Once considered the mark of an underclass of criminals, prostitutes, bikers, seafarers and those inhabiting the margins of society, the tattoo is now à la mode. Samantha Cameron, the British prime minister's wife, has one – a dolphin just below the ankle; Charlize Theron has a fish on her leg and a flower on her foot; Angelina Jolie and David Beckham have too many to mention.

The fashion had its early exponents: George Orwell had bright blue knuckle spots; Teddy Roosevelt bore the family crest on his chest, and legend has it that after the battle of Hastings, Harold II's body was identifiable only by the tattoos over his heart of his wife's name, Edith, and the word England.

Even Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie, had a snake etched on her wrist (easily covered with a diamond bracelet), while Britain's wartime leader is reported to have had an anchor on his forearm. A new exhibition opening on Tuesday at Paris's museum of indigenous arts, the Musée du Quai Branly, explores the long history of tattooing and how it developed from a sign of exclusion and a representation of a crude but bold subculture into what curators says is a popular artistic movement.

It also explores its spread around the globe from Tahiti and the Maoris of New Zealand to Japan, China, the Americas and Europe. Today an estimated 20% of young French people and nearly 25% of American youngsters have tattoos.

The practice of marking human skin dates back well over 5,000 years, according to researchers, who say the remains of Otzi, the Neolithic iceman found in 1991 on a mountain between Austria and Italy, bore 57 markings, including a cross on the back of the left knee. Mummies found in Siberia and Egypt from more than 2,000 years ago were tattooed with animals and monsters. The Ainu, western Asian nomads, introduced the tradition to Japan. Tattoos were often more than just decoration. In Borneo, a woman's tattoo indicated her skill: if her symbol showed that she was a weaver, her status was increased.

The positioning of tattoos has also been important. Decorations around wrist and fingers were thought to ward off evil spirits and disease. Tattoos also signified membership of a tribe, clan or society. Danes, Saxons and Norse peoples tattooed their family crests, but after the Norman conquest it fell out of fashion.

The word tattoo, and wider interest in the practice, is attributed to the voyages of Captain James Cook in the late 1700s. His science officer and botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, who joined him on his first voyage on the Endeavour – to Brazil, Tahiti and Australia from 1768 to 1771 – returned to England with a tattoo. Banks, a respected member of the Lincolnshire landowning gentry, who attended both Harrow and Eton, was president of the Royal Society for more than 41 years and advised George III on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In Polynesia, he observed natives using bone and shell cut into sharp teeth to penetrate the skin as part of their tatau, the Samoan word for mark.

Banks was puzzled by the custom. "Everyone is marked thus in different parts of his body accordingly maybe to his humour or different circumstances of his life," he wrote. "What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it … possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom."

Cook later brought back a tattooed South Sea islander known as Omai, who was paraded before King George. Many of Cook's crew returned with tattoos, and this sparked the tradition for European sailors, as well as the lower and criminal classes, to get them. In the early 19th century, it was estimated that 90% of Royal Navy sailors had a tattoo. A turtle signified that the sailor had crossed the equator, an anchor the Atlantic, a dragon that he had gone east.

Just a couple of years ago in Japan, the association of tattoos with the yakuza, or organised crime, led Osaka's mayor to require public sector employees to have tattoos removed or cover them with clothing.

Tattooing has not always been a matter of choice. In Russia under the tsars and later the Soviets, prisoners were marked according to their crime and sentence: SP for exile, K for forced labour, V on the forehead for vor (thief). The Nazis tattooed the arms of concentration camp inmates with a number.

The Paris exhibition is curated by journalists Anne & Julien (they never give their surnames), who edit the bilingual art revue Hey!, and who have spent more than 18 months pulling it together. The 300-plus exhibits include photographs, tools, skulls, statues and even pieces of human skin showing tattoos.

Artistic advice was given by France's tattooer-to-the-stars, a man called Tin-Tin, who counts Jean-Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Philippe Starck and Yannick Noah among his VIP clientele.

"Tattooing is part of the common heritage of most of humanity," Julien said. "We wanted to do this exhibition for a long time because we feel it's important to show that tattooing has a real history and is a pure product of humanity. There's not a place in the world where mankind has been that has not used tattooing … It's both artisan and artistic. In the past there was a fear of tattoos and people would hide them. Today attitudes have changed. People used to do it because they wanted to identify themselves as different to make a statement, but today it's become fashionable and the opposite holds true. People want to be different so they don't want tattoos."

The fashion is moving away from portraiture and symbolism to abstract designs. "It's an art movement that's developing and changing all the time," Julien said.

["Yakuza tattoo" on Shutterstock]