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A Maori Chief with tattoos (moko) seen
by Cook and his crew.
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting
ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or
other reasons. Tattoos on humans are a type of decorative body
modification, while tattoos on animals are most commonly used for
identification or branding.
Tattooing has been practiced worldwide.
The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, traditionally wore facial
tattoos. Today one can find Berbers of Tamazgha and Maori of New Zealand
with facial tattoos. Tattooing was widespread among Polynesian peoples
and among certain tribal groups in the Philippines, Borneo, Mentawai
Islands, Africa, North America, South America, Mesoamerica, Europe,
Japan, Cambodia, New Zealand and Micronesia. Despite some taboos
surrounding tattooing, the art continues to be popular in many parts of
The origin of the word "tattoo" cannot be confirmed for certain but a
borrowing from the Polynesian most likely Tongan, Samoan or Tahitian
word tatau, "correct or workmanlike." It also signifies the correct
quadrangular figures in reference to the fact that Samoan tattoo designs
do not include circular lines, although other Polynesian tattoo motifs
do. The first syllable "ta", meaning "hand", is repeated twice as an
onomatopoeic reference to the repetitive nature of the action, and the
final syllable "U" translates to "color". The
instrument used to pierce the skin in Polynesian tattooing is called a
hahau, the syllable "ha" meaning to "strike or pierce".
The OED gives the etymology of tattoo
as "In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Tahitian, Samoan,
Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu." Englishmen mispronounced the
word tatau and borrowed it into popular usage as tattoo. Sailors on
the voyage later introduced both the word and reintroduced the concept
of tattooing to Europe.
In Japanese the most common word used
for traditional designs is, "Horimono".
The traditional Japanese hand method is
The word, "Irezumi," simply means,
"insertion of ink," and could mean tattoos using Tebori, or Western
style machine, (or for that matter, any method of tattooing using
insertion of ink).
Japanese may use the word "tattoo" to
mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing.
Tattoo enthusiasts may refer to tattoos
as "Tats", "Ink", "Art", or "Work", and to tattooists as "Artists". The
latter usage is gaining greater support, with mainstream art galleries
holding exhibitions of both traditional and custom tattoo designs.
Copyrighted tattoo designs that are mass-produced to tattoo artists are
known as flash, a notable instance of industrial design. Flash sheets
are prominently displayed in many tattoo parlors for the purpose of
providing both inspiration and ready-made tattoo images to customers.
A tattoo on the right arm of a Scythian
chieftain, whose mummy was discovered at Pazyryk, Russia
been a Eurasian practice at least since Neolithic times. Ötzi the
Iceman, dating from the fourth to fifth millennium BC, was found in the
Ötz valley in the Alps and had approximately 57 carbon tattoos
consisting of simple dots and lines on his lower spine, behind his left
knee, and on his right ankle. Other mummies bearing tattoos and
dating from the end of the second millennium BC have been discovered,
such as the Mummy of Amunet from Ancient Egypt and the mummies at
Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau. Tattooing in Japan is thought to go
back to the Paleolithic era, some ten thousand years ago.[citation
needed] Various other cultures have had their own tattoo traditions,
ranging from rubbing cuts and other wounds with ashes, to hand-pricking
the skin to insert dyes.
Tattooing in the Western world today
has its origins in Polynesia, and in the discovery of tatau by
eighteenth century explorers. The Polynesian practice became popular
among European sailors, before spreading to Western societies generally.
Decorative and spiritual uses
Tattoos have served as rites of passage, marks of status
and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for
bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love,
punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as the marks of
outcasts, slaves and convicts. The symbolism and impact of tattoos
varies in different places and cultures, sometimes with unintended
consequences. Also, tattoos may show how a person feels about a relative
(commonly mother/father or daughter/son) or about an unrelated person.
Today, people choose to be tattooed for cosmetic,
sentimental/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize
their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including
criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) and prostitutes (and see 'tramp
stamp' further on in the article) but also a particular ethnic group or
law-abiding subculture. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate moko
on their faces. In Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is
used for protection against evil and to increase luck. In the
Philippines certain tribal groups believe that tattoos have magical
qualities, and also to their bearers. Most traditional tattooing in the
Philippines is related to the bearers Accomplishments in life or rank in
People have also been forcibly tattooed for various reasons. The
well known example is the identification system for inmates/Jews in
concentration camps during the Holocaust. However, tattoos can be linked
with identification in more positive ways. For example, in the period of
early contact between the Māori and Europeans, Māori chiefs sometimes
drew their moko (facial tattoo) on documents in place of a signature.
