04 Oct 2009

Simple Essay: Tattoos

Why do people inflict pain upon themselves, especially when the process results in a permanent mark upon the body? This is a profound question. In seeking an answer, I focused initially on tattoos, and my research began by asking individuals about their chosen marks. Although some of the answers I received were well thought out and showed remarkable insight and self-awareness, many were unsatisfactory. Some replied that they “just wanted a tattoo” or “just liked the design.” My desire to probe deeper was prompted by an adamant belief that actions speak louder than words, and that often individuals are unwilling or unable to fully articulate the complex motivations for their actions.

Tattoos are prompted by “the primitive desire for an exaggerated exterior” and are manifestations of deep psychological motivations. They are the recording of dreams, which simultaneously express an aspect of the self and recreate and mask the body. As products of inner yearnings, self-concepts, desires, and magical or spiritual beliefs, designs on the human body formed by inserting pigments under the skin have been crafted by nearly every culture around the world for thousands of years. Definitive evidence of tattooing dates to the Middle Kingdom period of Egypt, approximately 2000 B.C., but many scholars believe that Nubians brought the practice to Egypt much earlier. There was little anthropological attention to tattooing in the early part of the century because of preconceived notions of its insignificance to cultural analysis. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec cultures performed tattooing and scarification, and that the practice is thousands of years old in Asian cultures.

Although tattooing was practiced in pre-Christian Europe, the word tattoo does not appear in English until Captain John Cook imported it after a journey to the Pacific Islands in the eighteenth century. Captain Cook claimed the Tahitians used the word tatua, from ta, meaning “to strike or knock,” for the marks they made upon their bodies. Captain Cook recorded this word as “tattaw.” The Polynesian word tapu, from which the word taboo derives, indicates the status of the person while being tattooed. Although no connection has been made between the words tattoo and taboo, it seems highly likely that they are related. While enduring the process of acquiring socially meaningful marks, the tattoo is being formed and shaped into an acceptable member of society. Prior to the completion of the tattoos the person is not only physically vulnerable because of the possibility of contamination during the penetrating process of tattooing but symbolically vulnerable as well. No longer without a tattoo, but without a finished tattoo, the person’s body and therefore the self are not yet completed. The person is a liminal entity not yet in society and therefore taboo.

Although the origin of tattooing is uncertain, anthropological research confirms that tattooing, as well as other body alterations and mutilations, is significant in the spiritual beliefs of many cultures. Various peoples tattoo or scarify during puberty rituals. In traditional South Pacific Tonga society, only priests could tattoo others and tattoos were symbolic of full tribal status. Eskimo women traditionally tattooed their faces and breasts and believed that acquiring sufficient tattoos guaranteed a happy afterlife. In many African cultures scars indicate social status and desirability as a marriage partner. Scarification patterns often identify the bearer as a member of a specific village. Many of these practices are changing and fading as Western influences enter African cultures.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Cree Indians living on the Great Plains tattooed for luck, for beauty, and to protect their health. Cree men with special powers received tattoos to help them communicate with spirits. A dream conferred the privilege of receiving a tattoo, which would be inscribed during a ceremony conducted by a shaman authorized to tattoo. The tattooing instruments were kept in a special bundle passed on from shaman to shaman. The ability to withstand the painful and tedious process of tattooing, which often lasted two to three days, confirmed the tattoo’s courage. Blood shed during the process was believed to possess magical power and was absorbed with a special cloth and kept for future use.

In a Liberian initiation ceremony “the novices … are resuscitated to a new life, tattooed, and given a new name … they seem to have totally forgotten their past existence.” (Armstrong, M. L. 2005) The ritual recreates the flesh bequeathed to initiates by their parents and experienced during childhood. The physical change marks a symbolic rebirth into a new spiritual, social, and physical reality as well as a real physical change. This magical use of the body reiterates the idea that physical and spiritual existence and their interactions are deeply entwined.

The American association of tattooing with exoticism solidified in 1851 when Dan Rice hired a tattooed man named James F. O’Connell to appear in his circus. During this time Rice was also fascinating America with another body image in popular culture, the blacked-up minstrel. The minstrel representation of the black body was replete with complex meanings of manhood, race, and class. The tattooed body on display was probably less familiar but equally intriguing. Without evidence of what kind of tattoos Rice’s employee had, or whether or not he performed, or served only as a display object, it is difficult to assess the meaning of his existence. Perhaps O’Connell conjured images of a white savage, halfway between the articulate, civilized white man and the Native American who expressed his culture with paint and body markings. Perhaps audiences saw the tattooed man as Melville’s Queequeg incarnate; exotic, half-blackened with ink-and half‐ black, but not without feeling or humanness. P.T. Barnum followed Rice’s success by displaying an elaborately inscribed Albanian named Constantine, who was an extremely popular attraction. Barnum was the first to exhibit a tattooed woman, in 1898, which added the erotic element of viewing the female body.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century as the public became more familiar with the art of tattooing through the circus, which was primarily a working- and lower-class entertainment, tattoo was also developing commercially. The first known professional tattooist in the United States was Martin Hildebrand who had an itinerant practice during the Civil War and opened a shop in New York City in the 1890s.

