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The Surprisingly Long History of Group Tattoos

Ancient Roman soldiers got matching ink long before the cast of ‘Avengers’

Earlier this week, it was reported that five of the six original Avengers actors celebrated the recent release of their newest film (and a decade of starring in Marvel movies) by picking up matching tattoos of a modified Avengers logo.

This is the latest instance in a long string of matching cast tattoos. To commemorate their time spent together in Middle Earth, the Lord of the Rings actors branded themselves with matching tattoos of the word “nine” in Elvish, which refers to the nine members of the fellowship. Shortly after the release of Suicide Squad in 2016, the cast gave each other matching “skwad” tattoos, which inevitably, were executed as horribly as their movie (although for them, at least, more memorably). And Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul got commemorative tattoos to mark the end of their groundbreaking series in 2013.

But people were giving and receiving matching tattoos long before celebrities were memorializing their movies (and their millions) with identical ink. Here are a few notable instances of matching tats throughout history…

Polynesian Tribal Tattoos

This wouldn’t be an article about tattoos if it didn’t mention the Polynesians, who are commonly regarded as the pioneers of tattooing. Thousands of years ago, Samoans were tattooing intricate geometric designs on each other with tools made from boar’s teeth and turtle shells. Both men and women wore these tattoos, and many sported identical (or nearly identical) designs: Most traditional Polynesian tattoos featured a boat, which symbolizes the ocean voyage that brought their ancestors to Samoa (and later carried them to distant shores).

Ancient Roman Military Tattoos

While the ancient Greeks and Romans had erratic attitudes toward tattoos — they typically used them to mark slaves and criminals as a form of punishment (or to prevent them from escaping unnoticed) — a few sources claim that some revered Roman soldiers actually wore matching ink. Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (Pube for short, presumably) documents this process in his fifth century treatise Concerning Military Matters: “[A recruit] should not be tattooed with the pin-pricks of the official mark as soon as he has been selected, but first be thoroughly tested in exercises so that it may be established whether he is truly fitted for so much effort.”

What exactly this “official mark” was remains unclear — experts believe that it may have been an eagle (a prominent symbol used in ancient Rome) or the crest of the legion that the individual soldier belonged to — but evidence suggests that soldiers wore these matching tattoos on their hands. Per sixth century Greek doctor Aetius writing in a collection of medical texts titled Corpus Medicorum Graecorum: “They call ‘tattoos’ that which is inscribed on the face or some other part of the body, for example the hands of the soldiers.”

Christian Crusader Tattoos

Medieval Christian crusaders who reached Jerusalem were given matching cross tattoos on their arms as a reminder of their expedition. Scottish traveler and author William Lithgow (along with several companions) received one of these tattoos in 1612, which was chronicled in his book Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations:

“Early on the morrow there came a fellow to us, one Elias Areacheros, a Christian inhabitour at Bethlehem, and purveier for the Friers; who did ingrave on our severall Armes upon Christs Sepulcher the name of Jesus, and the Holy Crosse; beeing our owne option and desire: and heere is the Modell thereof. But I, decyphered, and subjoyned below mine, the four incorporate Crowns of King James, with this Inscription, in the lower circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex: returning to the fellow two Piasters for his reward.”

While the Bible is traditionally against tattoos (Leviticus 19:28 states, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord”), the 787 AD Council of Northumberland — a meeting of Church leaders and citizens in England — gave tattoos that involve Christian imagery a thumbs up, which laid the groundwork for these Crusader tats. Per the council documents: “When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit there from.”

For a lengthier (and more in-depth) look at crusader tattoos, check this out:

Russian Prison Tattoos

During the 20th century, Russian prisons became notorious for many reasons, one of them being their intricately-tattooed inmates. Many prisoners sported matching tattoos signifying the crimes they committed (or are willing to commit) and their worldviews: A dagger through the neck, for instance, suggests that an inmate has murdered someone in prison and is available to carry out hits for others, whereas matching eight-pointed stars tattooed on an inmate’s chest indicate that they’re a professional criminal for life. Those same star tattoos worn on the kneecaps mean that the prisoner has an anarchical worldview and “will bow down to no man.”

Gang Tattoos

Contemporary gang members worldwide frequently get matching tattoos to prove their lifelong loyalty. For example, the “black hand of death” is commonly worn by members of the Mexican Mafia, a highly organized Mexican-American criminal organization in the U.S. Members of the Tango Orejon gang, meanwhile, pay tribute to their San Antonio roots by permanently marking their bodies with the Spurs logo.

Some gang tattoos are a little more on the nose: Influenced by the name of their gang, members of the Chicago-based Latin Kings frequently get tattoos of a five-point crown (they also get the letters “L” and “K” tattooed, referring to — you guessed it — Latin Kings).

In the more law-abiding public, matching tattoos currently come in many shapes and sizes. Matching couples’ tattoos run the gamut from cute to cringe-worthy (the latter being infinitely more common); band members frequently get identical ink to commemorate their tours; and Project Semicolon — a mental health nonprofit organization that primarily functions as an anti-suicide initiative — inspired an eruption of matching semicolon tattoos all across America.

So really, only one question remains: Who’s next?