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Tattoo on a man's head
Tattoo on a woman in shibari

A tattoo is a design in ink or some other pigment, usually decorative or symbolic, placed permanently under the skin. In technical terms, tattooing is micro-pigment implantation. Tattoos are a type of body modification.


Terminology and etymology

The origin of the word tattoo is usually traced to the Tahitian tatu or tatau, which means to mark or strike (the latter referring to traditional methods of applying the designs). In Japanese the word used for traditional designs or those that are applied using traditional methods is irezumi, while "tattoo" is used for non-Japanese designs.

Most tattoo enthusiasts refer to tattoos as art and to tattooists (less often "tattooers") as artists. This usage is gaining support, with mainstream art galleries holding exhibitions of tattoo designs and photographs of tattoos.

Tattoo designs that are mass produced and sold to tattoo artists and studios are called flash. "Tattoo Flash" is also the name of an American tattoo magazine.


Many celebrities, particularly in the music industry, wear tattoos, but there are many others who have tattoos but generally keep them covered. In some areas, tattoos still have a largely negative image. This is particularly true in East Asian countries and regions, where tattoos are still generally associated with criminality in the public's mind; therefore those who choose to be tattooed in such countries usually keep their tattoos covered for fear of reprisal. For example, many businesses such as gyms, hot springs and recreational facilities in Japan still ban people with visible tattoos.

It has been suggested that a majority of prisoners in US prisons have at least one tattoo. It is said that most triad members in Hong Kong have a tattoo of a black dragon on the left bicep and one of a white tiger on the right; in fact, many people in Hong Kong use "left a black dragon, right a white tiger" as a euphemism for a triad member. It is widely believed that one of the initiation rites in becoming a triad member is silently withstanding the pain of receiving a tattoo the size of one's entire back in one sitting, usually performed in the traditional "hand-poked" style. Tattoos, particularly full traditional body suits, are still popularly associated with the yakuza (mafia) in Japan; in reality, however, many yakuza members are choosing not to be tattooed to avoid this very stigma.


Tattooing has been a practice of almost every known people. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, wore unique facial tattoos. Tattooing was widespread among Polynesian peoples, and in the Philippines, Borneo, Samoa, Africa, Japan, and China.

Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. "Ötzi the Iceman", dated circa 3300 BC was tattooed, as was the mummified male found in the Pasaryk burial whose body was tattooed with stylized animal designs. In the Steppes, other natural mummies up to 7000 years old have been found to have tattoos.

Tattooing has also been featured prominently in one of the Four Classic Novels in Chinese literature, Water Margin, in which at least two of the 108 characters, Shi Jun and Yan Qing, were described as having tattoos covering nearly the whole of their bodies. In addition, Chinese legend has it that the mother of Yue Fei, the most famous general of the Song Dynasty, tattooed the words 精忠報國 (pinyin: jin zhong bao guo) on his back with her sewing needle before he left to join the army, reminding him to "repay his country with total loyalty".

Europeans rediscovered tattooing during the exploration of the South Pacific under Captain James Cook in the 1770s, and sailors were particularly identified with tattoos in European culture until after World War I.

The "modern" electric tattoo machine is fundamentally the same machine invented by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891, which was based on an electric engraving pen invented by Thomas Edison.

Tattoos are more popular now than at any time in recorded history. Current estimates have one in seven or over 39 million people in North America who have at least one tattoo.

It is claimed that tattooing has existed since around 12,000 BC. Tattoos have always had an important role in ritual and tradition. In Borneo, women tattooed symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as marriageable material was increased. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. Throughout history tattoos have signified membership in a clan or society. Even today groups like the Hells Angels tattoo their particular group symbol. TV and movies have used the idea of a tattoo indicating membership in a secret society. It has been believed that the wearer of an image calls the spirit of that image. The ferocity of a tiger would belong to the tattooed person. That tradition holds true today shown by the proliferation of images of tigers, snakes, and bird of prey.

In recorded history, the earliest tattoos can be found in Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids. When the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread as well. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia picked up and expanded the art form. Around 2000 BC tattooing spread to China.

