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Permanent mark or design made on the body by the introduction of pigment through ruptures in the skin. Sometimes the term is also loosely applied to the inducement of scars (cicatrization). Tattooing proper has been practiced in most parts of the world, though it is rare among populations with the darkest skin color and absent from most of China (at least in recent centuries). Tattooed designs are thought by various peoples to provide magical protection against sickness or misfortune, or they serve to identify the wearer’s rank, status, or membership in a group. Decoration is perhaps the most common motive for tattooing.
If certain marks on the skin of the Iceman, a mummified human body dating from about 3300 bce, are tattoos, then they represent the earliest known evidence of the practice. Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from approximately 2000 bce. Their use is mentioned by Classical authors in relation to the Thracians, Greeks, Gauls, ancient Germans, and ancient Britons. The Romans tattooed criminals and slaves. After the advent of Christianity, tattooing was forbidden in Europe, but it persisted in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.
In the Americas, many Indians customarily tattooed the body or the face or both. The usual technique was simple pricking, but some California tribes introduced color into scratches, and many tribes of the Arctic and Subarctic, most Eskimos (Inuit), and some peoples of eastern Siberia made needle punctures through which a thread coated with pigment (usually soot) was drawn underneath the skin. In Polynesia, Micronesia, and parts of Malaysia, pigment was pricked into the skin by tapping on an implement shaped like a miniature rake. In moko, a type of Maori tattooing from New Zealand, shallow colored grooves in complex curvilinear designs were produced on the face by striking a miniature bone adze into the skin. In Japan, needles set in a wooden handle are used to tattoo very elaborate multicolored designs, in many cases covering much of the body. Burmese tattooing is done with a brass penlike implement with a slit point and a weight on the upper end. Sometimes pigment is rubbed into knife slashes (e.g., in Tunisia and among the Ainu of Japan and the Igbo of Nigeria), or the skin is punctured with thorns (Pima Indians of Arizona and Senoi of Malaya).
In pre-literate societies where tattooing is culturally embedded, the practice is normally highly ritualized, and alongside its decorative value it carries information about status and identity, as well as religious, therapeutic, or prophylactic significance. Designs are enormously varied in imagery and location, from the elaborate geometrical designs across arms, legs, and abdomen of Burma or the Marquesas; to the miniature stylized images of Gujarati tattooing; the elaborate curvilinear form of New Zealandmoko tattooing on men, which combined incision and pigmentation to produce individually unique facial designs; or the vivid figurative images of Japanese irezumi, derived from eighteenth-century wood-block illustrations and patterned onto the body like ornate clothing. The English term ‘tattoo’ (from the Polynesian tatu/tatau — mark, strike), versions of which were adopted into other European languages, testifies to the profound significance of the eighteenth-century encounter with the Pacific cultures for the spread of tattooing in modern Europe. Alternative and older European words, carrying connotations of marking or piercing (e.g. English ‘pounce’, Dutch ‘prickschilderen’, French ‘piqûre’), suggest that tattooing must have been known in Europe before its eighteenth-century reimportation and renaming, but the extent of its survival from the Scythian, Celtic, and Germanic customs documented in classical sources (e.g. Herodotus, Tacitus) is unclear. Greeks and Romans disdained the practice as barbarian; in the Roman empire it was used only on criminals, slaves/indentured laborers, and soldiers. This outcast association was strengthened when the medieval western Church picked up and repeated the biblical proscription of body-marking. There is thus little reference to tattooing in medieval and early modern Europe — but there is scattered evidence of its popular survival within Europe or on its margins. Tattoos were certainly acquired by European crusaders and pilgrims in Jerusalem, as also by pilgrims to the medieval Italian shrine of Loreto and by Coptic Christians and Bosnian Catholics. However, decorative tattooing was largely effaced from European cultural memory before the eighteenth century, and its recurrence was marked by the absorption of a new and diverse repertoire of secular images from popular culture, many of which remain familiar today. (A similar process of cultural forgetting and marginalization seems to have occurred in Japan, where a revival of highly skilled tattoo artistry coexisted with more strenuous official attempts to suppress it in the nineteenth century.)