Tattoos are sometimes used by forensic pathologists to help them
identify burned, putrefied, or mutilated bodies. Tattoo pigment is
buried deep enough in the skin that even severe burns will often not
destroy a tattoo. Because of this, many members of today's military will
have their identification tags tattooed onto their chests (these are
sometimes known as "meat tags" in the American armed forces). For many
centuries seafarers have undergone tattooing for the purpose of enabling
identification after drowning. In this way recovered bodies of such
drowned persons could be connected with their family members or friends
before burial. Therefore tattooists often worked in ports where
potential customers were numerous. The traditional custom continues
today in the Royal Navy (Great Britain) and in many others.
Tattoos are also placed on animals,
though very rarely for decorative reasons. Pets, show animals,
thoroughbred horses and livestock are sometimes tattooed with
identification and other marks. Pet dogs and cats are often tattooed
with a serial number (usually in the ear, or on the inner thigh) via
which their owners can be identified. Also, animals are occasionally
tattooed to prevent sunburn (on the nose, for example). Such tattoos are
often performed by a veterinarian and in most cases the animals are
anesthetized during the process. Branding is used for similar reasons
and is often performed without anesthesia, but is different from
tattooing as no ink or dye is inserted during the process.
When used as a form of cosmetics, tattooing includes permanent makeup,
and hiding or neutralizing skin discolorations. Permanent makeup are
tattoos that enhance eyebrows, lips (liner and/or lipstick), eyes
(liner), and even moles, usually with natural colors as the designs are
intended to resemble makeup.
Medical tattoos are used to ensure instruments are properly located for
repeated application of radiotherapy and for the areola in some forms of
breast reconstruction. Tattooing has also been used to convey medical
information about the wearer (e.g blood group).
The examples and perspective in this article or section may not
represent a worldwide view of the subject.
Please improve this article or discuss the issue on the talk page.
have experienced a resurgence in popularity in many parts of the world,
particularly in North and South America, Japan, and Europe. The growth
in tattoo culture has seen an influx of new artists into the industry,
many of whom have technical and fine arts training. Coupled with
advancements in tattoo pigments and the ongoing refinement of the
equipment used for tattooing, this has led to an improvement in the
quality of tattoos being produced.
During the first decade of the 21st
century, the presence of tattoos became evident within pop culture,
inspiring television shows such as A&E's Inked and TLC's Miami Ink and
LA Ink. The decoration of blues singer Janis Joplin with a wristlet and
a small heart on her left breast, by the San Francisco tattoo artist
Lyle Tuttle, is taken as a seminal moment in the popular acceptance of
tattoos as art. Tattoos are generally considered an important part of
the culture of the Russian mafia.
In many traditional cultures tattooing
has also enjoyed a resurgence, partially in deference to cultural
heritage. Historically, a decline in traditional tribal tattooing in
Europe occurred with the spread of Christianity. However, some Christian
groups, such as the Knights of St. John of Malta, sported tattoos to
show their allegiance. A decline often occurred in other cultures
following European efforts to convert aboriginal and indigenous people
to Western religious and cultural practices that held tattooing to be a
"pagan" or "heathen" activity. Within some traditional indigenous
cultures, tattooing takes place within the context of a rite of passage
between adolescence and adulthood.
In September 2006, the Pew Research
Center conducted a telephone survey which found that 36% of Americans
ages 18-25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo.
In June 2006, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology
published a telephone survey which took place in 2004. It found that 36%
of Americans ages 18-29, 24% of those 30-40 and 15% of those 41-51 had a
tattoo. A survey conducted online in January 2008 by Harris
Interactive estimated that 14% of all adults in the United States have a
tattoo, just slightly down from 2003, when 16% had a tattoo. The highest
incidence of tattoos was found among the gay, lesbian and bisexual
population (25%) and people living in the West (20%). Among age groups,
9% of those ages 18-24, 32% of those 25-29, 25% of those 30-39 and 12%
of those 40-49 have tattoos, as do 8% of those 50-64. Men are just
slightly more likely to have a tattoo than women (15% versus 13%)
Japan, tattoos are strongly associated with the Yakuza, particularly
full body tattoos done the traditional Japanese way ("Tebori"). Certain
public Japanese bathhouses (sentō) and gymnasiums often openly ban those
bearing large or graphic tattoos in an attempt to prevent Yakuza from
In the United States many prisoners and
criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their
criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation.
"Tear tattoos", for example, can be symbolic of murder, with each tear
representing a death of a friend. Insofar as this cultural or
subcultural use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity of tattoos
in the general population, tattoos are still associated with
criminality. At the same time, members of the U.S. military have an
equally well established and longstanding history of tattooing to
indicate military units, battles, kills, etc., an association which
remains widespread among older Americans. Tattooing is also common in
the British Armed Forces.