The Greeks used tattooing for communication among spies. Markings identified the spies and showed their rank. Romans marked criminals and slaves. The Ainu people of western Asia used tattooing to show social status, girls coming of age were marked to announce their place in society, as were the married women. The Ainu are noted for introducing tattoos to Japan where it developed into a religious and ceremonial rite. In Borneo, women were the tattooists, they produced designs indicating the owners station in life and the tribe he belonged to.

Kayan women had delicate arm tattoos which looked like lacy gloves. Dayak warriors who had "taken a head" had tattoos on their hands, the tattoos garnered respect and assured the owners status for life. Polynesians developed tattoos to mark tribal communities, families, and rank. They brought their art to New Zealand and developed a facial style of tattooing called Moko which is still being used today. There is evidence that the Mayan, Incas, and Aztecs used tattooing in the rituals. Even the isolated tribes in Alaska practiced tattooing, their style indicating it was learned from the Ainu.

In the west, early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies. The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family crests (a tradition still practiced today). In 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattooing. It still thrived in Britain until the Norman Invasion of 1066. The Normans disdained tattooing and it disappeared from Western culture from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

While tattooing diminished in the west, it thrived in Japan. At first, tattoos were used to mark criminals. First offenses were marked with a line across the forehead. A second crime was marked by adding an arch. A third offense was marked by another line. Together these marks formed the Japanese character for "dog". It appears this was the original "Three strikes, you're out" law. In time, the Japanese escalated the tattoo to an aesthetic art form. The Japanese body suit originated around 1700 as a reaction to strict laws concerning conspicuous consumption. Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate clothing. As a result of this, the middle class adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. A highly tattooed person wearing only a loin cloth was considered well dressed, but only in the privacy of their own home.

William Dampier is responsible for re-introducing tattooing to the west. He was a sailor and explorer who traveled the South Seas. In 1691 he brought to London a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Prince Giolo, known as the Painted Prince. He was put on exhibition as a money making attraction, and became the rage of London. It had been 600 years since tattoos had been seen in Europe and it would be another 100 years before tattooing would make it mark in the West.

In the late 1700s, Captain Cook made several trips to the South Pacific. The people of London welcomed his stories and were anxious to see the art and artifacts he brought back. Returning from one of this trips, he brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian named Omai. He was a sensation in London. Soon, the upper class were getting small tattoos in discreet places.

Tattooing was kept from becoming more widespread because of its slow and painstaking procedure. Each puncture of the skin was done by hand as the ink was applied. In 1891, Samuel O'Reilly patented the first electric tattooing machine based on Edison's electric pen which punctured paper with a needle point. The basic design with moving coils, a tube and a needle bar, are the components of today's tattoo gun. The electric tattoo machine allowed anyone to obtain a reasonably priced and readily available tattoo. As the middle and lower classes could easily get a tattoo, the upper classes turned away from it.

By the turn of the century, tattooing had lost a great deal of credibility. Tattooists worked the sleazier sections of town. Heavily tattooed people traveled with circuses and "freak Shows". Betty Brodbent traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus in the 1930s and was a star attraction for years.

Tattooing went underground. Few were accepted into the secret society of artists and there were no schools to study the craft. There were no magazines or associations. Tattoo suppliers rarely advertised their products. One had to learn through the scuttlebutt where to go and who to see for quality tattoos.

The birthplace of the American style tattoo was Chatham Square in New York City. At the turn of the century it was a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. Samuel O'Reilly came from Boston, set up shop there and took on an apprentice Charlie Wagner. After O'Reilly's death in 1908, Wagner opened a supply business with Lew Alberts. Alberts had trained as a wallpaper designer and he transferred those skills to the design of tattoos. He is noted for redesigning a large portion of early tattoo flash art.

While tattooing was declining in popularity across the country, in Chatham Square it flourished. Husbands tattooed their wives with examples of their best work, they then played the role of walking advertisements for their husbands' work. At this time, cosmetic tattooing became popular, blush for cheeks, coloured lips, and eyeliner. With World War I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons.

