The word tattoo, or tattow in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Polynesian word tatau, meaning "to write". The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as "In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu." Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring, or staining.
This is not to be confused with the origins of the word for the military drumbeat or performance — see military tattoo. In this case, the English word tattoo is derived from the Dutch word taptoe (OED).
The first written reference to the word tattoo (or tatau), appears in the journal of Joseph Banks (24 February 1743 – 19 June 1820), the naturalist aboard Captain Cook's ship the HMS Endeavour: "I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition".
The word "tattoo" was brought to Europe by the explorer James Cook, when he returned in 1769 from his first voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand. 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 Beyond Skin, at the Museum of Croydon. Copyrighted tattoo designs that are mass-produced and sent 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.
The Japanese word irezumi means "insertion of ink" and can mean tattoos using tebori, the traditional Japanese hand method, a Western-style machine, or for that matter, any method of tattooing using insertion of ink. The most common word used for traditional Japanese tattoo designs is horimono. Japanese may use the word "tattoo" to mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing.
Anthropologist Ling Roth in 1900 described four methods of skin marking and suggested they be differentiated under the names "tatu", "moko", "cicatrix", and "keloid".
The 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 "permanent makeup"; and Medical tattoos.
According to George Orwell, Coal miners could develop characteristic tattoos owing to coal dust getting into wounds. This can also occur with substances like gunpowder. 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 amalgam tattoo is when amalgam 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.
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 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. 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/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) or a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces.. In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the Yantra tattoo is used for protection against evil and to increase luck. Text-based tattoos including quotes, lyrics, personal mottos or scripture are popular in western culture. As an example some Christians might have a Psalm or verse from the Bible tattooed on their body. Popular verses include John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Psalms 23.
In the Philippines certain tribal groups believe tattoos have magical qualities, and help to protect their bearers. Most traditional tattooing in the Philippines is related to the bearer's accomplishments in life or rank in the tribe.
Extensive decorative tattooing is common among members of traditional freak shows and by performance artists who follow in their tradition.
People have also been forcibly tattooed.
A well-known example is the Nazi practice of forcibly tattooing Nazi concentration camp inmates with numbers during the Holocaust as part of the Nazis' identification system, beginning in the Fall of 1941. The Nazis' SS introduced the practice of forcibly tattooing identification numbers on inmates 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. Only Auschwitz put tattoos on inmates, of all the Nazi concentration camps. The tattoo was the prisoner's camp number, sometimes with a special symbol added: some Jews had a triangle, and Romani had the letter "Z" (from German Zigeuner 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 Zhou, Chinese authorities would employ facial tattoos as a punishment for certain crimes or to mark prisoners or slaves. During the Roman Empire, 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 Biblical strictures against the practice, Emperor Constantine I banned tattooing the face around AD 330, and the Second Council of Nicaea banned all body markings as a pagan practice in AD 787.
In the period of early contact between the Māori and Europeans, the Maori people hunted and decapitated each other for their moko tattoos, 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 tapu, or spiritual being, in the afterlife.
Tattoos are sometimes used by forensic pathologists 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, thoroughbred 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. 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, the mark instead being caused by permanent scaring 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 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 cosmetics, 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 moles, usually with natural colors, as the designs are intended to resemble makeup.
A growing trend in the US and UK is to place artistic titoos over the surgical scars of a mastectomy. "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 Alzheimer patients with their name, 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 vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disorder.
SS blood group tattoos (German: Blutgruppentätowierung) were worn by members of the Waffen-SS in Nazi Germany during World War II to identify the individual's blood type. After the war, the tattoo was taken to be prima facie, 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 Ancient Egypt, in which he describes the tattooed markings on the female mummies found at the Deir el-Bahari site. He speculated that the tattoos and other scarifications 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 pelvic peritonitis."
Preserved tattoos on ancient mummified human remains reveal that tattooing has been practiced throughout the world for many centuries. The Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan, traditionally had facial tattoos, as did the Austroasians. Today, one can find Atayal, Seediq, Truku, and Saisiyat of Taiwan, Berbers of Tamazgha (North Africa), Yoruba, Fulani and Hausa people of Nigeria, and Māori of New Zealand with facial tattoos. Tattooing was popular among certain ethnic groups in southern China, Polynesia, Africa, Borneo, Cambodia, Europe, Japan, the Mentawai Islands, MesoAmerica, New Zealand, North America and South America, the Philippines, Iron Age Britain, and Taiwan. In 2015, scientific re-assessment of the age of the two oldest known tattooed mummies, identified Ötzi as the oldest currently known example. This body, with 61 tattoos, was found embedded in glacial ice in the Alps, and was dated to 3,250 BC.
It is a myth that the modern revival 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), but Europeans have been tattooed throughout History. 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 Raiatean man, Omai, 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 Liverpool 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, Martin Hildebrandt.
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 Union and Confederate militaries. 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 Generation X and Generation Y 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 Harris Interactive 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.
Richmond, Virginia, 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 sexes, 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.
Protection papers 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 Royal Navy 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-passports catalogued tattoos alongside birthmarks, scars, race, and height. Using simple techniques and tools, tattoo artists in the early republic typically worked on board ships using anything available as pigments, even gunpowder and urine. 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."
Because these protection papers 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.
Tattooing involves the placement of pigment into the skin's dermis, the layer of dermal 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 stable, but in the long term (decades) the pigment tends to migrate deeper into the dermis, accounting for the degraded detail of old tattoos.
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 scarification. 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 tattoo machine, which inserts ink into the skin via a single needle or a group of needles that are soldered 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 tattoist. 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 autoclave 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.
