Tats what it’s all about

While on the bus the other day and gazing out at the scenery I sat and contemplated why people get tattoos or tats if you will.  (I could have said I was travelling in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine but I’d be lying).  I have never really had the desire to get a tattoo though in my twenties I came close due more to peer pressure than anything else; but couldn’t find a design, in the books on display at the time, that I felt an emotional attachment for that I would want permanently displayed on my body (plus I wasn’t drunk enough).

Nowadays, everyone seems to have a tattoo or a whole ‘sleeve’ of intricate designs that showcase the talents of the tattoo artist.  According to a Nielsen poll, one in five Americans has a tattoo, and nearly 90 percent of those who do never regret getting inked up.  In 2010, 25% of Aussies under the age of 30 were sporting a tattoo.  There was even a tattooed Barbie in 2011 that caused some controversy.  

Popular designs for women are the butterfly, star, flower, heart, birds, boyfriend’s name and tribal ornamentation.

Men prefer animals, skulls, a cross, barbed wire, nautical star, mom or girlfriend’s name and tribal ornamentation.

The degree of artistry varies widely but due to shows like LA Ink and Ink Master, etc. there are many skilled artisans who will happily put any design your imagination can come up with on your body somewhere.

I don’t care for pain much, stubbing my toe or banging my elbow brings me close to tears so to inflict any amount of pain willingly on myself is a no-brainer not to mention my aversion to needles.  As a colleague of mine said the other day when I asked him if he had a tattoo – “Why the fuck would I want to get one of those?”  That’s when I began to wonder why indeed you would want to get one of those.

Many people when asked will tell you that they did it as a tribute to someone they loved whom they lost to cancer, brain tumour, seizures, heart attacks and other maladies that befall humankind.  Others will say they had an ugly scar from an operation, or a birth defect and incorporated it into the tattoo and turned something ugly into something beautiful (provided they went to a professional artist); some want to draw attention to themselves, to be noticed or validated as an individual that stands out from the crowd.  Some, like Johnny Depp sees it as a road map of his life.


Here’s the thing – I have nothing against tattoos in and of themselves – I think some of them are beautiful pieces of art – I just don’t want one.  I could say the same about lions, I think they are gorgeous creatures, I just wouldn’t want one as a pet!

Tattooing goes back thousands of years. Tattoos were partly invented to treat pain.  In the mid-18th century, Native American women tattooed themselves to alleviate toothaches and arthritis, similar to acupuncture but it was primarily sailors that brought inking to America.  Much like baseball players, sailors are a superstitious lot.  The common anchor tattoo was meant to signify stability and to safeguard them from drowning.

Once the 1920s rolled around, tattooing was still looked down on by the public. However, as Hollywood popularized glamorous makeup, many women were eager to try the trend for themselves. Unfortunately, at the time even low-quality make up was expensive and most woman could not afford it. Instead, many women secretly had cosmetic tattoos to emulate makeup done. Popular treatments included the permanent eyebrows, contoured lips, and tinted cheeks. While the general public tended to condemn tattoos, they still silently embraced them.  In the mid-20th century, musicians like the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin helped make tattoos even cooler.

Tattoos can be a mark of deviance or decoration. They can convey stigma, as in the marking of captives or the marginalized, especially Nazi concentration camp victims. But they can also be extraordinarily beautiful, as in the henna designs for brides across Africa and Asia. There is also the strange case of women in Myanmar’s Chin province, who wear facial tattoos that are said to have once discouraged their kidnapping by despotic kings, but over time became a distinctive mark of beauty.  (This tradition is not currently practiced by the the younger generation).

Motivations are diverse. One study by German sociologists found they include beauty, art, fashion, individuality, personal narrative, physical endurance, group affiliation, resistance, spirituality, cultural tradition, addiction, pure impulse and, naturally, sexual attraction.   There are even people willing to get advertising inked on their heads, etc to market a product – usually strictly for monetary means – but also to promote their favourite sports team logo (can’t just buy a hat, apparently).

Over the years we’ve seen tattooing go from something that indicated barbarism to something that is considered an art form. In the years to come, we should have some really cool retirement homes sporting a variety of tattoos.  We will be able to read people like a book – literally! (back to Johnny Depp).