A rope-and-anchor tattoo, against the original sketch of the design
is a form of
where a design is made by inserting ink, dyes and pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the
layer of the
to change the
. The art of making tattoos is
Tattoos fall into three broad categories: purely decorative (with no specific meaning); symbolic (with a specific meaning pertinent to the wearer); pictorial (a depiction of a specific person or item). Tattoos have historically been regarded in
as ‘uncivilised’, and over the last 100 years the fashion has been associated mainly with sailors, working men and criminals. By the end of the 20th century, many Western stigmas of the tattoo culture had been dismissed, and the practice has become more acceptable and accessible for people of all trades and levels of society.
Oxford English Dictionary
of tattoo as “In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From
, etc.) tatau. In
, tatu.” Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring or staining.
The etymology of the body modification term is not to be confused with the origins of the word for the military drumbeat or performance — see
. In this case, the English word
is derived from the Dutch word
The first written reference to the word
) appears in the journal of
(24 February 1743 – 19 June 1820), the naturalist aboard explorer
: “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition”. The word
was brought to
by Cook, when he returned in 1769 from his first voyage to
. In his narrative of the voyage, he refers to an operation called “tattaw”.
Tattoo enthusiasts may refer to tattoos as “ink”, “pieces”, “skin art”, “tattoo art”, “tats” or “work”; to the creators as
“tattoo artists”, “tattooers” or “tattooists”
; and to places where they work as “tattoo shops”, “tattoo studios” or “tattoo parlors”.
Mainstream art galleries hold exhibitions of both conventional and custom tattoo designs, such as
, at the
Museum of Croydon
. Copyrighted tattoo designs that are mass-produced and sent to tattoo artists are known as ”
“, a notable instance of
. Flash sheets are prominently displayed in many tattoo parlors for the purpose of providing both inspiration and ready-made tattoo images to customers.
The Japanese word
means “insertion of ink” and can mean tattoos using
, the traditional Japanese hand method, a Western-style machine or any method of tattooing using insertion of ink. The most common word used for traditional Japanese tattoo designs is
. Japanese may use the word
to mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing.
American Academy of Dermatology
distinguishes five types of tattoos:
traumatic tattoos, also called “natural tattoos”, that result from injuries, especially asphalt from road injuries or pencil lead; amateur tattoos; professional tattoos, both via traditional methods and modern tattoo machines; cosmetic tattoos, also known as ”
This can also occur with substances like
. 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 layers of skin, and scarring or permanent discoloration is almost unavoidable depending on the location. An
particles are implanted in to the soft tissues of the mouth, usually the gums, during dental filling placement or removal. Another 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.
Tattooing among females of the Koita people of
Papua New Guinea
traditionally began at age five and was added to each year, with the V-shaped tattoo on the chest indicating that she had reached marriageable age. Photo taken in 1912.
Many tattoos serve as
rites of passage
, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of
, pledges of love,
and talismans, protection, and as punishment, like the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. 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 artistic, cosmetic, sentimental/
reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see
) or a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Although tattoos can represent solidarity with a particular group, they can also showcase the opposition of another group or concept. For example, women can challenge beauty ideals by getting a tattoo of traditional symbols of femininity but alter it into something that does not align into the expectations of femininity. Like getting a tattoo of “…a beautiful woman, such as Marilyn Monroe, or a traditional pinup, and turning her into a zombie”.
Text-based tattoos including quotes, lyrics, personal mottos or scripture are popular in Western culture. As an example some Christians might have a
from the Bible tattooed on their body. Popular verses include John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Psalms 23.
Extensive decorative tattooing is common among members of traditional
and by performance artists who follow in their tradition.
People have also been forcibly tattooed.
A well-known example is the
practice of forcibly tattooing
Nazi concentration camp
inmates with identification numbers during
as part of the Nazis’
, beginning in fall 1941.
introduced the practice at
Auschwitz concentration camp
in order to identify the bodies of registered prisoners in the concentration camps. During registration, the Nazis would pierce the outlines of the serial-number digits onto the prisoners’ arms. Of the Nazi concentration camps, only Auschwitz put tattoos on inmates.
The tattoo was the prisoner’s camp number, sometimes with a special symbol added: some
had a triangle, and
had the letter “Z” (from
for “Gypsy”). In May 1944, the Jewish men received the letters “A” or “B” to indicate particular series of numbers. For unknown reasons, this number series for women never began again with the “B” series after they had reached the number limit of 20,000 for the “A” series.
