Tattoos: from Özti the Iceman to David Beckham

Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put marks on yourselves. Leviticus, 19:28

Tattoos are like stories – they’re symbolic of the important moments in your life. Sitting down, talking about where you got each tattoo and what it symbolizes, is really beautiful.Pamela Anderson

My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story. Johnny Depp


There is no doubt that tattoos have become more mainstream in the last decade or two, becoming perfectly acceptable among both women and the middle classes. Before this they had traditionally been associated with men – sailors, lorry drivers and criminals. Celebrities such as Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and David Beckham are all famous for having being inked. Yet, you might be surprised by some historical figures who bore tattoos. Czar Nicholas II, Thomas Edison, Dorothy Parker and George Orwell are all reputed to have had them. When England’s Harold II was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, his allies were able to identify his body using a tattoo.

The word “tattoo” is actually Tahitian in origin, meaning to mark. The first written reference to the word, “‘tattaw ” appears in the journal of Joseph Banks, the naturalist aboard Captain Cook’s ship the HMS Endeavour, in 1769. Tattaw may well be an onomatopoeic word. ‘Tat’ refers to tapping the tattooing instrument into the skin; ‘aw’ to the cry of pain from the person being tattooed.

The birthplace of the tattoo will never be known, but the practise goes back a long way. In 1991 Özti the Iceman, a 5,000-year-old hunter was found between Austria and Italy. Discovered in a glacier, the remains were so well preserved that scientists were able to make out 57 different tattoos on his body, including a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines 15cm above the kidneys and a series of parallel lines on the ankles. The positions of the tattoos, which correspond to the position of acupuncture points, suggest a possible therapeutic use. Egyptian mummies dating back to 2000 BC have also been found with tattoos. In ancient Greece, spies used tattooing as a form of communication, while the ancient Romans tattooed slaves and criminals and some early Nordic people bore tattoos of their family crests. The Chinese, Japanese, and many African peoples also used this type of decoration on their skins. Tattoos are and have been a human universal.

I was looking to get an idea of this phenomenon in the contemporary world and the best information I was able to find were these statistics from the reputed Pew Institute about tattoos in the United States:

Tattoo Statistics

Annual amount of U.S. spending on tattoos $1.65 Billion
Total percent of Americans (all ages) who have at least one tattoo 14 %
Percentage of U.S. adults 18 – 25 who have at least one tattoo 36 %
Percentage of U.S. adults 26 – 40 who have at least one tattoo 40 %
Total number of Americans that have at least one tattoo 45 million
Number of tattoo parlours in the U.S. 21,000
Average cost of a small tattoo $ 45
Average cost of a large tattoo $150 / hour
Percentage of U.S. population who have covered up a tattoo with another tattoo 5 %
Percentage of people with tattoos who claim they are addicted to ink 32 %
Percentage of people who have some regret after getting their tattoo 17 %
Percentage of people with a tattoo who are getting or have had one removed 11 %
Factors Considered When Getting A Tattoo
Percentage of people with tattoos who think the reputation of tattoo artist or tattoo studio is the most important factor 49 %
Percentage of people with tattoos who think price is the most important factor 8 %
Percentage of people with tattoos who think a tattoo with a personal meaning is the most important factor 43 %
How People Feel About Their Tattoo
Total percentage of people with tattoos who say their tattoo makes them feel rebellious 29 %
Percentage of people with a tattoo that say it makes them feel more sexy 31 %
Percentage of people with tattoos who say their tattoo makes them feel more intelligent 5 %

I am going to look at the effects of sporting a tattoo. Is having one an obstacle to a professional career? According to Forbes Magazine companies are embracing diversity. And what they are really interested is in hiring the best person for the job. Nevertheless, a 2011 study by CareerBuilder shows that 31% of surveyed employers ranked “having a visible tattoo” as the top personal attribute that would dissuade them from promoting an employee. We also need to consider the social connotations of some tattoos. Lower-back tattoos, pejoratively referred to as tramp stamps or slag tags, are a form of body art that became popular among women in the 2000s are usually associated with low-rise jeans and crop tops. These negative perceptions, undoubtedly tinged with sexism, are very widespread. In 2008 Alex Blimes made these outrageous generalisations in the Daily Mail:

Show me a girl with a tattoo and I’ll show you a girl who spends far too much time looking at paparazzi pictures of starlets falling out of minicabs, updating her Facebook page and voting via text message in television talent shows“.

Celebrities are an important element in the rise and rise of the tattoo. Of course we do not know how much they are behind it and how much they are merely reflecting societal change. What cannot be denied is that they are often prone to ill-advised body decoration, often some vacuous Eastern philosophy. A few years back Marina Hyde did her top ten of dodgy celebrity tattoos:

10. Eminem’s stomach tattoo of divorced wife Kimberly Anne Scott’s open grave above the words “Rot in Pieces”*

9. Robbie Williams’s “Elvis, Grant Me Serenity”

8. The paw prints on rapper Eve’s breasts

7. Billy Bob Thornton’s “Remember the Alamo”

6. Kerry Katona’s Winnie the Pooh and honeypot

5. Lachlan and James Murdoch’s faux-tribal effort

4. Janet Jackson’s copulating Mickey and Minnie Mouse

3. Britney Spears and Kevin Federline’s matching pairs of pink and blue dice

2. James Brown’s eyebrows

1. David Beckham’s Hindi triumph, “Vihctoria”

Many celebrities later regret their impulsiveness. Angelina Jolie spoke from bitter experience after her divorce from Billy Bob Thornton: “I’ll never be stupid enough to have a man’s name tattooed on me again.” Pamela Anderson had Tommy, in honour of the Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee Bass, tattooed on her wedding ring finger. When the marriage hit the rocks, she had the tattoo modified to read “Mommy.” Johnny Depp commemorated his break-up with Winona Ryder by changing his “Winona Forever” tattoo into “Wino Forever.”

But sometimes you can’t do what Pamela and Johnny did. You have to actually remove them. This is currently quite a complicated process and so think before you ink is sound advice. Until the beginning of the 1990s a tattoo would have to be cut out, leaving a scar. If the tattoo was large, more drastic techniques were called for – a skin graft or superficial burning techniques. The results were not generally pleasing on the eye and they often left residual tattoo. Then came laser, which revolutionised the process. Nevertheless, tattoo removal is expensive because, although the cost of a single procedure is similar to actually getting a tattoo, you need far more sessions. I heard one dermatologist saying that on average after 15 treatments only 75% of tattoos are cleared. In the future there may well be more efficient techniques. One such treatment is known as picosecond technology. It may be more expensive, but it can often get results in just three or four sessions. So some clinics are saying you can now ink before think.

However, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get a snake above my butt crack or on any other part of my body. I don’t do body decoration. I have never had anything pierced. Nor do I wear any jewellery; I wore my wedding ring on the day I got married, but off it came the next day and I haven’t worn it since.  Each to his own. I don’t find them attractive in any way, but I refuse to use this as a proxy for classism or sexism.

* They would later remarry but it only lasted four months. I’m sure nobody saw that divorce coming.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: