Tattooing has been practised for centuries in many cultures, particularly in Asia, and spread throughout the world.
The modern revival of tattooing stems from the voyage of Captain James Cook in the late 1700s.
Cook's Science Officer and Expedition Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, returned to England with a tattoo. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy and had acquired his position with Cook by supporting the expedition with ten thousand pounds, a great amount at that time. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Raiatean man, Omai, whom he presented to King George and the English Court.
Many of Cook's men, ordinary seamen and sailors, came back with tattoos, a tradition that would soon become associated with men of the sea in the public's mind and the press of the day.
As many tattoos were stimulated by Polynesian and Japanese examples, amateur tattoo artists were in great demand in port cities all over the world, especially by European and American sailors. The first documented professional tattoo artist in the USA was Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1846.
Between 1861 and 1865, he tattooed soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War. The first documented professional tattooist in Britain was established in Liverpool in the 1870s. Tattooing was an expensive and painful process, and by the 1870s had become a mark of wealth for the crowned heads of Europe.
Since the 1970s, tattoos have become a mainstream part of global and Western fashion, common among both sexes, all economic classes, and age groups from the later teen years to middle age. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations.
The tattoo has "undergone dramatic redefinition" and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression. In 2010, 25% of Australians under the age of 30 had tattoos.
The Government of Meiji Japan had outlawed tattoos in the 19th century, a prohibition that stood for 70 years before being repealed in 1948. As of June 6, 2012 all new tattoos are forbidden for employees of the city of Osaka. Existing tattoos are required to be covered with proper clothing. The regulations were added to Osaka's ethical codes, and employees with tattoos were encouraged to have them removed. This was done because the strong connection of tattoos with the yakuza, or Japanese organized crime, after an Osaka official in February 2012 threatened a schoolchild by showing his tattoo.
Current cultural understandings of tattoos in Europe and North America have been greatly influenced by long-standing stereotypes based on deviant social groups in the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly in North America tattoos have been associated with stereotypes,folklore, and racism. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did people associate tattoos with such societal outcasts as bikers and prisoners.
Today, in the United States many prisoners and criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation. A teardrop tattoo, for example, can be symbolic of murder, or each tear represents the death of a friend.
At the same time, members of the U.S. military have an equally well-established and longstanding history of tattooing to indicate military units, battles, kills, etc., an association which remains widespread among older Americans.