The practice continued until the last days of Auschwitz.
Tattoos have also been used for identification in other ways. As early as the
, Chinese authorities would employ facial tattoos as a punishment for certain crimes or to mark prisoners or slaves. During the
, Roman soldiers were required by law to have identifying tattoos on their hands in order to make desertion difficult.
Gladiators and slaves were likewise tattooed: exported slaves were tattooed with the words “tax paid”, and it was a common practice to tattoo “Stop me, I’m a runaway” on their foreheads.
Owing to the
strictures against the practice,
In the period of early contact between the Māori and Europeans, the Maori people hunted and decapitated each other for their
, which they traded for European items including axes and firearms.
Moko tattoos were facial designs worn to indicate lineage, social position, and status within the tribe. The tattoo art was a sacred marker of identity among the Maori and also referred to as a vehicle for storing one’s
, or spiritual being, in the afterlife.
Tattoos are sometimes used by
to help them identify burned, putrefied, or mutilated bodies. As tattoo pigment lies encapsulated deep in the skin, tattoos are not easily destroyed even when the skin is burned.
Tattoos are also placed on animals, though rarely for decorative reasons. Pets, show animals,
horses, and livestock are sometimes tattooed with identification and other marks. Tattooing with a ‘slap mark’ on the shoulder or on the ear is the standard identification method in commercial pig farming.
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, the mark instead being caused by permanent scarring of the skin.
Pet dogs and cats are sometimes tattooed with a serial number (usually in the ear, or on the inner thigh) via which their owners can be identified. However, the use of a microchip has become an increasingly popular choice and since 2016 is a legal requirement for all 8.5 million pet dogs in the UK.
The cosmetic surgery industry continues to see a trend of increased popularity for both surgical and noninvasive procedures.
When used as a form of
, tattooing includes permanent makeup and hiding or neutralizing skin discolorations. Permanent makeup is the use of tattoos to enhance eyebrows, lips (liner and/or lipstick), eyes (liner), and even
, usually with natural colors, as the designs are intended to resemble makeup.
A growing trend in the US and UK is to place artistic
over the surgical scars of a
. “More women are choosing not to reconstruct after a mastectomy and tattoo over the scar tissue instead…. The mastectomy tattoo will become just another option for post cancer patients and a truly personal way of regaining control over post cancer bodies and proving once and for all that breast cancer is not just a pink ribbon.”
The tattooing of nipples on reconstructed breasts remains in high demand, however.
Functional tattoos are used primarily for a purpose other than aesthetics. One such use is to tattoo
patients with their names, so they may be easily identified if they go missing.
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, medical condition, etc.). Additionally, tattoos are used in skin tones to cover
, a skin pigmentation disorder.
SS blood group tattoos
(German: Blutgruppentätowierung) were worn by members of the
in Nazi Germany during World War II to identify the individual’s
. After the war, the tattoo was taken to be
, if not perfect, evidence of being part of the Waffen-SS, leading to potential arrest and prosecution. This led a number of Ex-Waffen-SS to shoot themselves through the arm with a gun, removing the tattoo and leaving scars like the ones resulting from pox inoculation, making the removal less obvious.
Tattoos were probably also used in ancient medicine as part of the treatment of the patient. In 1898, Daniel Fouquet, a medical doctor, wrote an article on “medical tattooing” practices in
, in which he describes the tattooed markings on the female mummies found at the
site. He speculated that the tattoos and other
observed on the bodies may have served a medicinal or therapeutic purpose: “The examination of these scars, some white, others blue, leaves in no doubt that they are not, in essence, ornament, but an established treatment for a condition of the pelvis, very probably chronic
is a traditional male tattoo in
. Samoan tattooing was practiced continuously despite attempts at suppression during the 1830s.
, the lastof the
, performing a traditional batek tattoo.
Preserved tattoos on ancient
human remains reveal that tattooing has been practiced throughout the world for many centuries.
In 2015, scientific re-assessment of the age of the two oldest known tattooed mummies identified
as the oldest currently known example. This body, with 61 tattoos, was found embedded in glacial ice in the
, and was dated to 3250 BCE.
In 2018, the oldest
tattoos in the world were discovered on two mummies from Egypt which are dated between 3351 and 3017 BCE.
