The original meaning of military tattoo was a military drum performance, but subsequently it came to mean army displays more generally.
The term dates from around 1600 during the Thirty Years' War in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands). The Dutch fortresses were garrisoned with mercenary troops that were under federal command since 1594. The Dutch States Army had become a federal army, consisting mostly of Scottish, English, German and Swiss mercenaries, but commanded by a Dutch officer corps. Drummers from the garrison were sent out into the towns at 21:30 hrs (9:30PM) each evening to inform the soldiers that it was time to return to barracks. The process was known as doe den tap toe (Dutch for "turn off the tap"), an instruction to innkeepers to stop serving beer and send the soldiers home for the night. The drummers continued to play until the curfew at 22:00 hrs (10:00PM). Tattoo, earlier tap-too and taptoo, are alterations of the Dutch words tap toe which have the same meaning.
Over the years, the process became more of a show and often included the playing of the first post at 21:30 hrs and the last post at 22:00. Bands and displays were included and shows were often conducted by floodlight or searchlight. Tattoos were commonplace in the late 19th century with most military and garrison towns putting on some kind of show or entertainment during the summer months. Between the First World War and the Second World War elaborate tattoos were held in many towns, with the largest in Aldershot, England.
One of the best known Tattoos is held on the Esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle each August as part of the annual Edinburgh Festival. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo was first staged in 1950; it combines the traditional sounds of the bagpipes and drums with the modern aspects of the armed forces. In 2008, the Windsor Castle Royal Tattoo was launched, and held in the private grounds of Windsor Castle by permission of HM The Queen. The event's proceeds went to the Royal British Legion to help support recently returned troops from battle.
Another well-known Tattoo was the Royal Tournament which was held annually in London from 1880 to 1999. The last producer of the Royal Tournament was Major Sir Michael Parker. The British Military Tournament was established in 2010 at the former venue of the Royal Tournament, Earl's Court. Another UK Tattoo is the Birmingham Tattoo held annually at the National Indoor Arena in November, which has been attracting audiences to Birmingham since 1989.
The Royal International Air Tattoo is the world's largest military airshow, held annually at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in aid of the RAF Charitable Trust.
Canada's Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is the largest annual indoor tattoo, each year featuring over 2000 performers from around the world. The Tattoo has been produced since 1979 by Colonel Ian Fraser, who also produced the 1967 Canadian Centennial Tattoo, the world's largest travelling show. Through the course of his career Fraser has produced and / or directed more than 1000 international Tattoo productions across the globe.
The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is unique in that it is a full theatrical production, comprising costume designers, props designers, full wardrobe staff, and is presented as 'theatre in the round'. The show is intensely rehearsed over a two-week period and is a wholly combined military and civilian production. The Nova Scotia Tattoo was the first Tattoo to receive royal designation on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's 80th Birthday in 2006
There is another military tattoo in Canada: The Quebec City Military Tattoo. This event is part of the Quebec City International Festival of Military Bands which takes place in August.
The Norwegian Military Tattoo is internationally famous for its quality and streamlined production. It has been held every second year since 1994 in the capital of Norway, Oslo. Since 1996 the shows have been presented indoors - in the Oslo Spektrum which is "tailor-made" for this kind of event.
The largest tattoo in the United States is the Virginia International Tattoo, held every year in Norfolk, Virginia. Over 850 performers play traditional music and many international acts join every branch of the Armed Forces.
The United States Air Force holds tattoos for many different events and celebrations, like base openings and closers, and special events like the 21st Annual Langley Tattoo. The Air Force's largest tattoo is held the last Friday of June each year at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The 2010 tattoo there drew an estimated 75,000 people and featured the rock group .38 Special. The 2011 event featured aircraft flyovers and music by country group Lonestar.