My Father got his first tattoos in his late forties. When my mother asked him what they would look like when he got old, he looked her dead in the eye and said ‘Like this. I’m already old.’ As it turns out, Dad’s hardly the oldest tattooed man out there; that honour may go to the mummified Otzi, and I have to admit, they’re a lot cooler than Dad’s kanji for ‘courage’.


In 1991, two hikers came across the body of a partially decomposed body, assuming it to be an unfortunate hiker. It was soon discovered to be the preserved corpse of a man who had lived some 5,300 years ago, raising a number of questions about how the body had been preserved so well, how he had died, and more importantly, how he had lived.

The man was named ‘Otzi’ by the researchers studying him, and would have lived during the start of the bronze age. He would have lived in a wooden house, somewhere in the Alpine mountain chain, with a large family. He stood at 5’5” and suffered from a number of degenerative illnesses, but it was determined that ultimately, an arrow wound to the shoulder was the cause of death. Interestingly, he was covered in at least 61 tattoos.

The Tattoos

Scientists have struggled to find all of the tattoos and see them clearly; an ancient corpse, no matter how well preserved, won’t show ink too clearly. The tattoos are made up of 19 different groups and are all a series of either vertical or horizontal lines.

The tattoos were made by puncturing the top layer of skin and rubbing in charcoal, a little different than the methods that have evolved since then, but still detectable after thousands of years.

The tattoos tend to be clustered around the lower back or joints, which were places that Otzi was suffering from some of those degenerative illnesses mentioned before. Researchers believe that the tattoos served some sort of therapeutic purpose. They may have been markers for treatment, or perhaps they were the treatment. Some tattoos have been spotted on his chest, where the researchers can find no trace of illness, but that doesn’t mean that there was no illness there. Of course, the researchers could be dead wrong about the therapeutic tattoo theory – maybe they were spiritual, or maybe he just liked the look of them – there’s no way to know for certain. Either way, next time someone asks me what my tattoos will look like when I’m old, I’m showing them a picture of Otzi.