Ancient tattooing was most widely practiced among the
. It was one of the early technologies developed by the Proto-Austronesians in
prior to at least 1500 BCE, before the Austronesian expansion into the islands of the
It may have originally been associated with
Tattooing traditions, including facial tattooing, can be found among all Austronesian subgroups, including
Islander Southeast Asians
, and the
. Austronesians used the characteristic hafted skin-puncturing technique, using a small mallet and a piercing implement made from
thorns, fish bone, bone, and oyster shells.
Ancient tattooing traditions have also been documented among
, with their use of distinctive
skin piercers. Some archeological sites with these implements are associated with the Austronesian migration into
Papua New Guinea
. But other sites are older than the Austronesian expansion, being dated to around 1650 to 2000 BCE, suggesting that there was a preexisting tattooing tradition in the region.
Among other ethnolinguistic groups, tattooing was also practiced among the
It is commonly held that the modern popularity of tattooing stems from Captain James Cook’s three voyages to the South Pacific in the late 18th century. Certainly, Cook’s voyages and the dissemination of the texts and images from them brought more awareness about tattooing (and, as noted above, imported the word “tattow” into Western languages). On Cook’s first voyage in 1768, his science officer and expedition botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, as well as artist Sydney Parkinson and many others of the crew, returned to England with tattoos, although many of these men would have had pre-existing tattoos.
Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy that had acquired his position with Cook by co-financing the expedition with ten thousand pounds, a very large sum at the time. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed
, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. On subsequent voyages other crew members, from officers, such as American John Ledyard, to ordinary seamen, were tattooed.
The first documented professional tattooist in Britain was established in the port of
in the 1870s. In Britain, tattooing was still largely associated with sailors
and the lower or even criminal class,
but by the 1870s had become fashionable among some members of the upper classes, including royalty,
and in its upmarket form it could be an expensive
and sometimes painful
process. A marked class division on the acceptability of the practice continued for some time in Britain.
Recently, a trend has arisen marketed as ‘Stick and Poke’ tattooing; primitive figures are permanently inscribed by the user himself after he obtains a ‘DIY’ kit containing needles, ink and a collection of suggestions.
As most tattoos in the U.S. were done by Polynesian and Japanese amateurs, tattoo artists were in great demand in port cities all over the world, especially by European and American sailors. The first recorded professional tattoo artist in the United States was a German immigrant,
. He opened a shop in New York City in 1846 and quickly became popular during the
American Civil War
among soldiers and sailors of both
Hildebrandt began traveling from camp to camp to tattoo soldiers, making his popularity increase, and also giving birth to the tradition of getting tattoos while being an American serviceman. Soon after the Civil War, tattoos became fashionable among upper-class young adults. This trend lasted until the beginning of World War I. The invention of the electric tattoo machine caused popularity of tattoos among the wealthy to drop off. The machine made the tattooing procedure both much easier and cheaper, thus, eliminating the status symbol tattoos previously held, as they were now affordable for all socioeconomic classes. The status symbol of a tattoo shifted from a representation of wealth, to a mark typically seen on rebels and criminals. Despite this change, tattoos remained popular among military servicemen, and the tradition continues today.
Many studies have been done of the tattooed population and society’s view of tattoos. In June 2006, the
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology
published the results of a telephone survey of 2004. It found that 36% of Americans ages 18–29, 24% of those 30–40, and 15% of those 41–51 had a tattoo.
In September 2006, the
Pew Research Center
conducted a telephone survey that found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26–40 and 10% of those 41–64 had a tattoo. They concluded that
are not afraid to express themselves through their appearance, and tattoos are the most popular form of self-expression.
In January 2008, a survey conducted online by
estimated that 14% of all adults in the United States have a tattoo, slightly down from 2003, when 16% had a tattoo. 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 slightly more likely to have a tattoo than women.
has been cited as one of the most tattooed cities in the United States.
That distinction led the Valentine Richmond History Center to create an online exhibit titled ”
History, Ink: The Tattoo Archive Project
.” The introduction to the exhibit notes, “In the past, western culture associated tattoos with those individuals who lived on the edge of society; however, today they are recognized as a legitimate art form and widely accepted in mainstream culture.”
