For the unrelated Military music tattoo, a parade, see Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Tattoo of a black leopard
Tattoo of a black leopard
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Tattoo of an eagle
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Detail of eagle tattoo
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Close up of a small tattoo

This article is about the tattoo, a design in ink or some other pigment, usually decorative or symbolic, placed permanently under the skin. In technical terms, tattooing is micro-pigment implantation. Tattoos are a type of body modification.


Terminology and etymology

The origin of the word tattoo is usually traced to the Tahitian tatu or tatau, which means to mark or strike (the latter referring to traditional methods of applying the designs). In Japanese the word used for traditional designs or those that are applied using traditional methods is irezumi, while "tattoo" is used for non-Japanese designs.

Most tattoo enthusiasts refer to tattoos as art and to tattooists (less often "tattooers") as artists. This usage is gaining support, with mainstream art galleries holding exhibitions of tattoo designs and photographs of tattoos.

Tattoo designs that are mass produced and sold to tattoo artists and studios are called flash. "Tattoo Flash" is also the name of an American tattoo magazine.


Many celebrities, particularly in the music industry, wear tattoos, but there are many others who have tattoos but generally keep them covered. In some areas, tattoos have a largely negative image. This is particularly true in East Asian countries and regions, where tattoos are still generally associated with criminality in the public's mind; therefore those who choose to be tattooed in such countries usually keep their tattoos covered for fear of reprisal. For example, many businesses such as gyms, hot springs and recreational facilities in Japan still ban people with visible tattoos.

Many employers, especially in professional fields, dislike tattoos greatly. Tattoos can therefore impair the wearer's career prospects. For this reason and others a large proportion of people who get tattoos subsequently regret it. Tattoos can be wholly or partially removed by cosmetic surgery but this can be expensive and may not be entirely effective in leaving unblemished skin.

It has been suggested that a majority of prisoners in US prisons have at least one tattoo. It is said that most triad members in Hong Kong have a tattoo of a black dragon on the left bicep and one of a white tiger on the right; in fact, many people in Hong Kong use "left a black dragon, right a white tiger" as a euphemism for a triad member. It is widely believed that one of the initiation rites in becoming a triad member is silently withstanding the pain of receiving a tattoo the size of one's entire back in one sitting, usually performed in the traditional "hand-poked" style. Tattoos, particularly full traditional body suits, are still popularly associated with the yakuza (mafia) in Japan; in reality, however, many yakuza members are choosing not to be tattooed to avoid this very stigma.



Tattooing has been a practice of almost every known people. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, wore unique facial tattoos. Tattooing was widespread among Polynesian peoples, and in the Philippines, Borneo, Samoa, Africa, Mesoamerica. Japan, and China. According to Robert Graves in his book The Greek Myths, tattooing was common amongst certain religious groups in the ancient Mediterranean world, which probably contributed to the prohibition of tattooing in Leviticus 19:28 in the Old Testament.

Tattooing in prehistoric times

Tattooing has been a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. "tzi the Iceman", dated circa 3300 BC, exhibits therapeutic tattoos (small parallel dashes along lumbar and on the legs). Tarim Basin (West China, Xinjiang) revealed several tattooed mummies of a European physical type. Still relatively unknown (the only current publications in Western languages are those of J P. Mallory and V H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies, London, 2000), some of them could date from the end of the 2nd millennium before our era. Three tattooed mummies (c. 300 BC) were extracted from the permafrost of Alta in second half of the 20th century (the Man of Payzyrk, during the forties; one female mummy and one male in Ukok plateau, during the nineties). Their tattooing involves animal designs repertory carried out in a curvilinear style. The Man of Pazyryk was also tattooed with therapeutic dots lined up along the spinal column (lumbar region) and around the right ankle.

Tattooing in Chinese literature

Tattooing has also been featured prominently in one of the Four Classic Novels in Chinese literature, Water Margin, in which at least two of the 108 characters, Shi Jun and Yan Qing, were described as having tattoos covering nearly the whole of their bodies. In addition, Chinese legend has it that the mother of Yue Fei, the most famous general of the Song Dynasty, tattooed the words 精忠報國 (pinyin: jin zhong bao guo) on his back with her sewing needle before he left to join the army, reminding him to "repay his country with total loyalty".

Rediscovery in Europe

Europeans rediscovered tattooing during the exploration of the South Pacific under Captain James Cook in the 1770s, and sailors were particularly identified with tattoos in European culture until after World War I.

The electric tattoo machine

The "modern" electric tattoo machine is fundamentally the same machine invented by Samuel O'Reilly in 1891, which was based on an electric engraving pen invented by Thomas Edison.


Tattoos are more popular now than at any time in recorded history. Current estimates have one in seven or over 39 million people in North America who have at least one tattoo.