In the 1920s, with prohibition and then the depression, Chathma Square lost its appeal. The center for tattoo art moved to Coney Island. Across the country, tattooists opened shops in areas that would support them, namely cities with military bases close by, particularly naval bases.

After World War II, tattoos became further denigrated by their associations with Marlon Brando type bikers and juvenile delinquents. Tattooing had little respect in American culture. Then, in 1961 there was an outbreak of hepatitis because, though most tattoo shops had sterilization machines, few used them. Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and other diseases. The general population held tattoo parlours in disrepute.

At first, the New York City government gave the tattooists an opportunity to form an association and self-regulate, but tattooists were not able to organize themselves. A health code violation came into effect and the tattoo shops at Times Square and Coney Island were shut down. For a time, it was difficult to get a tattoo in New York because it became illegal. The better shops moved to Philadelphia and New Jersey where it was still legal.

In the late 1960s, the attitude towards tattooing changed. Much credit can be given to Lyle Tuttle. He is handsome, charming, interesting and knows how to use the media. He tattooed celebrities, particularly women. Magazines and television went to Lyle to get information about this ancient art form.

Tattooing has made a strong comeback. It is more popular and accepted than it has ever been. All classes of people seek the best tattoo artists. This rise in popularity has placed tattooists in the category of "fine artist". The tattooist has garnered a respect not seen for over 100 years. Current artists combine the tradition of tattooing with their personal style creating unique and phenomenal body art. With the addition of new inks, tattooing has certainly reached a new plateau.

Tattoo History


Over the last 150 years, archaeologists have unearthed mummified remains marked with tattoos:

  • In 1991, the frozen, well-preserved body of Ötzi was discovered in the Austrian/Italian Alps. More than 5,000 years old, the body had 57 tattoos.
  • In 1948, a Russian archaeologist who was excavating a group of tombs found the mummy of a Scythian Chieftain. On the mummy's right arm, there were tattoos of a donkey, a mountain ram, and two deer, and tattoos of four running rams that encircled his shin.
  • In 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of an Egyptian priestess named Amunet, who likely lived some time between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. Her body had tattoos on its arms, legs, and below the belly button.
  • In Japan, scientists have discovered clay figurines more than 3,000 years old painted with markings that resemble tattoos.


During the time of the Old Testament, much of the pagan world was using tattooing as a means of deity worship. This produced a negative response from Israel, which attempted to separate itself from the adoration of false gods:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.
  — Leviticus 19:28

Biblical scholar M.W. Thomson suggests, however, that Moses favored tattoos. Thomson speculates that Moses introduced tattoos as a way to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. In his 1859 study, Thomson suggests that Moses believed the prohibition above applied only to heathen, pagan images.

Just before the birth of Christ, Roman writers such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed.

Post Biblical

Early in the fourth century, when Constantine became Roman Emperor and rescinded the prohibition on Christianity, he also banned tattooing on the face, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators. Constantine believed that the human face was a representation of the image of God and should not be disfigured or defiled.

It is documented that a monk who lived in the late fifth century had a tattoo on his thigh that read: "Manim, the disciple of Jesus Christ."

Procopius of Caesarea, who lived during the first half of the sixth century and wrote number of official histories, once reported that many Christians were tattooed on their arms with a cross or the name of Christ.

Charles MacQuarrie, in his work, "Insular Celtic Tattooing: History, Myth, and Metaphor", details how "marks" that are mentioned in the Life of Saint Brigit may have been tattoos. He also suggests that Celtic Christians approved of some, but not all, tattoos.

At the council of Calcuth in Northumberland, the 786 Report of the Papal Legates mentioned two types of tattooing: one of pagan superstition, which doesn't aid any Christian, and another for the sake of God, which provides certain (unnamed) rewards.

Crusaders, arriving in the Holy Land, often tattooed a small cross on their hands or arms as a sign that they desired a Christian burial.


