In the year 450 B.C., Greek historian Herodotus wrote that among certain cultures, tattoos were a mark of high birth, and to be without them signified low social status. This is also the case with the ancient Britons, who wore tattoos as badges of honor. The history of tattoos goes back much further than this, however, and encompasses many different civilizations.
According to Smithsonian.com, the earliest known tattoos were found on the 5200-year-old Iceman discovered by archaeologists near the Italian-Austrian border. Markings have also been found on high-status female Egyptian mummies dating back to around 2000 B.C. National Geographic notes that "tattoo" derives from the Polynesian word "tatatau" or "tattau," described by James Cook on his 1769 expedition to the island of Tahiti. The practice spread to Europe when Cook returned from his voyage, and became especially popular with British sailors and miners.
How Stuff Works reports that the first American tattoo parlor was opened in 1846 by Martin Hildebrant. His daughter, Nora, rose to fame soon after as the Tattooed Woman of the traveling Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1891, a New York inventor named Samuel O'Reilly unveiled the first electric tattoo machine, which revolutionized the art form. By the end of the 1920s, American circuses employed more than 300 people with full-body tattoos.