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.
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.