Custom Japanese back tattoo by Greg James.

The past 15 years have seen the tattoo become part of the greater culture. Once considered the realm of the military, motorcycle gangs and other people with an “edge”, tattoos have crossed over into “safer” areas such as business and teaching. The taboo nature of the tattoo has now been replaced, as “tats” have progressed into all facets of society. But how did the tattoo make a progression into the cross-cultural phenomenon that it's become?

Tattoo History

Tattoos were initially used by indigenous tribes in places such as North America, South American, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. Early tattoos were often symbolic of a rite of passage, as a tribe member would receive body art as a reward for certain achievements such as bravery and increases in tribal status. Tattoos also became symbols of religious devotion, protection, love and sexual prowess, and marks to identify outcasts such as slaves or convicts. Each tattoo had its specific purpose and fit a person's role within a tribal society.

There were some examples of tattooing in Western Europe, but it wasn't something that was part of the societal structure until British Captain James Cook encountered tattoos during his travels to New Zealand, Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. Cook was the first Western European to discover these places, and his discovery of tattooing led his crew to start tattooing themselves as part of a rite of passage. Cook brought these tattoos back to England and the process of tattooing started to spread among British sailors and seamen. That quickly spread to other countries such as the United States.

Sailors brought the art into other branches of the military, and tattoos became an initiation rite in the military companies and symbols of rank and achievements reached in elite military organizations such as the United States Marine Corps or the Navy Seals. The positive symbolism that came from these types of tattoos began to leak into other parts of Western society, as tattoo artists started to pop up with more and more frequency.

Tattoos also became a symbol of criminal society in the late-19th, early-20th century, creating a taboo image of the tattoo that still exists in some circles today. Motorcycle and street gangs used to sport tattoos as symbols of their gang affiliation and as a symbol of intimidation to non-gang members. Tattoos also started to pop up in prison yards, with prisoners getting ink to align themselves with prison gangs or to show off the nature of their crimes.

Starting in the 1970s, tattoos started to creep their way into Western popular culture, showing up in college fraternities, in rock-and-roll bands, and on athletes. That has only exploded in the 21st century, as tattoos are now common in more mainstream occupations such as sales and marketing, stockbroking, accounting, and teaching. Reality television shows about tattoo artists and their clients such as Inked on A&E, Miami Ink, and LA Ink on TLC, have become popular television. Even Barbie now has tats, as the first tattooed Barbie was introduced in 2011.

Types of Tattoos

As mentioned briefly above, tattoos serve a variety of purposes, whether those purposes are for identification, achievement, or just pure decoration. Here's a breakdown of the different purposes for tattoos.

  • Identification tattoos are used to tell you exactly what a person is or where they come from. They can be a rite of passage tattoos such as military or college fraternity symbols, they can be symbols to indicate a person's family ties, the tribe they are in, the gang or group they hang out with, or even their occupation. Tattoos are also used to make it easier to classify people or animals and keep them in their desired categories. Farmers brand their animals with a symbol of their farm to be able to claim wayward animals, while Nazi Germany used numerical tattoos on concentration camp prisoners to be able to keep inventory on their inmates. Ancient societies also used tattoos to keep tabs on slaves and gladiators to prevent them from escaping.
  • Decorative tattoos make up the majority of the present-day tattoos, as people use these tattoos as a form of self-expression and to make a statement. While a lot of these tattoos have symbolism in a person's life – tattoos with hearts and the word “mom” for instance – a lot of these tattoos are simply a chance for a person to make a statement. These people go to tattoo artists and undergo procedures that can range from 30 minutes to an hour for a set rate to intricate larger tattoos that take multiple several-hour sessions that can cost the customer hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. From a butterfly tattoo on an ankle to an entire sleeve (a whole arm decorated with a big, intricate tattoo) to having an entire back or chest covered, decorative body art is as mainstream as ever.
  • Cosmetic tattoos are different from decorative tattoos, as their purpose is to overshadow discolorations instead of introducing different skin colors to the epidermis. A cosmetic tattoo is often used to mask discolorations of the skin, but they are also used in the removal and masking of things such as moles and surgical scars from various procedures. Cosmetic tattoos also enhance certain areas of the face and body, such as lips, eyebrows and moles, and can be administered via surgical and non-surgical means.
  • Medical tattoos are used to either identify a place on a patient's body where a procedure or surgery must take place or they can be an identifier for emergency personnel. Illustrating the second example, the German Waffen-SS used to tattoo their blood types on their arms during World War II in case they were hurt and needed a transfusion. This unwittingly also became an identification tattoo for the Nazi soliders, as many of them defaced their arms or even shoot the tattooed part of the arm to avoid SS affiliation and subsequent punishment for war crimes.
  • Temporary tattoos are used as introductory tattoos by many young people and are also used for ceremonial purposes such as a wedding in the Hindu culture. Temporary tattoos contain ink like the garden-variety permanent tattoos, but that ink tends to be drawn on or implanted onto the skin rather than being injected into the skin like your typical tattoo. These tattoos either can be planted on the skin directly via a ball-point pen or a similar ink brush or can be imprinted on the skin through transfers on sheets of paper.

