent and training.

Body Paint

For the most part, body painting dates back even farther than piercings and tattoos, and many believe it to be the earliest form of body art. Just like many types of body art, the exact technique for painting and creating pigments varies based on culture and location.

In New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, for example, many natural pigments existed in the clay in the earth that could be used for body painting. In India and the Middle East, the practice is referred to as Mehndi, and this form of painting relies on dyes made from Henna. Mehndi is a traditional practice for brides before their weddings.

Mehndi is an example of a ceremonial body painting tradition, but the body art form can also be used for religious or even hunting and camouflage purposes.

These days, some people use body painting purely as a means of artistic expression. They use their own bodies as a canvas to convey meaningful works of art. 

The World of Body Art Forms

These different body art forms are just a handful of the most popular ways we’ve been using our bodies to express ourselves over the centuries. From paint and tattoos to piercings, humans have used their bodies as a canvas to show who they are and take pride in their appearance. 

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