Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Within the Skin: The Art of Tattoos By Chloe Lacombe

Pic © New York Daily News
Body modifications have been around for thousands of years, dating back to 2000 B.C., among the Egyptians. (Lineberry, 2007) Although, within the past 30 years, north American societies have seen a colossal surge in these trends. Body modification includes tattoos, piercings, binding, body building, fasting, etc. (Featherstone, 1999) Any alterations to one’s physical appearance can be categorized as body modification. Thankfully, the methods themselves have changed drastically over the years. The hygiene standards have become much stricter, now requiring a new set of everything used as equipment for every new client. It was not rare, in previous times, that a tattoo artist used the same needle for each client that came into his parlour. (Spalding, 2000) This reform of law has made tattooing and other body modifications which require needles much safer from bloodborne diseases. There are distinct reasons for these adjustments being made to peoples’ bodies, particularly tattoos, which will be examined from a historical standpoint to explore modern day tattooing’s origins, followed by anthropological perspective to analyse the development of the art along with behaviours involved in getting a tattoo and finally, a personal point of view, to investigate why people get tattoos and what drives them to get one.

Exploring Tattoos from a Historical Standpoint

The Prickly History Of Tattooing In America
Pic © Tattoo Archive, Winston, Salem, NC
The tattoo trend we know today originates from Polynesia, dating back to 1766, (Newton, Cole & Douglas, 2005) among the indigenous tribes. “[...] modern western tattooing originates in Polynesia, with the exploratory voyages of Captain James Cook and his encounters with tribal tattooing in the south pacific, as, for example, the sociologist Clinton Sanders put it.” (Newton et al., 2005) Captain Cook and his crew visited the Maori while in New Zealand, and upon seeing their interesting face tattoos, some sailors got tattooed too. The word tattoo originally comes from the Tahitian word ‘Tatau’ meaning to strike, mark or tattoo. More research by Newton et al. (2005) has expressed the following:
“In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a considerable number of European seamen, and some other travellers, were tattooed by Tahitian, Marquesan, Maori, Samoan and other pacific tattooists. It was these sailor’s adoption of this form of body modification that sparked off a much wider tattoo fashion among mariners generally, which subsequently spread beyond maritime populations – or so the received story goes.” (Newton, Cole & Douglas, 2005)
This refers to the fact that in the beginning of the art which we know today, tattooing was exclusively popular among circles that were considered tough, such as motorcycle gangs, sailors and prison inmates. On the other hand, today, anyone can get a tattoo anywhere and anytime.  The trend keeps gaining more and more popularity among new age groups. As years go by and society evolves and enjoys more open mindedness, younger generations are now getting tattoos everyday and for any reason. “Tattoos are now no longer associated with criminals, ex-servicemen and prostitutes, but enjoy a wider popularity, notably, and for the first time, among middle-class youth.” (Newton, Cole & Douglas, 2005) Today, many young adults have tattoos and it is now considered more socially acceptable than it used to be, because of the evolution of society’s standards and expectations towards younger generations and because of the normalization of tattoos among younger crowds, athletes, singers and more. Following this further, Kosut (2006) presented the following:
“America has become a tattooed nation. If you turn on your television, open a magazine or go see a movie, you will likely encounter a tattooed body. Actors, models, musicians, and idolized athletes proudly herald the mainstreaming of a previously marginalized and historically underground practice. By the end of the 1990’s, tattoos became visible in the public sphere, finding a home in the comfortable landscape of suburban America, where there is an abundance of consumers with discretionary income.” (Kosut, 2006)
In previous times, female models were not allowed to have tattoos, as it was not considered to be attractive. Actors either didn’t have visible tattoos or had makeup to cover their art during filming. In most movies today, the actors’ tattoos are either visible or purposefully shown, as seen in Suicide Squad with Jared Leto’s Joker character. The public has become much more accepting of body modifications, especially tattoos.

The Anthropological Side of Tattoos

 Pic © Jennifer Adomeit
On the other hand, from the anthropological point of view, body modifications can be rites of passage, to demonstrate and celebrate one’s coming of age, such as circumcision, tattoos and piercings. (Hendry, 2008) Many Indigenous tribes have practiced the art of tattooing, all around the world. The tribesmen would receive tattoos to enhance their physical appearance, to ward off evil spirits and for medicinal therapy. Tattoos are considered to have a therapeutic value in many Indigenous Tribes. (Krutak via Scallan, 2015) Scallan, who had a questions and answers (Q&A) session with Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist, articulates the following: “From patterns etched into the skin of an ancient mummy to the colorful designs that adorn people today, tattoos are not just skin deep; they tell us about individuals and their cultures—and offer insights into what it is to be human.” (Scallan, 2015) This explains that some people are decorated with tattoos from their culture, such as tribal tattoos, and individual, private and intimate tattoos, along the lines of portraits, flowers or almost anything else.

People who get tattoos and other body modifications are often judged because of said changes they choose to bring to their own bodies, as it is still considered slightly taboo to have tattoos in the workplace. For example, people who have stretch piercings or many tattoos which are often visible, might have less chances at getting a job they apply for because some associate tattoos and piercings with uncleanliness. However, what is not always understood is that tattoos allow a certain comprehension of the tattooed, which might not have been as easy in previous times, because people hid their tattoos, therefore hiding a part of themselves. The art one chooses to display on their body is highly representative of their personality, who they are and who they identify as. It is also a great way to start conversations, make friends and discover new art.