The 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 Osaka. 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 yakuza, or Japanese organized crime, after an Osaka official in February 2012 threatened a schoolchild by showing his tattoo.
Tattoos had negative connotations in historical China, where criminals often had been marked by tattooing. The association of tattoos with criminals was transmitted from China to influence Japan. Today, tattoos have remained a taboo in Chinese society.
The Romans tattooed criminals and slaves, and in the 19th century released US 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.
Native Americans also used tattoos to represent their tribe. Catholic Croats of Bosnia used religious Christian tattooing, especially of children and women, for protection against conversion to Islam during the Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
Tattoos are strongly empirically associated with deviance, personality disorders, and criminality. Although the general acceptance of tattoos is on the rise in Western society, they still carry a heavy stigma among certain social groups. Tattoos are generally considered an important part of the culture of the Russian mafia.
Current cultural understandings of tattoos in Europe and North America have been greatly influenced by long-standing stereotypes based on deviant social groups in the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly in North America tattoos have been associated with stereotypes, folklore, and racism. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did people associate tattoos with such societal outcasts as bikers and prisoners. Today, in the United States many prisoners and criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation. A teardrop tattoo, for example, can be symbolic of murder, or each tear represents the death of a friend. At the same time, members of the U.S. military have an equally well-established and longstanding history of tattooing to indicate military units, battles, kills, etc., an association that remains widespread among older Americans. In Japan tattoos are associated with yakuza criminal groups but there are non-yakuza groups such as Fukushi Masaichi's tattoo association that sought to preserve the skins of dead Japanese who have extensive tattoos. Tattooing is also common in the British Armed Forces. Depending on vocation tattoos are accepted in a number of professions in America. Companies across many fields are increasingly focused on diversity and inclusion.
The prevalence of women in the tattoo industry in the twentyfirst century, along with larger numbers of women bearing tattoos, appears to be changing negative perceptions. Nevertheless, in Britain, there is evidence of women with tattoos, concealed by their clothing, throughout the twentieth century and of women tattoists such as Jessie Knight from the 1920s. A study of "at-risk" (as defined by school absenteeism and truancy) adolescent girls showed a positive correlation between body modification and negative feelings towards the body and low self-esteem; however, the study also demonstrated that a strong motive for body modification is the search for "self and attempts to attain mastery and control over the body in an age of increasing alienation".
Former sailor Rowland Hussey Macy, who formed Macy's department stores, used a red star tattoo that he had on his hand for the store's logo.
Tattoos have also been used in marketing and advertising with companies paying people to have logos of brands like HBO, Red Bull, ASOS.com, and Sailor Jerry's rum tattooed in their bodies. This practice is known as "skinvertising".
B.T.'s Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant located in Massachusetts, offered customers free meals for life if they had the logo of the establishment tattooed on a visible part of their bodies. Nine people took the business up on the offer.
Because it requires breaking the skin barrier, tattooing carries health risks including infection and allergic reactions. Modern tattooists reduce risks by following universal precautions working with single-use items and sterilizing their equipment after each use. Many jurisdictions require that tattooists have blood-borne pathogen training such as that provided through the Red Cross and OSHA. As of 2009 (in the United States) there have been no reported cases of HIV contracted from tattoos.
In amateur tattooing, such as that practiced in prisons, however, there is an elevated risk of infection. Infections that can theoretically be transmitted by the use of unsterilized tattoo equipment or contaminated ink include surface infections of the skin, fungal infections, some forms of hepatitis, herpes simplex virus, HIV, staph, tetanus, and tuberculosis.
Tattoo inks have been described as "remarkably nonreactive histologically". However, cases of allergic reactions to tattoo inks, particularly certain colors, have been medically documented. This is sometimes due to the presence of nickel in an ink pigment, which triggers a common metal allergy. Occasionally, when a blood vessel is punctured during the tattooing procedure, a bruise/hematoma may appear.
Certain colours - red or similar colours such as purple, pink, and orange - tend to cause more problems and damage compared to other colours. Red ink has even caused skin and flesh damages so severe that the amputation of a leg or an arm has been necessary. If part of a tattoo (especially if red) begins to cause even minor troubles, like becoming itchy or worse, lumpy, then Danish experts strongly suggest to remove the red parts.
While tattoos are considered permanent, it is sometimes possible to remove them, fully or partially, with laser treatments. Typically, black and some colored inks can be removed more completely than inks of other colors. The expense and pain associated with removing tattoos are typically greater than the expense and pain associated with applying them. 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. These older methods, however, have been nearly completely replaced by laser removal treatment options.
Ink or coloring applied to the surface of skin is sometimes referred to as a "tattoo". Mehndi, also known as a henna, has been around since 12th century allegedly originating from ancient India. It is also a traditionally Indian method of staining the skin, and a custom that encompasses North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East as well. Modern Mehndi techniques include ink transfers on sheets of paper.
Judaism generally prohibits tattoos among its adherents based on the commandments in Leviticus 19. Jews tend to believe this commandment only applies to Jews and not to gentiles.
There is no specific rule in the New Testament prohibiting tattoos and most Christian denominations believe the laws in Leviticus are outdated as well as believing the commandment only applied to the Israelites, not to the gentiles. While most Christian groups tolerate tattoos, some Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant denominations do believe the commandment does apply today for Christians and believe it is a sin to get one.
Many Coptic Christians in Egypt take a cross tattoo in their right wrist to differ from the muslims.
Tattoos are considered to be haram in Sunni Islam, based on rulings from scholars and passages in the Hadith. Shia Islam does not entirely prohibit tattooing, although it may be looked down upon in Shia communities.