Today, tattoos can be found everywhere and anywhere in different cultures, age brackets and social classes, and even in places with different religious beliefs, and they are often embellishments that represent single or personal meanings. Not so long ago, the practice of tattooing was the prerogative of people who lived at the edge of society, especially criminals and prostitutes, but also sailors. Further back in time, tattoos were a part of collective rituals and they had different meanings depending on the culture one belonged to, representing a sort of ‘talisman’ against evil spirits or for showing one’s link to a tribal, religious or social group. How tattoos became so common is also not conducible to one unique population or geographic area since tattoos appeared and spread amongst populations and cultures that had no contact with one another.
Only the term itself, which accounts for various practices, has a unique root:
tattoo comes from the Polynesian word ‘tatu’ which means to mark the body with signs.
The meaning of the term has not changed therefore, even though today tattoos can be practised in various ways and using various techniques. Tattoos are designs or symbols imprinted into the subcutaneous area of the body using pigments or various coloured substances, however they can also cut the skin and make scars (scarification).
The history of tattoos
Important testimonies about the use of tattoos originate from indigenous civilisations
from various parts of the world which have practised this art form from even the
most remote periods of time. In Burma, indigenous people cut the skin of their
thighs to make scars which were then filled with a black liquid that was obtained
from a special species of plant. The meaning, in this case, was to protect themselves
from dangerous animals of the jungle since the thigh was not covered by clothing.
The meaning of tattoos then changed: they became a means of identification of
slaves for their owners. The technique also changed to using a brass rod, which
was cut at the top to form sharp points that cut the skin, and then the pigment
(an organic substance that is present in plant and animal tissues) was placed
into the already marked out design using a bamboo pen. Both techniques were quite
painful and caused side effects for the person who was tattooed, such as a fever
Similar practices were found in Borneo and it seems that they were imported in the thirteenth century from the population that moved from Burma to Malaysia and then to Borneo. Here the practice took on different meanings depending on whether the tattoo was for a male or female: for the former, the first, tattoo was a symbol of manliness and heroism, whilst for the latter, it was a symbol of belonging to the tribe, or, according to an ancient belief, it was a viaticum to the realm of the dead.
For the Maori civilisation in New Zealand, tattooing was practiced as an embellishment of the body or as a means of social communication (the eldest son of the head of the tribe was tattooed from adolescence so that he was recognised as the future head) and this has been handed down ever since as a source of pride of belonging to an ancient lineage.
In Japan, tattooing has been practised for centuries for different reasons and they were widespread until the late seventeenth century. Since the nineteenth century, tattoos have become a real art form and they were supported by a highly sophisticated decorative taste that comes from the mastery of Japanese visual artists. The main difference between Western and Japanese tattoos is that they are usually done on a limited part of the body while Japanese tattoos cover the whole body, following the anatomical lines and looking like a very elaborate dress, both in terms of the techniques used and the expressiveness conveyed, and the aesthetic results are unparalleled in other populations and cultures.
It seems that Indians, such as the inhabitants of Borneo, also learnt to tattoo from the Burmese in 2000 BC, and, broadly speaking, tattoos have survived today in this culture, but now they are small symbols tattooed on some parts of the female body, which are probably related to marriage rites.
In North Africa, tattoos have always been practised as an amulet against evil and for preventing illnesses, and as a guarantee of fertility in Egypt.
The history of tattoos in Europe is more controversial because they were banned by the church, even though they were practised discretely anyway. The testimonies of people who travelled to exotic countries from the 19th Century onwards also provoked emulations, especially regarding the Japanese art of tattooing, which became very popular, and some of these fans included King George V and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. In European countries in the Mediterranean area, a significant exception to religious hostility towards tattoos is represented by the monks of the Sanctuary of Loreto, where a tradition, which survived for a long time, developed of tattooing pilgrims who requested it with religious symbols, perhaps in memory of the stigmata of Saint Francis who founded the sanctuary.
In modern times, the practice of tattooing has spread from the United States,
where it was imported by James Cook on his return from places like Tahiti, where
it is practised a lot. In the 19th Century in the United States, the profession
of "tattooing" arose and tattoo shops opened. It was a New Yorker called Samuel
O'Reilly who invented the electric tattoo machine around 1880, which was patented
in England by a his cousin, and 40 years before this, the first 'Tattoo Studio'
was opened in New York, and the customers there were mainly soldiers from the
Such was the curiosity about this thousand year old practice that was uncommon in the West that tattoos, in their most extreme form, or done almost all over the body, became a sort of circus phenomen between the 1800s and 1900s when adventurers brought back indigenous people as prisoners from exotic countries and made them tattoo themselves as a form of entertainment for others.