Today, people commonly choose to be tattooed for cosmetic, religious and magical reasons, as well as as a symbol of belonging to or identification with particular groups (see Criminal tattoos). Some Maori males still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. Throughout history people have also been forcibly tattooed for a variety of reasons. The best known is the ka-tzetnik identification system for Jews in part of the concentration camps during the Holocaust.

European sailors were known to tattoo the crucifixion on their backs to prevent flogging as a punishment.

Tattoos are also placed on animals, though very rarely for decorative reasons. Pets, show animals, thoroughbred horses and livestock are sometimes tattooed with identification marks, and certain of their body parts (for example, noses) have also been tattooed to prevent sunburn. Such tattoos are performed by veterinarians and the animals are anaesthetized to prevent pain.


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A tattoo on the lower back, when worn by young women, is occasionally called a "tramp stamp" in American slang.

Some tribal cultures still create tattoos by cutting designs into the skin and rubbing the resulting wound with ink, ashes or other agents. This may be an adjunct to scarification. Some cultures create tattooed marks by "tapping" the ink into the skin using sharpened sticks or animal bones. Traditional Japanese tattoos (irezumi) are still "hand-poked," that is, the ink is inserted beneath the skin using non-electrical, hand-made and hand held tools with needles of sharpened bamboo or steel.

The most common method of tattooing in modern times is with an electric tattoo machine. In this procedure, ink is inserted into the skin via a group of needles that are soldered onto a bar, which is attached to an oscillating unit. The unit rapidly and repeatedly drives the needles in and out of the skin, usually 50 to 3,000 times a minute.

In most prisons, tattoo machines are not available so tattooing is done with crude "homemade" machines. Tattoos created under such conditions are frequently painful, and the resulting designs are coarser. There is also significant risk of illness, including such blood-borne diseases as HIV and hepatitis. Prisoners often dismiss these risks in a show of toughness. However, Canadian inmates may be able to safely tattoo themselves while incarcerated if a test of onsite prison tattoo parlors in the summer of 2005 proves to be successful. Legitimate parlors onsite would reduce risks of infection with makeshift tattoo guns, while also offering inmates the chance to cover up unsightly ink they received while incarcerated. Inmates will be trained to staff and operate the tattoo parlors once six of them open successfully. [1] (

Permanent Cosmetics

Permanent cosmetics are tattoos that enhance eyebrows, lips (liner or lipstick), eyes (shadow, mascara), and even moles, usually with natural colors as the designs are intended to resemble makeup. The prices of cosmetic procedures are higher than design tattoos because most states require permanent makeup artists to be licensed aestheticians.

"Natural" tattoos

According to George Orwell, workers in coal mines would wind up with characteristic tattoos owing to coal dust getting into wounds.

Temporary tattoos and Mehndi

Temporary tattoos are a type of body sticker, like a decal. They are generally applied to the skin using water to transfer the design to the surface of the skin. Temporary tattoos are easily removed with soap and water or oil-based creams, and are intended to last a few days.

The art known as Mehndi, common in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian countries (but particularly associated with India), is the application of intricate patterns and designs on the hands and feet. The designs are usually hand drawn with henna: powdered henna is mixed with coffee or tea, lemon juice (to release the dye) and sugar (for consistency) into a paste which is then applied. The length of time the design will last depends on how long the paste is left on the skin. Most designs last up to two weeks, fading from a dark brown to a light orange before disappearing. So-called 'black henna', which is made by adding p-phenylenediamine (PPD) to natural henna, in order to achieve a black color, may cause allergic reactions. PPD is very unhealthy and has been known to cause burns[2] (

Mehndi is traditionally applied onto the hands and feet of brides, but there exist traditions in Bangladesh, Kashmir and Sudan where bridegrooms also have Mehndi applied before wedding ceremonies. Mehndi has also become popular, particularly in the West, as a form of temporary body decoration with no symbolic meaning.


Permanent tattooing of any form carries risks, including infection, allergy, and disease.


Since tattoo instruments come in contact with blood and bodily fluids, diseases may be transmitted if the instruments are used on more than one person without being sterilized.

Most reputable tattoo shops use fresh disposable needles for each client and sterilize reusable instruments between clients using an autoclave. Universal precautions, such as washing the hands, wearing latex gloves and the thorough cleaning of floors and surfaces, also reduce the risk of disease.

In addition, it is important that needles and other instruments do not come in contact with inks that will be used on other clients. To avoid contamination, small amounts of ink are poured from larger bottles into disposable cups. These are used on one client, once only, and are discarded when the session ends. The tattooer should know and discuss the risks of disease in tattooing.

Allergic reactions

Allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are fairly uncommon except for certain brands of red and green (with which some many people have a slight problem with itching,swelling,redness of the skin,oozing). People who are sensitive or allergic to certain metals may react to pigments in the skin by becoming swollen and/or itchy, oozing of clear sebum is also common.