Today, people commonly choose to be tattooed for cosmetic, religious and magical reasons, as well as as a symbol of belonging to or identification with particular groups. Some Maori males still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. Throughout history people have also been forcibly tattooed for a variety of reasons. The best known is the ka-tzetnik identification system for Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

European sailors were known to tattoo the crucifixion on their backs to prevent flogging as a punishment.

Tattoos are also placed on animals, though very rarely for decorative reasons. Pets, show animals, thoroughbred horses and livestock are sometimes tattooed with identification marks, and certain of their body parts (for example, noses) have also been tattooed to prevent sunburn. Such tattoos are performed by veterinarians and the animals are anaesthetized to prevent pain.


Some tribal cultures still create tattoos by cutting designs into the skin and rubbing the resulting wound with ink, ashes or other agents. This may be an adjunct to scarification. Some cultures create tattooed marks by "tapping" the ink into the skin using sharpened sticks or animal bones. Traditional Japanese tattoos (irezumi) are still "hand-poked," that is, the ink is inserted beneath the skin using non-electrical, hand-made and hand held tools with needles of sharpened bamboo or steel.

The most common method of tattooing in modern times is with an electric tattoo machine. In this procedure, ink is inserted into the skin via a group needles that are soldered onto a bar, which is attached to an oscillating unit. The unit rapidly and repeatedly drives the needles in and out of the skin, usually 50 to 3,000 times a minute.

In prisons, tattoo machines are not available so tattooing is done with crude "homemade" machines. Tattoos created under such conditions are frequently painful, and the resulting designs are coarser. There is also significant risk of illness, including such blood-borne diseases as HIV and hepatitis. Prisoners often dismiss these risks in a show of toughness.

Permanent Cosmetics

Permanent cosmetics are tattoos that enhance eyebrows, lips (liner or lipstick), eyes (shadow, mascara), and even moles, usually with natural colours as the designs are intended to resemble makeup. The prices of cosmetic procedures are higher than design tattoos because most states require permanent makeup artists to be licensed aestheticians.

"Natural" tattoos

According to George Orwell, workers in coal mines would wind up with characteristic tattoos owing to coal dust getting into wounds.

Temporary tattoos and Mehndi

Temporary tattoos are a type of body sticker, like a decal. They are generally applied to the skin using water to transfer the design to the surface of the skin. Temporary tattoos are easily removed with soap and water or oil-based creams, and are intended to last a few days.

The art known as Mehndi, common in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian countries (but particularly associated with India), is the application of intricate patterns and designs on the hands and feet. The designs are usually hand drawn with henna: powdered henna is mixed with coffee or tea, lemon juice (to release the dye) and sugar (for consistency) into a paste which is then applied. The length of time the design will last depends on how long the paste is left on the skin. Most designs last up to two weeks, fading from a dark brown to a light orange before disappearing. So-called 'black henna', which is made by adding p-phenylenediamine (PPD) to natural henna, in order to achieve a black colour, may cause allergic reactions. PPD is very unhealthy and has been known to cause burns[1].

Mehndi is traditionally applied onto the hands and feet of brides, but there exist traditions in Bangladesh, Kashmir and Sudan where bridegrooms also have Mehndi applied before wedding ceremonies. Mehndi has also become popular, particularly in the West, as a form of temporary body decoration with no symbolic meaning.


Permanent tattooing of any form carries risks, including infection, allergy, and disease.


Since tattoo instruments come in contact with blood and bodily fluids, diseases may be transmitted if the instruments are used on more than one person without being sterilized.

Most reputable tattoo shops use fresh disposable needles for each client and sterilize reusable instruments between clients using an autoclave. Universal precautions, such as washing the hands, wearing latex gloves and the thorough cleaning of floors and surfaces, also reduce the risk of disease.

In addition, it is important that needles and other instruments do not come in contact with inks that will be used on other clients. To avoid contamination, small amounts of ink are poured from larger bottles into disposable cups. These are used on one client, once only, and are discarded when the session ends. The tattooer should know and discuss the risks Of disease in tattooing.

