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A tattoo is a permanent mark made in the dermis using a sharp object and ink. The word tattoo originates from the Tahitian word "tatu" which when translated means "to mark something." The oldest evidence of a tattoo was found in September of 1991 on a natural mummy who lived 5300 years ago. Tattoos have been a part of many cultures for thousands of years. The meaning behind tattooing has varied greatly throughout history. Some cultures have used tattoos strictly for identification purposes while others have instituted them for certain ceremonies and rites of passage. Today, in the United States, tattoos are mainly adorned for fashion or an expression of ones involvement in a social group.


Tattooing has been around since at least the Neolithic age. The oldest known tattoos may have been for therapeutic purposes according to Professor Don Brothwell, one of the specialists who examined the mummy named Oetzi the Iceman, pictured below.
Oetzi the Iceman
Oetzi the Iceman

The evidence of tattoos in ancient Egypt can be found not only on the mummies themselves but also in the artifacts of the era. Female figurines and female figures represented in tomb scenes are depicted with tattoos on their bodies. The reason for the strictly female tattooing in ancient Egypt is not clear. The Greeks and Romans used tattoos mainly for identification purposes. Slaves and criminals were marked identifying their place in society. Tribes from all corners of the earth have produced evidence of tattooing in their culture.


Today we see brightly colored to all black tattoos in many different styles; traditional, tribal, new school, celtic, Maori, Samoan, Japanese, etc. Many artists are known for their specialty in a certain style of tattooing. The more intricate artwork with shading and blending of many colors would not have been possible without the invention of the modern day tattoo gun, pictured below.
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Many feel there is a health risk involved with getting a tattoo because of the tattooing process. There is the possibility of contracting a blood-borne pathogen, i.e. hepatitus B/C, while getting a tattoo, but it is very rare. Less than 1% of people who have contracted hepatitus C in the past 20 years got it from a tattoo. Most tattoo artists use single-use needles and steralize their equipment after every use. It's important to make sure that the artist practices safe and clean methods before you go under the needle. There are regulations in several states that require tattoo artists to be certified in the prevention of spreading blood-borne pathogens.

Tattoo Culture?

Tattoos are gaining popularity in the United States every year. We are seeing a greater acceptance to the marking of skin that was once considered deviant or even criminal in some states. Tattooing was only legalized in states like Oklahoma and Massachusetts between 2002 and 2006, but the trend has caught on quick. According to U.S. News & World Report, tattooing has become one of the fastest growing retail businesses in America. In the most recent Harris Poll from the summer of 2003, 16% of Americans reported having one or more tattoos. Many find getting tattooed to be "addicting." The stigma placed on being heavily tattooed is starting to lift. We see tattoos in the media much more now, especially TV and the movies. The bad guy or undesirable in movies is still some times portreyed as a heavily tattooed individual, but we are seeing more often a transition to the protaganist with "cool" tattoos. The growing trend has spawned reality TV shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink where we get a look at what happens day to day in a tattoo shop. Tattoos are going mainstream.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: CDC's Position on Tattooing and HCV Infection

smithsonian.com: Tattoos the Ancient and Mysterious History, Cate Linberry, January 1 2007

Harris Poll: harrisinteractive.com, Social and Lifestyle Issues 2003, Politics 2008