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What is a Tattoo?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A tattoo is an ink design inserted into the skin, commonly via a needle. In various forms, it has been used ornamentally and religiously by humans for thousands of years, with examples found on numerous preserved prehistoric specimens. Humans also use identification tattoos on domesticated animals, particularly livestock. Examples can be seen in most human cultures, and despite some social stigma, tattoos are becoming ubiquitous in the West, with an estimated 25% of Americans wearing at least one by the end of the 20th century.

The word is likely related to the Samoan tatau, meaning "to strike or mark." Tattoos became popularized in the Western world when sailors began to explore the Pacific and return with them. In Japan, where there is a long historical tradition of skin art, the word irezumi refers to traditional Japanese tattoos, while tattoo is used in discussions of other types of tattoo art. Tattoo owners sometimes shorten the word to tat or use the terms ink, art, or work to talk about the designs they wear.

People receive tattoos for a variety of reasons: to identify themselves with a religious or social group, to adorn their bodies, as protective symbols, to cover skin discolorations, or as ongoing art and social projects. Most tattoo artists are themselves heavily tattooed. Some individuals have been forcibly tattooed, most notably victims of the Holocaust and prisoners.

Prehistoric tattoos were likely created by scoring the flesh with knives and rubbing in ink, ash, or another dye agent. These works were probably more susceptible to infection, and also less detailed than modern versions. Most of the extant examples consist of lines and dots on various points of the body. The introduction of needles made from bone and wood to the art of tattoo began hundreds of years ago and made for more precision, less infection, and less painful work. Many traditional tattoos are still hand poked with tools such as animal bone, sharpened bamboo, or steel.

However, Thomas Edison's invention of the autographic printer in 1876 paved the way for an electric tattoo machine capable of striking the skin hundreds of times in a minute, making the designs faster and much more widespread. Modern machines are strikingly different in operation than Edison's invention, although the same basic principle is followed. An electric tattoo machine operates using an electromagnet, and as the circuit is opened and closed, it causes a bar connected to the needle to move. Depending on the speed setting, the needle can move between 80 and 120 times a second, allowing the artist to penetrate the skin without laborious hand work.

A variety of pigments and inks are used in modern tattoo, ranging from traditional black to a wide range of colors. Some of the colors used for pigment may be toxic, raising concerns about extensive color work. If concerned, ask the artist about what pigments he or she is using and whether any adverse reactions to the inks have been noticed. Many tattoos will also require touchup, as exposure to sunlight and water degrades the inks.

When receiving a tattoo, it is important to make sure that proper hygienic measures are taken. Make sure that the studio is clean and that the artist is wearing gloves and using autoclaved needles. Most tattoo artists keep their work areas scrupulously clean, only laying out the materials they need to perform your work. Artists have varying aftercare instructions for a new tattoo, and it is generally advisable to follow the directions for quick, clean, beautiful healing.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a BeautyAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By CarrotIsland — On Nov 20, 2010

@medicchristy: Tattoo was a term adopted from the Polynesian language. Tahiti dialect has a word “tatau” that means “a picture” and came to Europe thanks to a famous English traveller James Cook. However, the word “tattoo” did not catch on after Cook first used it in his journal about his travels.

In 1856, it was used for the first time in medical vocabulary. Now the term “tattoo” is used in most languages.

By medicchristy — On Nov 20, 2010

Where did the name Tattoo originate?

By DinoLeash — On Nov 20, 2010

@dill1971: Scientists have found certain marks on the skin of an Iceman from a mummified human body dating from about 3300 B.C. The markings found represent the earliest known evidence of the practice. The most recognized are the tattoos found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from about 2000 B.C.

Tattoos are mentioned by classical authors in connection with Greeks, ancient Germans, Gauls, Thracians and ancient Britons. Tattooing was forbidden in Europe with the growth of Christianity.

By dill1971 — On Nov 20, 2010

Where did Tattoos originate?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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