Even after its eighteenth-century reimportation, via European sailors, from Polynesia and New Zealand, and a brief period as an exotic novelty, tattooing retained its association with disreputability, though to differing degrees. In continental Europe, it was regarded as the habit of common soldiers, sailors, labourers, and criminals, or was displayed by fairground and freak-show entertainers. In Britain, by contrast, tattoo images were widely sported by naval and military officers, despite the fact that tattoos were also used as penal marks in the army until the 1870s; little social stigma attached to the practice, and its adoption by aristocrats and royalty helped spark a tattooing craze around the turn of the century that spread throughout Europe and the US. Britain and the US also saw the first professionalization of tattooing, the invention (1891) of an electrical tattooing machine, and the improvement of techniques and inks. This period of popularity was short-lived, however, and the 1920s–50s saw the social and aesthetic decline of tattooing in Western culture. However, since the 1960s successive periods of reinvention and expansion have given it an unprecedented prominence and visibility, and women have entered this previously largely male domain. The tattoo is currently enjoying a cultural renaissance, alongside and perhaps by contrast with other body-altering practices of scarifying, branding, and extensive piercing, which have entered modern Western culture for the first time.
Tattooing was rediscovered by Europeans when the age of exploration brought them into contact with American Indians and Polynesians. The word tattoo itself was introduced into English and other European languages from Tahiti, where it was first recorded by James Cook’s expedition in 1769. Tattooed Indians and Polynesians—and, later, Europeans tattooed abroad—attracted much interest at exhibits, fairs, and circuses in Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Stimulated by Polynesian and Japanese examples, tattooing “parlours,” where specialized “professors” applied designs on European and American sailors, sprang up in port cities all over the world. The first electric tattooing implement was patented in the United States in 1891. The United States became a centre of influence in tattoo designs, especially with the spread of U.S. tattooers’ pattern sheets. The nautical, military, patriotic, romantic, and religious motifs are now similar in style and subject matter throughout the world; characteristic national styles of the early 20th century have generally disappeared.
In the 19th century, released U.S. convicts and British army deserters were identified by tattoos, and later the inmates of Siberian prisons and Nazi concentration camps were similarly marked. During the late 19th century, tattooing had a short vogue among both sexes in the English upper classes. Members of gangs frequently have identified themselves with a tattooed design. Tattooing has declined in many non-Western cultures, but European, American, and Japanese tattooing underwent a renewal of interest in the 1990s. Tattooing of both men and women became fashionable, along with a revival of body piercing.
There are sometimes religious objections to the practice (“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” [Leviticus 19:28]). The health risks of tattooing include allergic reaction to pigments and, when tattoos are applied under less-than-sterile conditions, the spread of viral infections such as hepatitis and HIV.
The technique of tattooing involves puncturing the dermis with a needle or other sharp instrument to a depth of 0.25–0.5 cm and simultaneously applying a dark pigment. The pigment rests in linear strata in the dermis; the fading and blurring of older tattoos is due to local dispersal of pigment through the lymphatic system. Small-scale needle tattoos are relatively painless, unless on sensitive areas of the body, but elaborate or semi-incised designs are a more severe ordeal. Temporary local inflammation may occur; more serious medical complications may develop where hygienic standards are poor (for example, from cross-infections through contaminated needles, or from use of harmful pigments), though more rarely than might be expected. Tattoos can be removed by various means, including dermabrasion, excision and suturing, and laser surgery, though usually with some residual scarring.
Methods of tattoo removal include derma abrasion, skin grafts or plastic surgery, and laser surgery. All such methods may leave scars. In the early 2000s a group of scientists developed inks made from nontoxic pigments that could be contained within nano-beads. These nano-beads, implanted in the skin using traditional tattooing methods, created a permanent tattoo if left alone. The tattoo was removable, however, by means of a single laser treatment that would rupture the nano-beads; the inks thus released were absorbed into the body, and the laser treatment itself left no scar.
Medical interest in the tattoo since the nineteenth century has included research into its anatomy and pathology, its applications in cosmetic surgery, and means of its removal. In modern scholarship, tattooing has been the province of anthropology for pre-literate societies, and of criminology, sociology, and psychology for non-tribal societies. Thus in the West it has been largely pathologized as the expression of a marginal subculture of resistance, associated especially with communities of male confinement and group identification. Only recently has this perspective shifted, and the history, ethnography, and aesthetics of tattooing in the West become more serious subjects of study.