See C. R. Sanders, Customizing the Body (1989); J. Caplan, ed., Written on the Body (2000).
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattoos on humans are a type of decorative body modification, while tattoos on animals are most commonly used for identification or branding.
Tattooing has been practiced worldwide. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, traditionally wore facial tattoos. Today one can find Berbers of Tamazgha and Maori of New Zealand with facial tattoos. Tattooing was widespread among Polynesian peoples and among certain tribal groups in the Philippines, Borneo, Mentawai Islands, Africa, North America, South America, Mesoamerica, Europe, Japan, Cambodia, New Zealand and Micronesia. Despite some taboos surrounding tattooing, the art continues to be popular in many parts of the world.
The OED gives the etymology of tattoo as "In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Tahitian, Samoan, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu." The first closest known usage of the word in English was recorded in the diary of Captain James Cook in 1769 during his voyage to the Marquesas Islands. The text reads, “...they print signs on people’s body and call this tattaw”, referring to the Polynesian customs. Sailors on the voyage later introduced both the word and reintroduced the concept of tattooing to Europe.]
In Japanese the most common word used for traditional designs is, "Horimono".
The traditional Japanese hand method is called, "Tebori".
The word, "Irezumi," simply means, "insertion of ink," and could mean tattoos using Tebori, or Western style machine, (or for that matter, any method of tattooing using insertion of ink).
Japanese may use the word, "Tattoo," to mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing.
Tattoo enthusiasts may refer to tattoos as, "Tats," "Ink," "Art," or, "Work," and to tattooists as, "Artists". The latter usage is gaining greater support, with mainstream art galleries holding exhibitions of both traditional and custom tattoo designs. Copyrighted tattoo designs that are mass-produced and sold 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.
Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice at least since Neolithic times. Ötzi the Iceman, dating from the fourth to fifth millennium BC, was found in the Ötz valley in the Alps and had approximately 57 carbon tattoos consisting of simple dots and lines on his lower spine, behind his left knee, and on his right ankle. Other mummies bearing tattoos and dating from the end of the second millennium BC have been discovered, such as the Mummy of Amunet from Ancient Egypt and the mummies at Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau. Tattooing in Japan is thought to go back to the Paleolithic era, some ten thousand years ago. Various other cultures have had their own tattoo traditions, ranging from rubbing cuts and other wounds with ashes, to hand-pricking the skin to insert dyes.
Tattooing in the Western world today has its origins in Polynesia, and in the discovery of tatau by eighteenth century explorers. The Polynesian practice became popular among European sailors, before spreading to Western societies generally.
Tattoos are created by inserting colored materials inside the skin's surface. The first tattoos probably were created by an accident. Someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with soot and ashes from a fire. Once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently.
Today, people choose to be tattooed for cosmetic, sentimental/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) and prostitutes (and see 'tramp stamp' further on in the article) but also a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. In Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is used for protection against evil and to increase luck.
People have also been forcibly tattooed for various reasons. The well known example is the identification system for inmates /Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. However, tattoos can be linked with identification in more positive ways. For example, in the period of early contact between the Māori and Europeans, Māori chiefs sometimes drew their moko (facial tattoo) on documents in place of a signature. Even today, tattoos are sometimes used by forensic pathologists to help them identify burned, putrefied, or mutilated bodies. Tattoo pigment is buried deep enough in the skin that even severe burns will often not destroy a tattoo. Because of this, many members of today's military will have their identification tags tattooed onto their chests (these are sometimes known as "meat tags" in the American armed forces). For many centuries seafarers have undergone tattooing for the purpose of enabling identification after drowning. In this way recovered bodies of such drowned persons could be connected with their family members or friends before burial. Therefore tattooists often worked in ports where potential customers were numerous. The traditional custom continues today in the Royal Navy (Great Britain) and in many others.
