Ink with meaning: What we can learn from the tattoos of our ancestors

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on in 2015.

Story highlights

Tattoos are more popular than ever before

A tattoo speaks volumes about cultural background and personal identity

CNN  — 

Eight thousand years ago, a pencil mustache was tattooed onto the upper lip of a young Peruvian man. His mummified body has since become the oldest existing example of tattoo art on the planet.

Today’s world is, of course, almost unrecognizable by comparison. But according to professor Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University – author of a new book about body art – the tattoo has made a powerful comeback.

“There has been an extraordinary, epochal change in the last 25 years,” he said. “When I was a child in the 1960s, we didn’t see tattoos everywhere. But there has been an explosion in popularity, and this tells us a lot about who we are, both culturally and as individuals.”

In fact, according to some studies, up to 38% of Americans and a fifth of British adults have some type of long-term body art.

Many interlocking factors have a bearing on the popularity of the tattoo. Foremost among them is a change in the popular conception of the body.

“Because of advances in technology and medical science, people no longer understand the body as something natural that you’re born with and live with. Instead, we understand it much more as something that is changeable and mutable,” Thomas said.

“People have all sorts of surgical interventions, medical and cosmetic. It is even possible to change your gender. This means that we now see our body as something we have a responsibility to design and make. Even something as simple as a fitness routine or a tan indicates this attitude.”

Society isn’t quite ready for facial tattoos

A permanent stamp of identity

In addition, as global mobility leads to the increasing pluralization of society, identity is being seen as something to be designed rather than inherited.

“People are no longer simply British or Australian or Californian,” he said. “Our identities are far more particular, linked to our interests, affinities to cultural or spiritual traditions, tastes in music and subcultural allegiances. The tattoo has become a vehicle for that sort of pa