A tattoo is a type of body  modification in which  dye is injected into  the  skin  to alter the pigment. Tattooing is prominent throughout the world, and there  is anthropological evidence of some  sort  of tattooing for the  past  10,000 years. Techniques vary, but  the  most  common form  of tattooing involves  pricking the  skin and inserting ink beneath the dermis. The  word tattoo derives from a word in the Samoan language meaning “open wound.” The  word, like the practice, was introduced to Europe during the  17th  and  18th  centuries by mariners. The  historical meanings of tattoos vary from culture to culture and, increasingly, from individual to individual. Tattoos may be taboo in some  cultures and  signs of esteem in others.  In various  cultural groups and  historical periods, tattoos have  held  varying religious, political,  and social significance.

Origins In Western Cultures

In  human cultures and  human history,  tattooing practices varied  from rubbing ash, plant  dyes, and  ink into open   wounds  to  create   distinctive markings.   Archeological   evidence suggests that tattooing has been a distinctive  part  of human culture for at least the past 5,000  years. In Europe, ancient    Germanic,    Scandinavian, Celtic,  and  other tribes   often   used tattooing  for   religious  significance as well as markers of class.  The  introduction of Christianity in the first century c.e. incorporated the  Jewish prohibition against  tattoos from  Leviticus.  The  gradual Christianization of Europe in the first millennium c.e. led  to  the   widespread  ban   of  the practice, as well as numerous other cultural   elements   identified   with pre-Christian paganism. During European  colonization, from   roughly the  16th  to  the  19th  centuries, sailors  witnessed tattooing  among  the cultures  they   encountered  around the world, particularly in Japan, Inuit areas of the Arctic, Australia, and Oceania. As a consequence, European and North American sailors  reintroduced the  practice to European culture, sometimes even by exhibiting the bodies  of the colonized as an exotic or primitive  aspect  of European  fashion. By the 18th  century, tattooing had become an established aspect  of the commercial economies that  appeared in port  cities across  Europe.

Commercial Tattooing

Because  of the  introduction of tattoos by sailors  and  dockworkers, tattoos held strong associations with working-class masculinity in European port  cities of the 18th  century. As a consequence, tattoos remained socially  unacceptable among the  burgeoning middle   classes  as  well  as  the  gentry,  particularly for  women. Nonetheless, tattoos became a common practice in many branches of the military, often as a rite of passage, and many middle and upper-class European and North American veterans were tattooed during terms  of military  service.  Furthermore, the  turn-of-the-century rise  of  primitivism—an artistic   movement  marked  by the  adaptation of cultural elements, including tattoos, from  colonized peoples— meant that  tattoos held  a certain cultural cachet in European and  North American  fashion. Despite widespread antipathy toward tattoos from  the  respectable classes,  gossip  magazines in Europe speculated that  large numbers of the  gentry, including women, wore tattoos concealed beneath oftentimes elaborate Victorian clothing. Indeed, by the  early 20th  century, society  magazines began  to estimate that  large numbers of the English gentry  had tattoos.

The  rise of a commercial culture in the  late 19th  and  early 20th  century also led to the proliferation of tattoo parlors based  on small business models, helping to  fuel  demand. Because  of the  associations with  maritime workers, most  early tattooing designs  followed  styles adopted from abroad, such  as Maori  or Japanese patterns, or  signs  associated with  sailing.  Increasingly, practitioners in the  19th and early 20th  centuries also began  to tattoo religious symbols, references to family and  romantic relationships, and  insignia from  the  military.  Until  the  period following World  War II, the most  common tattoos outside the maritime commercial economy marked service in a specific branch or company of the military. As a result, mass militarization in the first half of the 20th  century saw unprecedented numbers of tattoos among young  men  in the  United States.  As commercial tattoos  gained  in  popularity in  the  20th  century, tattoo parlors spread from  port cities to most  major  metropolitan areas in Europe and North America. Unlike tattooing in other cultures, where  markings tended to designate specifically  shared cultural meanings, commercial tattoo parlors allowed for much greater  leeway for individual choice.

New  Yorker  Samuel O’Reilly  patented the  first  electronic tattoo machine in 1891  as a modification of Thomas Edison’s electronic engraving machine. The introduction of electronic tattoo machines in  the  early 20th  century decreased the amount of time, labor,  and  physical  discomfort involved  in tattooing. Practitioners became skilled  technicians and  introduced major  technological innovations  throughout the  20th  century, which  facilitated the  growth of tattooing as a major  cosmetic industry. After World  War II, tattoos also became strongly associated  with  urban subcultures. For  example,  members of organized crime,  motorcycle gangs,  and  gay men  who  participated in the  bondage and  sadomasochism subculture each  developed their  own  rituals   and  distinctive styles  that  incorporated tattooing as a form  of cultural identification and  bonding. As the  rebel image became an ideal model  of masculinity in the 1950s  and  1960s—largely influenced by filmic portrayals of bikers and rock and roll musicians—tattoos began to become more  and more  commonplace. In the 1970s, tattoo artists  such  as Don Hardy  of San Francisco became famous for their  designs. In many  ways, the artisanal  nature of tattooing has established the  practice in mainstream fashion and popular culture. Indeed, tattooing has become commonplace across  lines of class, race, and gender, even if certain religious taboos remain for some  observant Jews, Christians, and Muslims. By the 21st century, tattooing has become the subject of reality television even  as the  practice has  grown  into  a multibillion dollar  a year industry.

Most  importantly, the  industry has  become highly  regulated by public  health authorities, particularly as epidemiology connected unsanitary tattooing practices and  viral infections such  as hepatitis and  HIV. In the  United States,  many  cities and  states  have  banned the  practice altogether during epidemic crises.  In  New York City, for example,  health authorities suspended tattooing in the  1960s  due to associations with a hepatitis outbreak and in the late 1980s due to associations with the spread of HIV.

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