Tattoos are also placed on animals, though very rarely for decorative reasons. Pets, show animals, thoroughbred horses and livestock are sometimes tattooed with identification and other marks. Pet dogs and cats are often tattooed with a serial number (usually in the ear, or on the inner thigh) via which their owners can be identified. Also, animals are occasionally tattooed to prevent sunburn (on the nose, for example). Such tattoos are often performed by a veterinarian and in most cases the animals are anesthetized during the process. 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.
When used as a form of cosmetics, tattooing includes permanent makeup, and hiding or neutralizing skin discolorations. Permanent makeup are tattoos that enhance eyebrows, lips (liner and/or lipstick), eyes (liner), and even moles, usually with natural colors as the designs are intended to resemble makeup.
During the first decade of the 21st century, the presence of tattoos became evident within pop culture, inspiring television shows such as A&E's Inked and TLC's Miami Ink and LA Ink. The decoration of blues singer Janis Joplin with a wristlet and a small heart on her left breast, by the San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, is taken as a seminal moment in the popular acceptance of tattoos as art. As seen in the 2007 movie Eastern Promises, body art again features heavily, showcasing the ink-embroidered torso of a Russian mobster. Tattoos are generally considered an important part of the culture of the Russian mafia.
In many traditional cultures tattooing has also enjoyed a resurgence, partially in deference to cultural heritage. Historically, a decline in traditional tribal tattooing in Europe occurred with the spread of Christianity. However, some Christian groups, such as the Knights of St. John of Malta, sported tattoos to show their allegiance. A decline often occurred in other cultures following European efforts to convert aboriginal and indigenous people to Western religious and cultural practices that held tattooing to be a "pagan" or "heathen" activity. Within some traditional indigenous cultures, tattooing takes place within the context of a rite of passage between adolescence and adulthood. A poll conducted online in January 2008 by Harris Interactive estimated that 14% of all adults in the United States have at least one tattoo, just slightly down from 2003, when 16% had a tattoo. The highest incidence of tattoos was found among the gay, lesbian and bisexual population (25%) and among Americans ages 25 to 29 years (32%) and 30 to 39 years (25%). The youngest age group (18-24) and the oldest age group (65 and older) are the least likely to have a tattoo (9%). Men (15%) are just slightly more likely to have a tattoo than women (13%). Regionally, people living in the West (20%) were more likely to have tattoos.
In 2006, a survey which took place in 2004 was published by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. It found that 24% of Americans who were between the ages of 18 and 50 had a tattoo.
In Japan, tattoos are strongly associated with the Yakuza, particularly full body tattoos done the traditional Japanese way ("Tebori"). Certain public Japanese bathhouses (sentō) and gymnasiums often openly ban those bearing large or graphic tattoos in an attempt to prevent Yakuza from entering.
In the United States many prisoners and criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation. "Tear tattoos", for example, can be symbolic of murder, with each tear representing a death of a friend. Insofar as this cultural or subcultural use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity of tattoos in the general population, tattoos are still associated with criminality. 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 which remains widespread among older Americans. Tattooing is also common in the British Armed Forces.
Tattoos can have additional negative associations for women. Although derogatory slang phrases such as "tramp stamp" are sometimes used to describe a tattoo on a woman's lower back, it remains one of the most popular spots for a tattoo for females. The prevalence of women in the tattoo industry itself, along with larger numbers of women bearing tattoos, has changed negative perceptions.
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 self-esteem; however, it also illustrated a strong motive of body-modification as the search for "self and attempts to attain mastery and control over the body in an age of increasing alienation.
The most common method of tattooing in modern times is the electric tattoo machine, which inserts ink into the skin via 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. This modern procedure is ordinarily sanitary. The needles are single-use needles that come packaged individually. The tattoo artist must wash not only his or her hands, but they 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.
Prices for this service vary widely globally and locally, depending on the complexity of the tattoo, the skill and expertise of the artist, the attitude of the customer, the costs of running a business, the economics of supply and demand, etc. The time it takes to get a tattoo is in proportion with its size and complexity. A small one of simple design might take fifteen minutes, whereas an elaborate sleeve tattoo or back piece requires multiple sessions of several hours each.