Although the general acceptance of
tattoos is on the rise in Western society, they still carry a heavy
stigma among upper- and upper-middle-class socioeconomic groups. Because
members of these groups tend to have more conservative and understated
tastes when it comes to culture and fashion, they often view the very
practice of decorative tattooing as tacky or vulgar in itself. Classism
also plays a role, as tattoos are associated with negative working-class
stereotypes like the white trash or Guido stereotypes, as well as
stereotypes of immigrants and racial minorities.
Tattoos can have additional negative
associations for women. The prevalence of women in the tattoo industry
itself, along with larger numbers of women bearing tattoos, is changing
negative perceptions. A study of "at-risk" (as defined by school
absenteeism and truancy) adolescent girls showed a positive correlation
between body-modification and negative feelings towards the body and
self-esteem; however, it also illustrated a strong motive of
body-modification as the search for "self and attempts to attain mastery
and control over the body in an age of increasing alienation."
Tattooing involves the placement of pigment into the skin's dermis,
the layer of connective tissue underlying the epidermis. After initial
injection, pigment is dispersed throughout a homogenized damaged layer
down through the epidermis and upper dermis, in both of which the
presence of foreign material activates the immune system's phagocytes to
engulf the pigment particles. As healing proceeds, the damaged epidermis
flakes away (eliminating surface pigment) while deeper in the skin
granulation tissue forms, which is later converted to connective tissue
by collagen growth. This mends the upper dermis, where pigment remains
trapped within fibroblasts, ultimately concentrating in a layer just
below the dermis/epidermis boundary. Its presence there is stable, but
in the long term (decades) the pigment tends to migrate deeper into the
dermis, accounting for the degraded detail of old tattoos.
Modern tattoo machine in use:
here outfitted with a 5-needle setup, but number of needles depends on
size and shading desired
Some tribal cultures traditionally created tattoos by
cutting designs into the skin and rubbing the resulting wound with ink,
ashes or other agents; some cultures continue this practice, which may
be an adjunct to scarification. Some cultures create tattooed marks by
hand-tapping the ink into the skin using sharpened sticks or animal
bones (made like needles) with clay formed disks or, in modern times,
needles. Traditional Japanese tattoos (Horimono) 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.
This method is known as "Tebori".
The most common method of tattooing in
modern times is the electric tattoo machine, which inserts ink into the
skin via a group of 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 80 to 150 times a second.
This modern procedure is ordinarily sanitary. The needles are single-use
needles that come packaged individually. The tattoo artist must wash not
only his or her hands, but they must also wash the area that will be
tattooed. Gloves must be worn at all times and the wound must be wiped
frequently with a wet disposable towel of some kind.
Prices for this service vary widely
globally and locally, depending on the complexity of the tattoo, the
skill and expertise of the artist, the attitude of the customer, the
costs of running a business, the economics of supply and demand, etc.
The time it takes to get a tattoo is in proportion with its size and
complexity. A small one of simple design might take fifteen minutes,
whereas an elaborate sleeve tattoo or back piece requires multiple
sessions of several hours each.
The modern electric tattoo machine is
far removed from the machine invented by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891.
O'Reilly's machine was based on the rotary technology of the electric
engraving device invented by Thomas Edison. Modern tattoo machines use
electromagnetic coils. The first coil machine was patented by Thomas
Riley in London, 1891 using a single coil. The first twin coil machine,
the predecessor of the modern configuration, was invented by another
Englishman, Alfred Charles South of London, in 1899.
"Stick and poke"
A technique often used for home-made tattoos is "stick and poke"
Normally performed by inexperienced artists called scratchers. The tip
of a sewing needle is wrapped in ink-soaked thread, leaving only the
point protruding. Keeping this simple instrument saturated with ink, the
skin is pricked over and over, creating a design. The purpose of the
thread is to keep the point of the needle coated in ink, increasing the
quantity of ink that penetrates the skin. Inks can be improvised from a
number of sources such as coal, ashes or shoe polish, but Higgins "Black
Magic" waterproof ink is the brand most commonly cited by collectors of
so-called "India ink" or "stick and poke" tattoos in the United
States. Sometimes called "prison tattoos", these
tattoos are popular with gutter punks and others associated with the
modern hobo subculture, who frequently tattoo visible parts of their
bodies, including their hands and faces.
According to George Orwell, coal miners could develop characteristic
tattoos owing to coal dust getting into wounds. This can also occur with
substances like gunpowder. Similarly, a traumatic tattoo occurs when a
substance such as asphalt is rubbed into a wound as the result of some
kind of accident or trauma. These are particularly difficult to remove
as they tend to be spread across several different layers of skin, and
scarring or permanent discoloration is almost unavoidable depending on
the location. In addition, tattooing of the gingiva from implantation of
amalgam particles during dental filling placement and removal is
possible and not uncommon. A common example of such accidental tattoos
is the result of a deliberate or accidental stabbing with a pencil or
pen, leaving graphite or ink beneath the skin.