Tattoos and Royalty: An Ancient Colourful Tradition

Body art, or tattoos, has long been a way of expression in humanity. Many ancient cultures have been linked to body art, and while the tattoos we know and love today may use different ink, colors and techniques, tattoos have been around since ancient times. Persian tattoos, for example, helped the person:

Relate to the Persian gods Boost courage or strength Identify with a tribe or community And these are just a few of the many reasons Persians may have had tattoos.

Persia’s mighty empire left behind a culture and history that is rich with body art and self-expression. We see body art in Persian society dating back to 550 – 330 B.C. through stone carvings of the Archaemenid Persian Empire.

Many of the statues show body piercings on soldiers, kings and even the gods.

While the gods may not have worn jewelry or had piercings, the kings and soldiers did. Lay people also likely had some form of body art at the time. Earrings and piercings were a very popular trend back in ancient Persia.

Tattoos were often associated with strength (men) and beauty (women). And in Persian culture, there were also tattoos that were seen for superstitious reasons. Tattoos could ward off evil or keep bad spirits away from the person.

Persians that received tattoos included:

Athletes: Wrestlers in particular had large tattoos on their arms and chest.
Men: Masculine men would have tattoos of their children, wives or names of their loved ones.
Rebels: Some rebels were given a tattoo to show they were disapproved in the society.
Women: Small tattoos were seen on Persian women. Tattoos were for beautification, and some acted as makeup or to cover up blemishes.

In Europe, in 1862, King Edward VII journeyed to the Holy Land to receive his first tattoo from a local master artist. The trip to have a Jerusalem cross placed on his arm made such an impact on him, he continued to tell the tale for years to come, and so impressed his sons that they made their own visit to the same tattoo artist 20 years later to have their own tattoos done.

In Russia, Grand Duke Alexis also made regular trips throughout the world to have his own tattoos done by master artists, including a journey to Japan to get an elaborate tattoo of a dragon that covered his entire right arm. The Grand Duke so enjoyed his tattoo journeys, he continued to take more and more, and so became the most tattooed man in all of Europe at the end of the 19th century.

Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill, also took part in the tattoo trend amongst the upper classes by having a small snake tattoo placed around her left wrist, although she was known to hide the tattoo with a bracelet while out amongst the more “proper” social circles around Wales. Sir Winston himself had an anchor tattoo on one of his forearms.

The draw of tattoos amongst royalty didn’t slow down in the 20th century. If anything, it sped up with the appearance of tattoos on some of the world’s most famous monarchs.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was very proud of the “lucky” snake tattoo on his right hip, although it turned out to be not so lucky after all when it caught an assassin’s bullet and caused his death in 1914.

In Spain, King Alfonso XIII and his son, the Count of Barcelona both had tattoos. King Frederik IX of Denmark was also heavily tattooed, with multiple anchor tattoos, a Chinese dragon and his family crest found on various parts of his body.

There is photographic proof that Princess Sofia of Sweden has a sun tattoo & Princess Stephanie of Monaco has at least 6 tattoos on various parts of her body, including her upper back and ankle, and Juliana Guillermo, daughter of Princess Christina of the Netherlands has a small tattoo on her ankle. The royal rumor mill has also put out the word that Prince Harry, Prince Charles, and Zara Philips, daughter of Princess Anne, all have at least one tattoo.

Although there tend to be strict dress codes in place at royal social functions, such as the garden parties at Buckingham Palace and race days at the Ascot, there is no ban on tattoos. In fact, tattoos are seen as lifestyle choices and are welcomed, although many royals and celebrities may choose to make an effort to keep their tattoos hidden while in the spotlight.

From a storied start of social stigma, to a place of status amongst monarchs, tattoos have played an important role in European history. They have embodied a sense of adventure, free spirit, and tradition amongst the working and upper classes alike, and continue to be a source of fascination for both those that choose to wear them, and those that choose to simply sit back and observe the continuation of a colorful tradition.

Pictured above is King Frederick IX of Denmark. Tattooed by George Burchett who also tattooed George V of the UK and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.