The modern electric tattoo machine is far removed from the machine invented by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891. O'Reilly's machine was based on the rotary technology of the electric engraving device invented by Thomas Edison. Modern tattoo machines use electromagnetic coils. The first coil machine was patented by Thomas Riley in London, 1891 using a single coil. The first twin coil machine, the predecessor of the modern configuration, was invented by another Englishman, Alfred Charles South of London, in 1899.
A wide range of dyes and pigments can be used in tattoos, from inorganic materials like titanium dioxide and iron oxides to carbon black, azo dyes, and acridine, quinoline, phthalocyanine and naphthol derivates, dyes made from ash, and other mixtures. The current trend for tattoo pigment favors Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic) as seen by the widespread popularity of Intenze, Millennium and other ABS pigmented brands.
Iron oxide pigments are used in greater extent in cosmetic tattooing. Many pigments were found to be used in a survey of professional tattooists. Recently, a blacklight-reactive tattoo ink using PMMA microcapsules has surfaced. The technical name is BIOMETRIX System-1000, and is marketed under the name "Chameleon Tattoo Ink". This same ink can also be found as "The Original Blacklight Inks by NEWWEST Technologies".
The properly equipped tattoo studio will use biohazard containers for objects that have come into contact with blood or bodily fluids, sharps containers for old needles, and an autoclave for sterilizing tools. Certain jurisdictions also require studios by law to have a sink in the work area supplied with both hot and cold water.
Proper hygiene requires a body modification artist to wash his or her hands before starting to prepare a client for the stencil, between clients, and at any other time where cross contamination can occur. The use of single use disposable gloves is also mandatory. In some states and countries it is illegal to tattoo a minor even with parental consent, and it is usually not allowed to tattoo impaired persons, people with contraindicated skin conditions, those who are pregnant or nursing, those incapable of consent due to mental incapacity or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Before the tattooing begins the client is asked to approve the final position of the applied stencil. After approval is given the artist will open new, sterile needle packages in front of the client, and always use new, sterile or sterile disposable instruments and supplies, and fresh ink for each session (loaded into disposable ink caps which are discarded after each client). Also, all areas which may be touched with contaminated gloves will be wrapped in clear plastic to prevent cross-contamination. Equipment that cannot be autoclaved (such as counter tops, machines, and furniture) will be wiped with an approved disinfectant.
Membership in professional organizations, or certificates of appreciation/achievement, generally helps artists to be aware of the latest trends. However, many of the most notable tattooists do not belong to any association. While specific requirements to become a tattooist vary between jurisdictions, many mandate only formal training in bloodborne pathogens, and cross contamination. The local department of health regulates tattoo studios in many jurisdictions.
For example, according to the health department in Oregon and Hawaii, tattoo artists in these states are required to take and pass a test ascertaining their knowledge of health and safety precautions, as well as the current state regulations. Performing a tattoo in Oregon state without a proper and current license or in an unlicensed facility is considered a felony offense. Tattooing was legalized in New York City, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma between 2002 and 2006.
Tattoo artists, and people with tattoos, vary widely in their preferred methods of caring for new tattoos. Some artists recommend keeping a new tattoo wrapped for the first twenty-four hours, while others suggest removing temporary bandaging after two hours or less. Many tattooists advise against allowing too much contact with hot tub or pool water, or soaking in a tub for the first two weeks. This is to prevent the tattoo ink from washing out or fading due to over-hydration and avoid infection from exposure to bacteria and chlorine. In contrast, other artists suggest that a new tattoo be bathed in very hot water early and often.
