The oldest piece of human skin with a tattoo on it dates back to around 3370 – 3100 BC. It was on the skin of a man discovered preserved in ice on the Italian-Austrian border. The tattoos seem to be made from ash or soot, and experts speculate that they are related to acupuncture points on the body.
Tattooing has evolved quite drastically over the millennia since then, going through various cultural and spiritual manifestations, and in the West today people are choosing to get tattoos with much greater personal significance.
Who Are You?
In an increasingly interconnected world – thanks to the internet – people are confronted on an almost daily basis with the question “Who are you?”. Before they update a Facebook status, send a tweet, or upload a picture to Instagram, they have to think about how that little piece of information released into the digital wild will reflect on them.
In the same breath, the personal stories each of us have to tell can be told each day anew through our next social media post. In a world of such transience, perhaps tattoos offer not only an indicator of who we are, but an anchor to remind us of that fact too.
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It is widely thought that tattoos first made it to the United States of America as a way for U.S. sailors to avoid being forcibly entered into the British Royal Navy following the American Revolution. Sailors were ruthlessly recruited, even in spite of protection papers proving their newfound citizenship. As such, tattoos were used to add an extra mark of uniqueness and identity, keeping them safe!
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, tattoos were usually used as symbols of membership to various subcultures. However, in recent years, helped by the popularity of the internet, tattoos have become a lot more widely accepted in the mainstream.
With this popularity and acceptance, comes celebration. People are much more likely to get a “work of art” tattooed. They want something they can proudly show off to friends and strangers alike, as opposed to smaller, more subtle tattoos to be kept hidden and only revealed to the other “members of the club” so to speak.
Tattoos and Identity
The significance of tattoos has evolved just as much as their designs have. Tattoos are increasingly there as a reminder and definition of identity. Identities are incredibly complex and, as such, the tattoos people choose to represent themselves are getting increasingly complex.
No longer are tattoos themselves enough to make a person stand out from the crowd. With approximately 20% of Americans now bearing ink, it’s increasingly difficult to get an entirely unique tattoo. To create and fix that identity and properly stand out, a tattoo has to be completely original and exclusive to that person.
Various studies into the reasons behind why people get tattoos done have revealed that it’s a sense of “anchoring” that’s central to most people’s justifications. For many, a common, everyday tattoo isn’t significant enough to them, and might get lost in this big wide world.
Further to this, University of Arkansas professor Anne Velliquette, who studies consumer behavior and popular culture, notes that it is just as much about “cement[ing] aspects of their current selves.” Tattoos act almost like a “time capsule” for a specific moment in that person’s life. One might even think of it as a “personality capsule.”
The pain and dedication that it takes to get the skin tattooed also adds to the significance of having a meaningful and expressive tattoo. Almost like a rite of passage, the time and pain that goes into each piece of body art, calls for some degree of respect. After all, for hundreds of years, tattoos were used primarily as a part of rites of passage ceremonies. They would mark a person who was significant in some way, symbolizing status or tribal affinity.
In respect to modern tattooing, why waste all that time and effort to ultimately dislike a tattoo, to cover it from everyone, or even get it removed?
Are Tattoos For You?
Ultimately, the meaning behind a tattoo is entirely subjective and down to the person whose skin under which it sits. Perhaps you have a deeply personal connection to an otherwise popular tattoo symbol – a star, anchor, or infinity symbol, for example. As long as you hold your body art close to your heart, and love its significance in your life, you can’t go wrong!
1. Weller C. The Identity Crisis Under the Ink. The Atlantic. 2014. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-identity-crisis-under-the-ink/382785/. Accessed September 16, 2016.
2. Ötzi – La mummia al Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Adige. Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Adige. 2016. Available at: http://iceman.it/mummia/#tatuaggi. Accessed September 16, 2016.
3. These 10 Tattoos Have Deep Spiritual And Religious Meaning. The Huffington Post. 2015. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/these-10-tattoos-have-deep-spiritual-and-religious-meaning_us_56407716e4b0307f2cadf3ee. Accessed September 16, 2016.
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