Allergic reactions

Allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are fairly uncommon except for certain brands of red and green (with which some many people have a slight problem with itching,swelling,redness of the skin,oozing). People who are sensitive or allergic to certain metals may react to pigments in the skin by becoming swollen and/or itchy, oozing of clear sebum is also common.

People with allergies should think carefully about getting a tattoo because of the risk of anaphylactic shock (hypersensitive reaction), which can be life threatening. Some tattoo artists give small tests, by marking a small amount of ink behind the ear to determine if that person has an allergic reaction.


Infection from tattooing in clean and modern tattoo studios is rare.

Potential infections include everything from surface infections of the skin to Staphylococcus aureus infections that can cause cardiological damage. People who are susceptible to infection should know the dangers abrading the skin can have and should consult a physician before getting a tattoo.

The risk of infection also be reduced by following obvious precautions. Shops should appear clean; sinks with hot water and soap should be available in the bathroom as well as in the studio; tattooers should wash their hands regularly and wear latex gloves; surfaces should be cleaned with disinfectant and floors should appear clean; proper procedures for sterilizing equipment should also be followed strictly.

Tattoos and MRI

It has been claimed that the magnetic fields produced by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines could interact with trace metal particles found in some tattoo inks, potentially causing burns or distortions in the image. This is an urban myth. The television show Mythbusters tested the theory, and concluded that there is no risk of interaction between tattoo inks and MRI. Today, few professional tattoos contain metal particles, so there is no concern with MRI.

Deciding where to get a tattoo

See the sections under "Risks," above.

The studio must have all of the following:

  • biohazard containers for blood-stained objects
  • sharps containers for old needles
  • an autoclave is usually required by law but is not really needed if the items to be used have been presterilized elsewhere.
  • accessible facilities for washing the hands with hot water and soap

A reputable artist will:

  • be knowledgeable, courteous and helpful
  • refuse to tattoo minors, intoxicated people, or those incapable of consent due to mental defect.
  • ensure that the customer is satisfied with and sure about the design before applying it
  • be willing and able to answer questions
  • wash his or her hands with hot water and soap or an approved sanitizing agent, and wear latex gloves. Many artists will change gloves one or more times during longer sessions
  • always open new, sterile needle packages in front of the client, and always use new, sterile disposable instruments
  • always use properly sterilized non-disposable and disposable supplies
  • always use fresh ink for each session, placing small amounts in disposable containers which are used for one client only
  • provide clear aftercare instructions and products

Membership in professional organizations, or certificates of appreciation/achievement, may imply that the artist is aware of the latest trends in equipment and sterilization. Many of the most notable tattooists do not belong to any association.


New tattoos are wounds which must be looked after properly. Immediately after completing the tattoo, most tattooists will cover the area to keep out dirt and keep the tattoo from oozing into clothes; sometimes the area is wrapped in clingfilm, paper towel, poultry packs (that come in chicken packs) or gauze. Some tattooists will recommend leaving the covering on for several hours or overnight, and then gently washing the area. Japanese soak the tattoo in hot water to clean it.

Other Uses

Tattooing is also used in managing wildlife and the livestock industry as a marking technique. Animals are marked with symbols or alphanumeric characters for identification. Tattoos may be located anywhere on the animal's body including it's ear (common for small mammals) or inner lip (bears).

Tatooing is also used as a form of 'cosmetic surgery', like permanent cosmetics, to hide or neutralise skin discolorations.

In BDSM as substitute for branding

Some who are attracted to the idea of being branded may get a tattoo instead, due to various practicalities (such as that skilled tattooers are more common than skilled human branders, branding often gives inconsistent results over the long term, and tattoos can show more intricate artistic designs than brands, in multiple colors if desired).


  • Total Tattoo Book Amy Krakow, ISBN 0446670014
  • Tattoo Art Magazine
  • Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 3882439203
  • Safe Tattooing Joshua Andrews
  • The Tattoo Machine Joshua Andrews link Source
  • The Art of Tattooing Joshua Andrews Tattoology

See also

External links

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