General consensus for care advises against removing the scab that forms on a new tattoo, and avoiding exposing one's tattoo to the sun for extended periods; both of these can contribute to fading of the image. Furthermore, it is agreed that a new tattoo needs to be kept clean. Various products may be recommended for application to the skin, ranging from those intended for the treatment of cuts, burns and scrapes, to cocoa butter, salves, lanolin, A&D or Aquaphor. Oil based ointments are almost always recommended to be used in very thin layers due to their inability to evaporate and therefore over-hydrate the already perforated skin. In recent years, specific commercial products have been developed for tattoo aftercare. Although opinions about these products vary, there is near total agreement that either alone or in addition to some other product, soap and warm water work well to keep a tattoo clean and free from infection. Ultimately, the amount of ink that remains in the skin throughout the healing process determines, in large part, how robust the final tattoo will look. If a tattoo becomes infected (uncommon but possible if one neglects to properly clean their tattoo) or if the scab falls off too soon (e.g., if it absorbs too much water and sloughs off early or is picked or scraped off), then the ink will not be properly fixed in the skin and the final image will be negatively affected.
Tattoo removal is most commonly performed using lasers that react with the ink in the tattoo, and break it down. The broken-down ink is then absorbed by the body, mimicking the natural fading that time or sun exposure would create. All Tattoo pigments have specific light absorbance spectrums. A tattoo laser must be capable of emitting adequate energy within the given absorbance spectrum of the pigment in order to provide an effective treatment. Certain tattoo pigments, such as yellows, greens and fluorescent inks are more challenging to treat than the darker blacks and blues. These pigments are more challenging to treat because they have absorbance spectrums that fall outside or on the edge of the emission spectrums available in the respective tattoo removal laser.
Laser tattoo removal often requires many repeated visits to remove even a small tattoo, and may result in permanent scarring. The newer Q-switched lasers are said by the National Institute of Health to result in scarring only rarely, however, and are usually used only after a topical anesthetic has been applied. The NIH recognizes five types of tattoo; amateur, professional, cosmetic, medical, and traumatic (or natural). Areas with thin skin will be more likely to scar than thicker-skinned areas. There are several types of Q-switched lasers, and each is effective at removing a different range of the color spectrum. These lasers effectively remove black, blue, purple and red tattoo pigment. New lasers like the Versapulse & Medlite laser treat these colors & yellow and green ink pigment, typically the hardest colors to remove. Black is the easiest color to remove. Both the Revlite and Medlite C6 lasers utilize specialized dye hand-pieces that transform the wavelength of energy emitted by the laser. This expansion of wavelengths gives the laser an enhanced ability to treat a much broader range of tattoo pigments than than standard Q-switched lasers.
Also worth considering is the fact that some of the pigments used (especially Yellow #7) are known to break down into toxic chemicals in the body when attacked by light. This is especially a concern if these tattoos are exposed to UV light or laser removal; the resulting degradation products end up migrating to the kidneys and liver. Laser removal of traumatic tattoos may similarly be complicated depending on the substance of the pigmenting material. In one reported instance, the use of a laser resulted in the ignition of embedded particles of firework debris.
Some wearers opt to cover an unwanted tattoo with a new tattoo. This is commonly known as a cover-up. An artfully done cover-up may render the old tattoo completely invisible, though this will depend largely on the size, style, colors and techniques used on the old tattoo. Some shops and artists use laser removal machines to break down and lighten undesired tattoos to make coverage with a new tattoo easier. Since tattoo ink is translucent, covering up a previous tattoo necessitates darker tones in the new tattoo to effectively hide the older, unwanted piece.
Because it requires breaking the skin barrier, tattooing may carry health risks, including infection and allergic reactions. In the United States, for example, the Red Cross prohibits a person who has received a tattoo from donating blood for 12 months (FDA 2000), unless the procedure was done in a state-regulated and licensed studio, using sterile technique.. Not all states have a licensing program, meaning that people who receive tattoos in those states are subject to the 12-month deferral regardless of the hygienic standards of the studio. Similarly, the UK does not provide certification for tattooists, and so there is a six month waiting period without exception.
