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Tattoos: The ultimate form of self-expression

Staff Writer

Published: Monday, October 11, 2010

Updated: Monday, October 11, 2010 13:10


Everyone’s seen them; everyone’s got them. At least, it seems that way today-especially on a college campus. Tattoos are making their mark on American society in a manner that wasn’t always so flaunted or widely accepted among the majority of citizens. What changed, and why do people get them?

Tattooing is not a modern concept by any means. Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in 1991 on the Alpine border between Austria and Italy and has been dated back to the fourth or fifth millennium BC. His body was marked by 57 carbon tattoos consisting of simple dots and lines that were located on his lower spine, right ankle, and behind his left knee. Likewise, the Ancient Egyptian mummy of Amunet and the mummies from Pazyryk, Siberia, all have tattoos and are dated back to the second millennium BC.

The modern English word “tattoo” was first coined by Sir Joseph Banks in 1769. He was a naturalist on Capt. James Cook’s ship “The Endeavour” when Cook explored the South Pacific Ocean. Banks used the term, “tattoo,” to describe the markings of indigenous peoples he encountered during the voyage.

The practice of tattooing became popular with English sailors in Polynesia, and they brought it back with them to the Western world where the custom continued to spread.

Tattoos are used for different purposes across cultures. In India, it’s common for a bride’s hands and feet to be tattooed with complicated henna designs for her wedding-called “mehndi.” Although henna tattoos aren’t permanent, they can last up to several weeks. It’s also popular among certain groups in Irish culture to have Celtic wedding bands tattooed on the couples’ ring fingers, instead of wearing metal rings. The Māori, a tribal people in New Zealand, have the tradition of wearing “moko” tattoos on their faces. The moko is an intricate design of swirls and spirals that identifies those in the upper class. The markings are made with chisel-type tools that leave permanent ridges in the skin.

Tattoos also carry significance for those in prison or who are involved in the criminal underworld. In France, it’s common for inmates to have a tattoo of five dots, like the dots on a die, on their hand between the thumb and index fingers. They represent the inmate between the four walls of his prison cell. In the former Soviet Union, members of the Russian mafia are known for having rose tattoos on their chests, and anyone who is caught wearing a false or unearned one is subject to severe punishment. The teardrop tattoo, located beneath a person’s eye, originated from Chicano gangs in California. It signified that the wearer had killed someone. Nowadays, it can have other meanings, such as the mourned loss of a loved one, or that a person has done time in prison.

Cosmetic tattooing has become popular in recent years. This permanent makeup can be used for eyebrow enhancement, outlining or filling-in of the lips, and as a permanent form of eyeliner.

In today’s popular culture, tattoos have had a resurgence in popularity among all types of people in all different levels of society. Many professional athletes, movie stars, and music artists have tattoos, and TV shows like “Inked,” “L.A. Ink,” and “Miami Ink” have widely publicized the tattoo trend in America. For a large portion of society, tattoos are viewed as a form of art. However, for some people, there are still lingering negative motifs attached to this form of self-expression. The lower-back tattoos that some females have still carry a stigma of the wearer being a “loose woman.” The fact that those particular tattoos have been nicknamed the pejorative “tramp stamp” doesn’t help. Also, for people who have extensive and/or visible tattoos, it may be difficult to find gainful employment. Although tattoos are more widely accepted in our culture today than in the past, there is still room for change.

The reasons why people get the tattoos that they do can be a very interesting topic of conversation-especially when they’re the people you may sit next to in class every day. Jana Koehler, a UNCG student, has three dots down the side of her right wrist. Together they form an ellipsis, the “. . .” in English grammar that denotes a pause in speech or an omission of something. When asked the significance of her tattoo, Koehler said it was connected to a comment that one of her professors made, and she thought it was particularly poignant. He said, “The most important things people say are between words.” Another student, Lauren Gorman, has the word “kitsch” tattooed on the side of her finger. She said she got it because the word describes her writing style and excessive use of punctuation.

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