Tattoos are cool, hip, and trendy. Body art is viewed as a form of self-expression. But did you know that this practice goes back to primitive times?
Many ancient civilizations all around the world understood how to decorate the skin permanently. What inspired them is hard to say. We do know that the British sea explorer Captain Cook described both Polynesian men and women – “tattooed savages,” as he called them – in a ship’s log entry in 1769:
“Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.”
Naturally, Cook’s crew had to get their bodies inked, too. When they returned home, the locals associated crude tats with sailors who hung around the docks and consorted with low lifes such as prostitutes and the criminal class. “No respectable woman would have displayed one.”
This attitude shifted in the late 1800s when the upper class began to embrace the practice. European nobility of both genders began to sport tattoos with pride and a head held high. The New York Times undoubtedly boosted sales by suggesting that women in the upper crust were getting tattoos in “inaccessible places.”
The publicity surrounding tattooing insinuated that high-society women who engaged in the fad were tarty or downright slutty. Many women wore long sleeves in public to hide their shame and covered their wrist art with bracelets.
At the same time, America gave birth to the infamous circus sideshow tattooed lady. Tattooed tribal women were billed as freaks of nature. Groucho Marx made fun of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in the 1939 Marx Brothers movie “At the Circus.” You could learn a lot from Lydia:
When her robe is unfurled, she will show you the world
If you step up and tell her where
For a dime you can see Kankakee or Paris
Or Washington crossing the Delaware
Olive Oatman was the first American white woman to gain notoriety. In the 1850s only she and her sister survived an attack by the Yavapai Indians while traveling to California. Mohave Indians rescued and adopted the two girls. Olive was tattooed in the traditional way, with pronounced raised bumps and lines across her jawline.
Other American women carried Oatman’s torch and promoted their body art through circuses, peepshows, pin-up models, and performers.
Women’s rights activists in the U.S. legitimized and popularized tattooing among the female population. In her book Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, author Margot Mifflin called tattoos for women from the 1960s onward “emblems of empowerment” and “badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”
Males who got tattoos during the tumultuous post-beat and psychedelic eras of the 1950s-1960s in the U.S. were still sailors and other military men, prisoners, and the criminal underclass – and now, bruiser biker dudes as typified by the California Hells Angels.
Today, tattoos are more fashionable than ever among both men and women. A Harris poll reported that about one out of two millennials have one, and 36% of Gen Xers do, too.
But are tattoos bad for your body even though they look bitchin’?
Scientific research has shown that skin covered by a tattoo sweated less than bare skin. “The tattooing process involves permanently depositing ink under the skin at a similar depth as eccrine sweat glands (3-5 mm),” the study explained. The subcutaneous ink prevents the body’s natural ability to secrete perspiration.
The researchers also found higher concentrations of sodium (salt) in sweat that was released from tattooed skin, raising the possibility that tattoos may also interfere with the body’s natural process of reabsorbing through the skin the sodium and other electrolytes (nutrients) released by perspiration.
People with tattoos covering large areas of their bodies may be jeopardizing their body’s inborn cooling system and the ability to retain vital nutrients.
An article in Natural News cautioned that “colored tattoos can increase the risk of cancer” due to the chemical titanium dioxide which is an ingredient in pigmented tattoo dyes. Other toxic heavy metals are also present in commercial tattoo dyes.
German scientists had concluded that tattooing “increases the proportion of toxic elements in the body,” notably “in skin and lymph node specimens.” The lymph nodes filter lymph to identify and fight infection.
Swollen, dyed lymph nodes have been linked to cancer, although more research is needed to confirm this theory. Hiram Castillo, one of the study authors from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, explained the error of many people’s thinking:
“When someone wants to get a tattoo, they are often very careful in choosing a parlour where they use sterile needles that haven’t been used previously. No one checks the chemical composition of the colours, but our study shows that maybe they should.”
The U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate most tattoo ink. Blood-borne diseases have been spread by bacteria-laden products.
The FDA lists these health risks associated with tattooing:
- Removal problems
- Allergic reactions
- Granulomas (nodules or bumps)
- Keloid formation (scarring)
- MRI complications (swelling and burning)
But often overlooked is a very common problem with getting a tattoo, no matter where and no matter how big or small: buyer’s remorse.
Remember, ladies, that cute little butterfly on your left breast that you got to celebrate your personal liberation on your 21st birthday might wind up looking like a scary pterodactyl when you get older after nature takes its course. Just sayin’.