Modern western tattooers reduce such risks by following universal precautions, working with single-use items, and sterilizing their equipment after each use. Many jurisdictions require that tattooists have bloodborne pathogen training, such as is provided through the Red Cross and OSHA.
Infections that could be transmitted via the use of unsterilized tattoo equipment or contaminated ink include surface infections of the skin, herpes simplex virus, tetanus, staph, fungal infections, some forms of hepatitis, tuberculosis and HIV. Even if the needles are sterilized or never have been used, it is important to understand that in some cases the equipment that holds the needles cannot be sterilized reliably due to its design. People with tattoos are nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C, according to a study by Robert Haley, MD, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Hepatitis C is spread by infected blood and infected needles, which is the virus' connection with tattooing.
No person in the United States is reported to have contracted HIV via a commercially-applied tattooing process. Washington state's OSHA studies have suggested that since the needles used in tattooing are not hollow, in the case of a needle stick injury the amount of fluids transmitted may be small enough that HIV would be difficult to transmit. Tetanus risk is reduced by having an up-to-date tetanus booster prior to being tattooed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that no data exist in the United States indicating that persons with exposures to tattooing alone are at increased risk for HCV infection. In 2006, the CDC reported 3 clusters with 44 cases of methicillin-resistant staph infection traced to unlicensed tattooists According to the Centers for Disease Control, some studies have found an association between tattooing and HCV infection. The CDC is currently conducting a large study to evaluate tattooing as a potential risk.
Allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are uncommon except for certain brands of red and green. People who are sensitive or allergic to certain metals may react to pigments in the skin with swelling and/or itching, and/or oozing of clear fluid called serum. Such reactions are quite rare, however, and some artists will recommend performing a test patch.
For those who are allergic to latex, many artists are using non-latex or will use non-latex gloves if asked.
There is also a small risk of anaphylactic shock (hypersensitive reaction) in those who are susceptible, but the chance of a health risk is small.
Due to the fact that laser removal of tattoo ink causes a release of ink into the bloodstream the risk of anaphylactic shock is also present during removal.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic) ground down to an average diameter of slightly less than 1 micrometer is used as the colorant in the brighter tattoo pigments. The tattoo pigments that use ABS result in very vivid tattoos. Many popular brands of tattoo pigment contain ABS as a colorant. ABS colorants produce extremely vivid tattoos that are less likely to fade or blur than the traditional pigments, but ABS tattoo pigment is also harder to remove because it is so much less reactive to lasers.
There has been concern expressed about the interaction between magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures and tattoo pigments, some of which contain trace metals. Allegedly, the magnetic fields produced by MRI machines could interact with these metal particles, potentially causing burns or distortions in the image. The television show MythBusters tested the theory, and found no interaction between tattoo inks and MRI.
Professional tattoists rely primarily on the same pigment base found in cosmetics. Amateurs will often use drawing inks such as low grade India ink, but these inks often contain impurities and toxins which can lead to illness or infection. Although "greywork" is often done with a better quality pelikan #17 or Talens drawing ink mixed with a darker lining ink to optain a softer grey.
Temporary tattoos are popular with models and children as they involve no permanent alteration of the skin but produce a similar appearance that can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. The most common style is a type of body sticker similar to a decal, which is typically transferred to the skin using water. Although the design is waterproof, it can be removed easily with oil-based creams. Originally inserted as a prize in bubble gum packages, they consisted of a poor quality ink transfer that would easily come off with water or rubbing. Today's vegetable dye temporaries can look extremely realistic and adhere up to 3 weeks due to a layer of glue similar to that found on an adhesive bandage.
Henna tattoos, also known as Mehndi, and silver nitrate stains that appear when exposed to ultraviolet light, can take up to two weeks to fade from the skin. Temporary airbrush tattoos (TATs) are applied by covering the skin with a stencil and spraying the skin with ink. In the past, this form of tattoo only lasted about a week. With the newest inks, tattoos can reasonably last for up to two weeks.