The Personal Point of View

Mastectomy Tattoos
Pic © Cristen Conger
Additionally, “body modifications have been prevalent for centuries, and are practiced for a great number of reasons.” (Wolhrab, Stahl & Kappeler, 2007) These reasons can be intimate reasons, such as in memory of a loved one, or identify themselves. (Michalak, 2016) There are also cultural reasons, like tribe markings, gang and cult symbols along with family tattoos. Another reason people get tattoos is because they fancy the way it looks, or because they want a certain piece of art on their body. As Mayell (2002) states in her article “Skin as Art and Anthropology”, “Many people see it [skin] as a canvas to be decorated with tattoos and other markings—to convey group membership, convey beauty, or mark rites of passage.” (Mayell, 2002) Some also get tattoos for medical reasons, as Chadwick and Shah (2013) describe in a similar case:
“We present a 15-year-old type 1 diabetic, who, being prone to hypoglycaemic attacks, had a permanent medical alert tattoo on his forearm, with his parents' consent, whilst on holiday abroad. Tattooing to convey a medical message is employed by many adults for reasons as diverse as anaphylaxis to do not resuscitate orders.” (Chadwick & Shah, 2013)
The case that is presented here is an interesting one to examine because it is not necessarily common to hear that someone got a tattoo for a medical reason. Medical tattoos can be done when there is the extraction of a cancerous tumour, to mark where the surgeon will operate, or to indicate a medical problem or life-threatening health issue of the tattooed.

Many people get tattoos around the age of eighteen, to signify their entrance into adulthood, or as an act of defiance towards their parents. Others simply get one because they find it pretty and attractive. Tattoo styles include American Traditional, Irezumi, also known as Traditional Japanese, Realism, Black and Grey, Portraiture, Illustrative, New School and many others. (Charlie, 2015) These styles can be mixed and matched to create a patchwork of art every individual creates for themselves, which, in turn, allows everyone to express themselves through the designs they choose to display and tattoo on their body. 


Purchase Here!
In final consideration, body modifications are nothing new, but they have evolved and changed over centuries, having become trends and fashion statements. People who chose to modify their bodies are brave in doing so, and must live with the consequences these changes entail. Tons of new styles have emerged and the art itself has expanded to new uses, such as makeup tattoos and nipple tattooing after reconstruction surgery post breast cancer. Tattoos bring colour and originality to the people who surround us, furthering each individual’s uniqueness and unquestionably brightening the world we live in. With tattoos, there is even more beauty to observe and admire around us.

Read More!

Pic © Mario R.J. Corbin
For inspiration check out 100 Small Hand Tattoos for Men and Women!


Charlie. (2015, February 18). Tattoo style guide. Inked Magazine.

Chadwick, S. & Shah M. (2013). Tattoos: Ancient body art may assist in medical emergencies. Retrieved from European Journal of Pediatrics, 172(7), 995. doi:10.1007/s00431-013-1971-1.

Featherstone, M. (1999). Body modification: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hendry, J. (2008). Sharing Our Worlds: An Introduction to Cultural and  Social Anthropology. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press.

Kosut, M. (2006, November 7). An ironic fad: The commodification and consumption of  tattoos. The Journal of Popular Culture.

Lineberry, C. (2007, January 1). Tattoos: The ancient and mysterious history. Smithsonian.com

Mayell, H. (2002, November 13). Skin as art and anthropology. National Geographic News.

Michalak, J. (2016, December 5). Reasons people get tattoos: What’s the purpose of  tattoos? Live About.com.

Newton, T., Cole, A., & Douglas, B. (2005). Tattooed: Bodies, art and exchange in the  north pacific. London, GB: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Scallan, M. (2015, August 25). Tattoos: Telling stories in the flesh. Q&A with Lars Krutak. Smithsonian Insider.

Spalding, H. (2000, June 1). Tattooing a to z: A Guide to Successful Tattooing. Huck Spaulding Enterprises.

Wolhrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. (2007, March). Modifying the body: Motivations  for getting tattooed and pierced. Science Direct.

About Chloe Lacombe

Chloe Lacombe studied at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. Within the Skin: The Art of Tattoos was written as part of a class project for a course titled Anthropology Matters! in the Department of Humanities.

Call For Submissions!

Would you like to be a Guest Contributor? 
Say What? is always looking for quality contributions! 


  1. Hi there,

    My name is Emilie, I am the main editor at Piercing Models (https://www.piercingmodels.com).

    While browsing your site, I noticed you have an amazing article from this page:


    My team actually just published a comprehensive article on 100 Small Hand Tattoos for Men and Women which I think your visitors would truly appreciate and add value to your awesome article.

    You can check it out here: https://www.piercingmodels.com/hand-tattoos/

    If you were willing to add our link to that page, I would be more than happy to share it to thousands of our social followers to help you gain some visibility in exchange.

    Let me know what you think and thank you for your consideration!



  2. nice blogs
    great information.
    VLCC Institute the Leaders in Beauty & Wellness training, has successfully trained more than 75000 students so far.
    State-of-the-art infrastructure, market relevant courses, qualified and well-trained faculty, dedicated placement