Applying a Temporary Tattoo

Temporary tattoos were covered in the segment above, but there are several ways that permanent tattoos are applied, with the most common one today coming through using an electronic tattooing machine. Most tattoo parlors and tattoo artists use these machines, which drive needles – sometimes one, sometimes up to 150 – into the skin, injecting the desired ink color within each insertion. These needles are hygienic and used and discarded after one use, and the patch of skin that the needles are going to be injected into is sterilized and made clean. Tattoo artists are required to wear gloves when working with and applying the tattoo.

There is a process prior to injecting ink into the skin that involves tracing the desired design onto the person's body to give the customer an idea of how a tattoo will look before it is applied. After a design is drawn on to the customer's body, the customer looks at it in the mirror and approves the design, location, and colors of the tattoo before going under the needle. Cost and time spent after that depends on the size of the tattoo and complexity of the design.

Not all tattoos are applied via a machine or with needles though. The earliest form of tattooing came from cutting designs directly into the skin and rubbing the resulting wound with ink or ashes, almost like creating a multi-colored scar on the skin, and letting it heal. These tattoos can also be cut into the skin using tools such as a needle attached to a stick or a sharp knife before the wound is colored and shaped into a tattoo.

Tattoos can also be applied by branding – or using a heated stick or prod to create a permanent scar on the surface of the skin. These types of tattoos aren't usually colored, instead, they are simpler shapes and used as identification (see the Nazi Germany tattoos of prisoners and blood types of SS soldiers above) or rites of passage (see the military and college fraternity examples used above). Slaves in the American South during the 18th and 19th centuries were given brands to signify ownership by landowners, and cattle are given brands by ranchers.

Post-Application Care

There are different schools of thought regarding care of a fresh tattoo, but most agree that tattoos shouldn't be subject to a lot of sun during the first three weeks after application and that scabs or flakes of skin coming from the tattoo shouldn't be removed. Any premature removal of scabbed, or scarred skin can affect the ink distribution within the tattoo. The affected part of the skin also must be kept clean and hygienic to prevent infection. This is done with either specialized tattoo aftercare products or things such as cocoa butter, lanolin, or simply soap and warm water.

Other techniques that might be advised to customers with fresh tattoos include wrapping the tattoo up for a short amount of time after its completion and avoidance of warm or hot water for a short period of time.

The Tattoo Artist

The explosion of the tattoo in the Western world has made the trade of the tattoo artist one that's in increasing demand in modern society. Tattoo artists were first confined to seaports, as tattooing was generally a process done primarily by sailors and seamen. But as the process of tattooing expanded throughout the civilized world, so did the opportunities and pay scale for tattoo artists.

The typical tattoo artist doesn't need to have formal education, such as a college degree, but there is a rigorous process for someone who wants to progress beyond giving amateur tattoos in an informal setting. A tattoo artist must have an art background and be able to draw well enough to create attractive, clean-looking tattoos for the public. From there, a prospective tattoo artist has to go through a comprehensive apprenticeship process of up to two years under an established tattoo artist.

The first phase of this apprenticeship does not allow the artist to physically work with the customer – they are instead fully trained in sanitary techniques and are tasked with cleaning and maintaining the tattoo parlor along with working on their artistry. If an apprentice gets through this process, they'll begin to acquire hands-on experience working with patients in a tattoo shop, honing their artistry and technique until they are able to operate on their own. Tattoo artistry is a highly-evolving profession, with artists constantly dabbling with their artistic and application skills.

Some states do require tattoo artists to be formally licensed before operating in a tattoo parlor. Tattoo parlors found to be employing unlicensed artists in these states can be subject to significant fines if they are caught.

Tattoo Removal

It is common for people who have received tattoos to regret the tattoo and want it removed. While it is possible to apply acid or rub out a tattoo with salt, most people nowadays go with either laser removal or a cover-up, which is simply putting another tattoo on top of an unwanted tattoo.

Laser surgery extracts the ink from the tattooed region, causing the skin to heal around it. It is usually a multi-tiered, time-consuming process that involves several sessions spaced seven weeks apart. The number of sessions that are needed depends on skin color, skin tone, tattoo location, ink amount, present tissue scarring, and the amount of layers that need to be treated. Lasers are getting more and more affected, though discolored skin can be a side effect of tattoo removal.

At this point, it's clear that tattoos have become part of the greater culture and are likely to remain a permanent part of it. There are breakthroughs in body art happening on a daily basis, so tattooing is a pastime that should continue to evolve and thrive.


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