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Tattoo History

A tattoo is a mark made by inserting pigment into the skin 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, wore facial tattoos, as do some Maori of New Zealand to this day. 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 China. Despite some taboos surrounding tattooing, the art continues to be popular all over the world.

Maori Chief

A Maori Chief with tattoos (moko) seen by Cook and his crew.

The word “tattoo” is a borrowing of the Samoan word tatau, meaning to mark or strike twice (the latter referring to traditional methods of applying the designs). 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.” The first closest known usage of the word in English was recorded in the diary of Captain James Cook in 1769 during his voyage to the Marquesas Islands. The text reads, “…they print signs on people’s body and call this tattaw”, referring to the Polynesian customs. 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 or those that are applied using traditional methods is irezumi (“insertion of ink”), while “tattoo” is used for non-Japanese designs.

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 and sold 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.

Scythian Chieftain

A tattoo on the right arm of a Scythian chieftain, whose mummy was discovered at Pazyryk, Russia.

Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice at least since Neolithic times. Ötzi the Iceman, dating from the fourth to fifth millennium BCE, 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 BCE have been discovered at Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau. Tattooing in Japan is thought to go back to the Paleolithic era, some ten thousand years ago. 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.

Purposes

Indigenous Tattooing Traditions

Tattooing is a tradition amongst indigenous peoples around the world.

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.

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) 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 increase luck.

Identification

People have also been forcibly tattooed for various reasons. The best known example is the ka-tzetnik identification system for Jews in part of the 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 Māori and Europeans, Māori chiefs sometimes drew their moko (facial tattoo) on documents in place of a signature. Even today, 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 ribs; these are known as “meat tags”.

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.

Cosmetic

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.

Nowadays Tattoos have experienced a resurgence in popularity in many parts of the world, particularly in North 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 art training. Coupled with advancements in tattoo pigments and the on going refinement of the equipment used for tattooing, this has led to an improvement in the quality of tattoos being produced.
During the 2000s, the presence of tattoos became evident within pop culture, inspiring television shows such as Miami Ink & LA Ink

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. 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.

Mechanism

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 very stable, but in the long term (decades) the pigment tends to migrate deeper into the dermis, accounting for the degraded detail of old tattoos.

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.

Tattoo removal

While tattoos are considered permanent, it is possible to remove them. Complete removal, however, may not be possible (although many doctors and laser practitioners make the claim that upwards of 95% removal is possible with the newest lasers, especially with black and darker colored inks), and the expense and pain of removing them typically will be greater than the expense and pain of applying them. Some jurisdictions will pay for the voluntary removal of gang tattoos. Pre-laser tattoo removal methods include dermabrasion, salabrasion (scrubbing the skin with salt), cryosurgery, and excision which is sometimes still used along with skin grafts for larger tattoos.

Tattoo removal is most commonly performed using lasers that react with the ink in the tattoo, and break it down. The broken-down ink is then absorbed by the body, mimicking the natural fading that time or sun exposure would create. This technique often requires many repeated visits to remove even a small tattoo, and may result in permanent scarring. The newer Q-switched lasers are said by the National Institute of Health to result in scarring only rarely, however, and are usually used only after a topical anesthetic has been applied. The NIH recognizes five types of tattoo; amateur, professional, cosmetic, medical, and traumatic (or natural). Amateur tattoos are easier and quicker to remove, usually, than professional tattoos. Areas with thin skin will be more likely to scar than thicker-skinned areas. There are several types of Q-switched lasers, and each is effective at removing a different range of the color spectrum. This laser effectively removes black, blue, purple and red tattoo pigment. New lasers like the Versapulse & Medlite laser treat these colors & yellow and green ink pigment, typically the hardest colors to remove. Black is the easiest color to remove.

Also worth considering is the fact that some of the pigments used (especially Yellow #7) are known to break down into toxic chemicals in the body when attacked by light. This is especially a concern if these tattoos are exposed to UV light or laser removal; the resulting degradation products end up migrating to the kidneys and liver. Laser removal of traumatic tattoos may similarly be complicated depending on the substance of the pigmenting material. In one reported instance, the use of a laser resulted in the ignition of embedded particles of firework debris.

Some wearers opt to cover an unwanted tattoo with a new tattoo. This is commonly known as a cover-up. An artfully done cover-up may render the old tattoo completely invisible, though this will depend largely on the size, style, colors and techniques used on the old tattoo. Some shops and artists use laser removal machines to break down and lighten undesired tattoos to make coverage with a new tattoo easier. Since tattoo ink is translucent, covering up a previous tattoo necessitates darker tones in the new tattoo to effectively hide the older, unwanted piece.

Allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are uncommon except for certain brands of red and green. People who are sensitive or allergic to certain metals may react to pigments in the skin with swelling and/or itching, and/or oozing of clear fluid called serum. Such reactions are quite rare, however.

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