The art and practice of tattooing has been around for at least 5,000 years. The word “tattoo” is thought to stem from the Tahitian word “tatu”, meaning “to mark something.” Permanently marking the skin with ink has held a variety of different meaning for centuries in all parts of the world. The remains of 5,200 year old Ötzi the Iceman found in the Alps in 1991 showed evidence of over 50 tattoos, which are believed to have had connections to acupuncture and possibly treatment of arthritis. In Pazyryk culture, over 2,400 years ago, tattoos were used to represent the individual’s social status. These tattoos depicted animals that held mystical cultural significance and others appeared to be purely decorative. In Samoan cultures, men’s lower halves are thoroughly tattooed to prove they can take the pain and women were traditionally tattooed from the knees to the thighs to introduce them to womanhood.
In the American culture today, tattoos have lost much of the countercultural rebellion stigma and criminal associations they once held. While tattoos can still carry a “daring” representation, like a tear drop tattoo on the face signaling the person killed someone in prison, there are even more tatted individuals who just wanted a rose to honor a loved one, an anchor to symbolize their stability, or a quote that matches their life philosophy. There’s definitely an acceptance of tattoos as mainstream and even trendy now. Tattoos are no longer just for gang members or bikers, but for hipsters, their grandmas, and anyone in-between. Sadly, that doesn’t put an end to the never-ending “Didn’t you think about how that’s going to look when you’re 75 and wrinkly?” inquiries nor does it translate to approval of visible tattoos in the workplace. (Yet.)
I have a few tattoos myself. I thought about them carefully and what they would mean to me. A rule of thumb for some people is to carry your idea around for 6 months to a year and if you still want the tattoo after that, then you go for it. I did this with all but one of my tattoos, which I would’ve done differently if I could. But I take it as a learning experience and marker of my impulsive then-19 year old self. My favorite tattoo is an arrow running down from my shoulder blade to my ribcage, because of its meaning. Arrows look fragile in your hand but once they’ve been propelled, they are piercing. Arrows also represent drive, purpose and swiftness to me. They’re delicate yet strong. And although I recognize astrology as a pseudoscience, I appreciate the general characteristics and myth of my “sign”, the archer Sagittarius. There’s a story behind each of my tattoos; why I chose them and what was going on in my life when I had them done. And when I’m 75, my tattoos will still be for me, as they were when I was younger. I didn’t get them done for anyone else.
I think that is what creates the beauty in tattoos; the significance, the emotion, the reason. I wonder if being introverted has subconsciously influenced my decision to get tattoos. By choosing meaningful symbols to permanently sit on my skin, I’m letting an image speak about my character without having to verbally communicate with people. Whether that message conveyed is accurate or not is a different story.
I’ll end this with two of my favorite quotes about tattoos:
“The ‘tattoo’ is the mark of the soul. It can act as a window through which we can see inside, or it can be a shield to protect us from those who cannot see past the surface.”
“[A] genuine tattoo…. tells a story. I like stories and tattoos, no matter how well done, and if they don’t tell a story that involves you emotionally, then they’re just there for decoration, then they’re not a valid tattoo. There has to be some emotional appeal or they’re not, to my way of thinking, a real tattoo. It tells people what you are and what you believe in, so there’s no mistakes.”
— Leo, tattooist, 1993, quoted in Margo DeMello, Bodies of Inscription, 2000