Overview: Tattoos are markings on the body that use pigment in the second layer of skin. There is a variation of kinds of tattoos that people can get ranging from temporary to permanent. People use tattoos for amulets, status, therapy, arthritic pain, self-expression and a myriad of other reasons. They have grown in popularity significantly as 36% of adults aged 18-25 have at least one today, making them a mark of pop culture (Thobo-Carlsen 2014).

History: Tattooing is said to have started in Tahiti of the South Pacific. The words ta tau in Polynesian translate in English as “to write.” People associated tattoos with health and fierceness as talismans against evil; the more that a person had, the higher their status was in society. Bone, metal and shell were tools that they used to transfer ink to the body with (Pickup 2016). Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were a few other ancient civilizations that are known to have used these techniques (www.freetattoo.org).

Otzi the Iceman: This mummy was discovered by hikers in the Otzal Mountain Alps in 1991, but he’s said to come from Sardinia and Corsica. His remains are kept because he is the oldest known person to have tattoos. Altogether, he had 61 tattoos of various line and cross variations that seem to have been used for therapy (www.iceman.it). Scientists say that his body may be the oldest known murder mystery based upon markings before death. His tattoos came from charcoal.

Tattoos in the United States: The earliest recordings of tattoos in the United States are relating to Native American women. They got them to relieve toothaches and as arthritis therapy. At the height of the Civil War, people began getting them for identification from New York City based artist Martin Hildebrandt (Waxman 2017). Designs of patriotism and reminders of home were popular.

Tools used to tattoo: In the past, Thai needles, Maori chisels, Polynesian rake needles, Japanese Tebori needles, Edison’s electric pen, O’Reilly’s Rotary Two Coil needle and advanced rotary needles were used.

Modern tools:Today, the most common tool for tattooing is an electro-magnet machine (www.barnorama.com2011). Additionally, rotary and coil machines are used with many pros and cons for each. With rotary machines, you are guaranteed a more quiet process with less damage to skin and expeditious filling/color work. Coil machines offer smoother lines, more control for artists, and intricate line work (Laura 2014).

Medical Safety Requirements:Each facility must be registered with a local council. Surfaces have to be easily cleaned with non-slip floors, good lighting, disposable gloves, a wash basin and sink with liquid soap or an alcohol-based hand cleaner and receptacles for waste.

Equipment sterilization: All equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned. Instruments used have to be packaged prior to being ran through a benchtop sterilizer.  Needles have to meet regulations and be of single-use standard. Sharp containers MUST be on site to dispose of needles. Towels and linens have to be cleaned prior to each use (www.health.nsw.gov.au2013).

Negative associations: Workplace discrimination, Holocaust prisoners, gang members and criminals have associations that are less than positive.

Criminals: According to The Economist, “A whopping 85% of criminals under the age of 35 have tattoos,” most commonly with names, motifs, mythical and religious symbols, which puts in perspective why older generations make claims of criminality with body art (www.theeconomist.com2016).  Gang members get them to show loyalty and murderers occasionally get these markings as proof of their body count.

Holocaust: Tattoos were used during the Holocaust to mark prisoners as part of the dehumanization process; originally they were placed on the left breast and later on that changed to the inner forearm  (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org).

Workplace Discrimination: There are NO current laws prohibiting the discrimination against employees with visible tattoos; some people have even had their resumes torn up in front of them during interviews as a result (Haddaway 2015).

Religious groups opposed to tattoos: Islam forbids tattoos completely, along with Orthodox Judaism. Christians have translated verses from Leviticus to state that tattoos are sinful (www.tattoos.lovetoknow.com).

Bans in the United States: Between 1961 and 1997, tattoos became illegal in New York City as the result of a Hepatitis B outbreak (Nalewicki 2017).

Other countries where tattoos are banned: Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia have made it illegal to display religious tattoos, particularly related to Buddhism, because they are considered to be highly offensive. Japan will kick you out of certain public areas if your tattoos are visible. In North Korea, tattoos praising the Kim family are the only acceptable forms of ink (Hunter 2018).

Therapeutic Implications: There is a tv show called Ink Shrinks that aims to bring awareness to the ways that tattoos can help people with unresolved issues, such as a fear of needles (Meinert 2015). Clients can talk about unresolved issues and their tattoo artists assist in giving them a creative outlet of self-expression along with a major endorphin rush once the process begins.