Since the 1970s, tattoos have become a mainstream part of Western fashion, common among both genders, to all economic classes
and to age groups from the later teen years to middle age. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. The tattoo has “undergone dramatic redefinition” and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression.
were used by American sailors to prevent themselves from being taken off American ships and impressed into the Royal Navy. These were simple documents that described the sailor as being an American sailor. Many of the protection certificates were so general, and it was so easy to abuse the system, that many impressment officers of the
paid no attention to them. “In applying for a duplicate Seaman’s Protection Certificate in 1817, James Francis stated that he ‘had a protection granted him by the Collector of this Port on or about 12 March 1806 which was torn up and destroyed by a British Captain when at sea.'”
One way of making them more specific was to describe a tattoo, which is highly personal, and thus use that description to identify the seaman. As a result, many of the later certificates carried information about tattoos and scars, as well as other specific information. This also perhaps led to an increase and proliferation of tattoos among American seamen. “Frequently their ‘protection papers’ made reference to tattoos, clear evidence that individual was a seafaring man; rarely did members of the general public adorn themselves with tattoos.”
“In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tattoos were as much about self-expression as they were about having a unique way to identify a sailor’s body should he be lost at sea or impressed by the British navy. The best source for early American tattoos is the protection papers issued following a 1796 congressional act to safeguard American seamen from impressment. These proto-
catalogued tattoos alongside
, race, and height. Using simple techniques and tools, tattoo artists in the early republic typically worked on board ships using anything available as
. Men marked their arms and hands with initials of themselves and loved ones, significant dates, symbols of the seafaring life, liberty poles, crucifixes, and other symbols.”
were used to define freemen and citizenship, many black sailors and other men also used them to show that they were freemen if they were stopped by officials or slave catchers. They also called them “free papers” because they certified their non-slave status. Many of the freed blacks used descriptions of tattoos for identification purposes on their freedom papers.
Man getting a tattoo
Tattooing involves the placement of pigment into the skin’s dermis, the layer of dermal tissue underlying the
. After initial injection, pigment is dispersed throughout a
damaged layer down through the epidermis and upper dermis, in both of which the presence of foreign material activates the
to engulf the pigment particles. As healing proceeds, the damaged epidermis flakes away (eliminating surface pigment) while deeper in the skin
forms, which is later converted to connective tissue by
growth. This mends the upper dermis, where pigment remains trapped within successive generations of
, 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.
A two coil tattoo machine
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
. 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.
The most common method of tattooing in modern times is the electric
, which inserts ink into the skin via a single needle or a group of needles that are
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. The needles are single-use needles that come packaged individually.
Tattooing is regulated in many countries because of the associated health risks to client and practitioner, specifically local infections and virus transmission. Disposable plastic aprons and eye protection can be worn depending on the risk of blood or other secretions splashing into the eyes or clothing of the tattooist. Hand hygiene, assessment of risks and appropriate disposal of all sharp objects and materials contaminated with blood are crucial areas. The tattoo artist must wash his or her hands and 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. All equipment must be sterilized in a certified
before and after every use. It is good practice to provide clients with a printed consent form that outlines risks and complications as well as instructions for after care.
An 1888 Japanese woodblock print of a prostitute biting her handkerchief in pain as her arm is tattooed. Based on historical practice, the tattoo is likely the name of her lover.
Government of Meiji Japan
had outlawed tattoos in the 19th century, a prohibition that stood for 70 years before being repealed in 1948.
As of 6 June 2012, all new tattoos are forbidden for employees of the city of
. Existing tattoos are required to be covered with proper clothing. The regulations were added to Osaka’s ethical codes, and employees with tattoos were encouraged to have them removed. This was done because of the strong connection of tattoos with the
, or Japanese organized crime, after an Osaka official in February 2012 threatened a schoolchild by showing his tattoo.
Tattoos had negative connotations in historical
, where criminals often had been marked by tattooing.
The association of tattoos with
was transmitted from China to influence Japan.
Today, tattoos have remained a taboo in Chinese society.
tattooed criminals and slaves, and in the 19th century released U.S. convicts,
and British army deserters were identified by tattoos. Prisoners in
Nazi concentration camps
were tattooed with an identification number. Today, many prison inmates still tattoo themselves as an indication of time spent in prison.
also used tattoos to represent their tribe. Catholic
, especially of children and women, for protection against conversion to
during the Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
Although the general acceptance of tattoos is on the rise in Western society, they still carry a heavy stigma among certain social groups.