At the turn of the century, tattoos showed up in titillating and disreputable places. Tattooing became a shop-front industry in the disreputable Chatham Square area of New York City. Electric tattoo machines made tattooing cheaper and less painful and good tattoos easier to render. With this new technology, tattooing became popular among the lower classes and quickly came to be associated with blue-collar workers and ruffians. Although tattooing was an upper-class trend for a brief period, by the 1920s the middle class considered it deviant. Tattoos were considered a decorative cultural product dispensed by largely unskilled and unhygienic practitioners from dingy shops in urban slums, and consumers were seen as being drawn from marginal, rootless, and dangerously unconventional social groups.

In the 1930s, the American fascination with body alteration as a deviant practice continued. During this time a psychiatrist and writer named Albert Parry often wrote about the significance of tattoos and embedded stereotypes of deviance in the public discourse. Although Parry was an avid fan of tattooing, and bemoaned its decline in popularity, he called tattooing a “tragic miscarriage of narcissism.” He claimed tattooing was a substitute for sexual pleasure, evidence of homosexuality, and a source of masochistic pleasure. (Huxley, C. and Grogan, S. 2005)

Parry associated tattooing with deviant sexuality. Although the exhibition of a tattooed woman in the circus in prior decades was tinged with a hint of sexual voyeurism, Parry explicitly constructed images of tattooed women as abnormal and accessible commodities. He claimed that five percent of American women were tattooed and insinuated that beneath their conventional clothes, these disguised women had marked their bodies with signs of desire and erotic adventure. Parry stated that:”Prostitutes in America,as elsewhere,get tattooed because of certain strong masochistic-exhibitionist drives. Prostitutes obtained tattoos because they desired yet another reason to pity themselves and were seeking to be mistreated by clients. They believed tattoos would prevent disease and that they obtained sexual pleasure from the tattoo process. (Stirn, A, 2003)

Tacitly based on the preconception that marking the body is deviant, psychologists have sought to determine a connection between tattoos and psychopathology. Members and potential members of the military who bear tattoos have served as subjects for several studies that correlate tattoos and social adjustment. A study in 1993 concluded that “psychopathology or social or emotional maladjustment is significantly higher among tattooed than among non tattooed men.” (Jenn Horne, 2007) A 1998 study concluded that sailors with tattoos were more likely to be maladjusted, and military men with “Death before Dishonor” tattoos were more likely than non tattooed sailors to be discharged from the service. Other studies conducted during the late 1980s link tattooed women with homosexuality and masochism and tattooing practices in institutions with high levels of aggression, sexual insecurity, and social maladjustment. These studies both preselected the subject pools and ignored the effects of the institutional milieu on the tattoos. (Jenn Horne, 2007)

Similar to inmate self mutilation, tattooing may provide relief from the numbness of incarceration and establish individual or gang identity. A 1994 survey of the public perception of tattooed persons revealed that a majority of people perceived tattooed individuals as physically strong and psychologically aggressive. This survey concluded that whether or not tattoos are indicators of social maladjustment, they may function to enhance the bearer’s self-image and integrity. Returning to the theory of confirmation of the self in a pain-enduring sadomasochistic interaction, one can understand the connotation of toughness and integrity that a tattoo confers. One psychoanalytic case study observed that a dominatrix in a sadomasochistic relationship bore her tattoos as evidence of her ability to manage the ritual infliction of pain adroitly. This self mastery and “toughness” earned her the right to control her submissive partners and proved her ability to alter her own and her partners’ consciousness and identity. (Jenn Horne, 2007)


The lack of understanding of the functional purposes of both the tattooing process and the final marks have led to a perception of tattooing as barbaric, deviant, and sexually perverse. Dominant American culture has considered tattoos as marks of degradation, criminality, and marginality. Without an understanding of manipulation of the body to inspire “sacred awe” in viewers and bearers of tattoos and other body alterations, one can not grasp the significance of these alterations as tangible establishment of personal, spiritual, and social identity.

Although body modifications such as tattooing and piercing have been construed as signs of deviance, during the past two decades body alteration has begun to filter into mainstream culture as a popular form of self-expression. Articles about tattooing and piercing proliferate in popular literature. Fashion magazines show models with tattooed ankles and pierced navels, and recruit well-known tattooed musicians for their pages. Children are able to play with tattooed dolls. Exhibits of tattoo art are shown in art galleries. Piercing boutiques and tattoo shops are conducting brisk business.


Armstrong, M. L. (2005) Tattooing, body piercing, and permanent cosmetics: A historical and current view of state regulations, with continuing concerns. Journal of Environmental Health, 67.

Huxley, C. and Grogan, S. (2005). Tattooing, piercing, healthy behaviors and health value. Journal of Health Psychology 10.

Stirn, A. (2003) Body piercing: Medical consequences and psychological motivations. The Lancet, 361.

Jenn Horne (2007) Article Title: Tattoos and Piercings: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Interpretations of College Students. Journal Title: College Student Journal. Volume: 41. Issue: 4.

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