Times when tattoos are used for therapy: as reminders of loved ones, overcoming mental illness and phobias, to cover mastectomy and other medical procedural scars, for spiritual protection and as a commitment to life, to name a few (Samuel 2016).

Women and Tattoos: In the 1950’s and 60’s, women in biker gangs would get tattoos as acts of submission and loyalty (Crum 2015). Throughout the first decades of the 19thcentury, women could make a salary of up to $2000 a week in circuses by displaying their tattoos (www.rebelcircus.com). Women are getting tattoos more often than men today (www.rawstory.com). This is a stark contrast to the original sailor tattoos that were popular in America.


Helpful links:







Works Cited

“A Statistical Analysis of the Art on Convicts’ Bodies.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 24 Dec. 2016, www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21712032-what-can-be-learned-prisoners-tattoos-statistical-analysis-art.

Crum, Maddie. “The Prickly History Of Tattooing In America.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 30 June 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/30/america-tattoo-history_n_7690424.html.

“Fact Sheets – Tattooing and Other Body Art – Hygiene Standards.” Tattooing and Other Body Art – Hygiene Standards – Fact Sheets, 27 Mar. 2013, www.health.nsw.gov.au/environment/factsheets/Pages/tattooing.aspx.

Gutman, Israel, et al. “Concentration Camps: Tattoos.” Holocaust Tattoos, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/holocaust-tattoos.

Haddaway, Amanda. “Hiring Discrimination Against Tattoos And Piercings.” Work It Daily, 11 Mar. 2015, www.workitdaily.com/hiring-discrimination-tattoos-piercings/.

Hunter, Dan. “Illegal Ink – 11 Countries Where Showing Your Tattoos Could Get You Kicked Out!” Mapping Megan, 28 Jan. 2018, www.mappingmegan.com/illegal-tattoos-traveling-with-tattoos-countries-where-tattoos-are-not-allowed/.

Laura. “Customer Service.” Choosing the Best Type & Brand of Tattoo Machine for You | Painfulpleasures Inc, 7 Oct. 2014, info.painfulpleasures.com/blogs/choosing-best-type-brand-tattoo-machine-you.

Meinert, Maya. “Healing through Therapy – and Tattoos.” USC News, 2 Mar. 2015, news.usc.edu/76696/healing-through-therapy-and-tattoos/.

Nalewicki, Jennifer. “Tattooing Was Illegal in New York City Until 1997.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 28 Feb. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/tattoos-were-illegal-new-york-city-exhibition-180962232/.

“Ötzi – The mummy in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.” South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, www.iceman.it/en/the-mummy/.

Pickup, Oliver. “Where does the word tattoo come from?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 Nov. 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/films/moana/tatau-where-tattoo-comes-from/.

“More American women than men are tattooed.” Raw Story, 26 May 2012, www.rawstory.com/2012/05/more-american-women-than-men-are-tattooed/.

“Retro Circus Tattooed Ladies -.” RebelCircus.com, 7 Aug. 2014, www.rebelcircus.com/blog/circus-tattooed-ladies/.

S, Beth. “Religions and Tattoos.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp, tattoos.lovetoknow.com/Religions_and_Tattoos.

Samuel, Nneka. “10 Ways Tattoos Are Being Used As A Form Of Therapy.” MadameNoire, 10  Mar. 2016, madamenoire.com/618797/tattoos-as-therapy/.

“The History Of Tattoos.” History Of Tattoos, www.freetattoodesigns.org/history-of-tattoos.html.

“The History of Tattoo Tools.” Barnorama, Barnorama, 16 May 2011, www.barnorama.com/the-history-of-tattoo-tools/.

Thobo-Carlsen, Mik. “How Tattoos Went From Subculture to Pop Culture.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 Oct. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/mik-thobocarlsen/how-tattoos-went-from-sub_b_6053588.html.

Waxman, Olivia B. “Tattoo History in the United States-How They Became a Thing.” Time, Time, 1 Mar. 2017, time.com/4645964/tattoo-history/.

Mikalah Lake is a student at Old Dominion University pursuing a B.S. in Women’s Studies with a minor in Psychology. Causes that are particularly important to her are women’s rights, environmental awareness, leadership, civic duty, and mental health awareness. After completing her B.S. degree, her dream is to pursue a Master of Public Health Education degree at Eastern Virginia Medical School.