People with allergies should think carefully about getting a tattoo because of the risk of anaphylactic shock (hypersensitive reaction), which can be life threatening. Some tattoo artists give small tests, by marking a small amount of ink behind the ear to determine if that person has an allergic reaction.

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Placing the color names on a color wheel helps the artist visualize the palette on hand.


Infection from tattooing in clean and modern tattoo studios is rare.

Potential infections include everything from surface infections of the skin to Staphylococcus aureus infections that can cause cardiological damage. People who are susceptible to infection should know the dangers abrading the skin can have and should consult a physician before getting a tattoo.

The risk of infection also be reduced by following obvious precautions. Shops should appear clean; sinks with hot water and soap should be available in the bathroom as well as in the studio; tattooers should wash their hands regularly and wear latex gloves; surfaces should be cleaned with disinfectant and floors should appear clean; proper procedures for sterilizing equipment should also be followed strictly.

Tattoos and MRI

There has been concern about the interaction between magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures and tattoo inks, some of which contain trace metals. It has been claimed that the magnetic fields produced by MRI machines could interact with these metal particles, potentially causing burns or distortions in the image. It is likely that this is an urban myth. The television show Mythbusters tested the theory, and concluded that there is no risk of interaction between tattoo inks and MRI. Today the majority of professional tattoos do not contain metal particles and therefore there is no concern with MRI.

Deciding where to get a tattoo

See the sections under "Risks," above.

The studio must have all of the following:

  • biohazard containers for blood-stained objects
  • sharps containers for old needles
  • an autoclave is usually required by law but is not really needed if the items to be used have been presterilized elsewhere.
  • accessible facilities for washing the hands with hot water and soap

A reputable artist will:

  • be knowledgeable, courteous and helpful
  • refuse to tattoo minors, intoxicated people, or those incapable of consent due to mental defect.
  • ensure that the customer is satisfied with and sure about the design before applying it
  • be willing and able to answer questions
  • wash his or her hands with water and soap or an approved sanitizing agent, and wear latex gloves. Many artists will change gloves one or more times during longer sessions
  • always open new, sterile needle packages in front of the client, and always use new, sterile disposable instruments
  • always use properly sterilized non-disposable and disposable supplies
  • always use fresh ink for each session, placing small amounts in disposable containers which are used for one client only
  • provide clear aftercare instructions and products

Membership in professional organizations, or certificates of appreciation/achievement, may imply that the artist is aware of the latest trends in equipment and sterilization. Many of the most notable tattooists do not belong to any association.


Aftercare for your new tattoo has been a subject of debate in the tattoo community for many years. Tattoo artists have had to recommend a variety of products available from your local drug store. These products were intended to prevent cuts, burns, scrapes and abrasions from becoming infected and not for the healing of new tattoos. The majority of these products contain petroleum or lanolin which, when applied to a new tattoo, can clog skin pores and actually retard your body's healing process. There is also the possibility of allergic reactions to these products, and, application to a new tattoo can cause skin reactions leading to loss of ink and permanent damage to your tattoo.

New tattoos are wounds which must be looked after properly. Immediately after completing the tattoo, most tattooists will cover the area to keep out dirt and keep the tattoo from oozing into clothes; sometimes the area is wrapped in clingfilm, paper towel, poultry packs (that come in chicken packs) or gauze. Some tattooists will recommend leaving the covering on for several hours or overnight, and then gently washing the area. Japanese soak the tattoo in hot water to clean it.

In the last few years, new cosmetic and pharmaceutical aftercare products have been developed specifically for the tattoo world. These products are safe, efficient and dermatologically tested. Most tattoo artists recommend them and sell them in their parlors.

Other Uses

Tattooing is also used in managing wildlife and the livestock industry as a marking technique. Animals are marked with symbols or alphanumeric characters for identification. Tattoos may be located anywhere on the animal's body including it's ear (common for small mammals) or inner lip (bears).

Tatooing is also used as a form of 'cosmetic surgery', like permanent cosmetics, to hide or neutralise skin discolorations.


  • Total Tattoo Book Amy Krakow, ISBN 0446670014
  • Tattoo Art Magazine
  • Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 3882439203
  • Safe Tattooing Joshua Andrews
  • The Tattoo Machine Joshua Andrews link Source (
  • The Art of Tattooing Joshua Andrews Tattoology (
  • The Symbolism and Meaning of Many Popular Tattoo Designs Jennifer Gribbs Tattoo Design Guide (

See also

External links

ar:وشم de:Tätowierung es:Tatuaje fr:tatouage he:קעקע it:Tatuaggio ja:入れ墨 zh:紋身


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