How tattoos are done
Whether tattoos are done using ancient manual techniques or using electric modern techniques, the practice of tattooing always involves some a needle penetrating the superficial layer of skin and injecting coloured pigment to create marks, designs or writing. The discomfort and pain that is felt when being tattooed, no matter what technique is used, varies depending on the part of the body that is being tattooed: tattoos done on the arms or legs are less painful, whilst tattoos done on areas that are rich in nerve endings, such as the wrists, ankles and feet, are more painful. The most common techniques today are the Japanese technique (also known as 'irezumi') and the American technique.
The Japanese technique is a manual technique involving needles which are applied to an instrument with a bamboo handle and they penetrate the skin. Whilst the skin is kept under tension, the needles, which will be soaked in colour, are made to penetrate the skin obliquely and this is done with decisive and quick movements. Even though the American technique is common in Japan, many people choose to use the local method - which is definitely more uncomfortable - because it provides particularly strong and aesthetically unique and exclusive results.
The American technique consists of penetrating the skin with the aid of a gun-shaped machine with three or five needles at the end that are set in motion by means of electromagnetic coils. The feeling of pain or discomfort in this case is greatly reduced and it has meant that this method, which was invented in the late 19th Century, is more common.
Other tattooing techniques, which are less widespread and in some cases prohibited by law, include the Samoan and Thai techniques. The former involves penetrating the skin with a comb-shaped instrument, the ends of which are soaked in colours, and its penetration is aided by a stick. The latter consists of placing the end of a brass tube on the skin, within which there is a pointed rod which is guided along the skin during the course of penetration.
Temporary and henna tattoos
Already known and used as a natural dye for the hair or material, henna (a substance obtained from the leaves of henna, a small tree from the Boraginaceae family) has been used for centuries in tattooing practices in many African countries and in India. It is not applied to the skin through the use of needles, rather it is applied in appropriate quantities using a brush. Henna tattoos (the henna that is available in shops often has dyes added to it) tend to fade and finally disappear over a period of time that can range from one week to one month.
Piercing involves inserting rings or small metal objects into various parts of the body, usually into the ear lobes, nostrils, lips, tongue, eyebrows, nipples or genitals. If the object consists of one or more metal rings, the practice is also known as ringing. Even though tattoos are considered to be a practice of body modification, piercing is temporary because if the inserted object is removed, the tissues tend to close up.
Branding is one of the most extreme and painful forms of tattooing. Branding
involves putting hot pieces of iron of various shapes (for example, the classic
horse shoe) on to the arm or other parts of the body. Just like tattoos, branding
has ancient origins: fire was used to mark slaves in Ancient Egypt and Rome as
a way to identify ownership and to mark delinquents and Christian Martyrs to punish
them. Branding was inflicted on delinquents under the old French monarchy and
by Imperial Russia, and on Jews in Nazi concentration camps as ways to recognise
Today, this practice is common amongst young Afro-Americans because it is a sign of courage and being part of a gang or university fraternity. However, it is illegal in many countries.
Hygiene and safety regulations
Popularity of tattoos and the relative proliferation of tattoo artists, which
in many cases are makeshift, has meant that this practice has to be regulated
to protect the health of the customer, because failure to comply with hygiene
and safety during the application of a tattoo can cause serious effects. Professionals
who practise piercing must also adhere to hygiene and safety regulations since
inserting a metal object into parts of the body means that the skin is broken
and therefore exposed to the same bacterial infections that tattooed areas are
exposed to, and patients may even develop a hypersensitivity or allergy to metal.
Henna cannot be considered free from danger either since it can seriously affect those who suffer from allergies. The danger, in this case, is not represented by the henna itself, which, as mentioned, is a natural dye of vegetable origin, but by an additive which is found in different formulas on the market which is used to reduce the time required to fix the colour and get darker and more defined tones. This additive is called PPD (paraphenylendiamine) and a European directive was created to ban the use of this for colouring eyelashes, eyebrows and skin, however it can be used for dying hair.
Until a few years ago, removing a tattoo from the skin that was no longer wanted
was only possible through dermabrasion, using a milling machine, salt crystals
or a chemical remover containing tannic or trichloroacetic acid, or by having
surgery. However, these are all quite painful practises, the result is not always
guaranteed and they can leave visible scars and some residues of coloured skin.
The use of dermatological lasers has made the removal of tattoos much safer and this practice creates less discomfort and, most importantly, more satisfactory results. Lasers work directly on the pigment, melting it into small particles which are then eliminated metabolically and this does not damage the surrounding tissues and encourages natural cell renewal. Numerous sessions may be needed depending on the size and design of the tattoo, as well as the number of colours used. What is more, the wave length of the laser must correspond with the colours used.
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