A Condensed History of Tattoos

Tattooing has been practised around the world since Neolithic times. Tattooed mummies have been recovered from at least 49 sites, including Greenland, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, and the Philippines. Tattoos have served as amulets, status symbols, signs of religious beliefs, declarations of love, adornments and sometimes forms of punishment.

Tattoos became fashionable in Europe during the 18th century, adopted by sailors and coal-miners as a form of superstitious protection. From there, tattooing in the West spread to other tough-guy groups like prisoners and motorcycle gangs. The association with thugs began to change, and by the seventies, tattoos were an option for women who saw them as empowering and even feminine.

Now, it's a whole different world. One in five Americans has at least one tattoo. No longer the signature of societal outlaws, tattoos are simply fashionable. They're a new form of prestige among the young and trendy. If you really want to be a renegade, you can just reject body art and flaunt your untouched skin as a badge of non-conformity.

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But let's face it, tattoos are going to be with us for at least another generation. Banks and other conservative industries will have to employ people with Sylvia Plath poems or portraits of their dogs on their forearms. As celebrities and models mark up their bodies, their followers will be eager to do the same. There's often a fine line between cool and lame, and we may be crossing into the latter, tattoo-wise. To be fair though, I thought this ten years ago when the "straightest" woman I knew got a huge dolphin tattooed on her shoulder.

I have six tattoos, and I'll probably get more, because they are addictive. Once you've taken the leap, you figure it doesn't matter how many more you get. Your body will never again be pristine, so who cares? Plus, there is the pain aspect. Many people will confide that they enjoy the sting of the needle. The tattoo artists I've known have all acknowledged that clients come to them in times of emotional suffering, in a bid to externalize the pain. A recent survey of tattoo enthusiasts confirmed that most would lose interest in tattoos if they were painless.

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In fact, if you follow tattoo artists on Instagram, they will often post the image of a back covered with a gigantic graphic tattoo and comment, "You sat there like a champ!" In my case, I live for that compliment. I like proving that I'm no baby; I can endure pain with the best of 'em. I'd rather not be afflicted so often, but if that's my fate, I want to handle it like a Samurai.

How many tattoos are too much? You tell me. Is a neck tattoo stupid for a non-convict? Is Rumor Willis embarrassed to have the words “be present” in big letters on her torso? Does she have to look in the mirror to remember to be present? Are those little hearts and stars that girls get in awkward places a sign of edginess or timidity?

More important, do you support tattoos for your children? What if they want one on their face? Whenever I see an extravagantly tattooed young person, I think, "Their poor mother!"

If you haven’t been tattooed but you're considering it, I have some advice you will thank me for later. The number one rule is, Do Your Homework. Make sure to choose an artist who is adept at the type of tattoo you want. Not just adept, but amazingly skilful! I can't emphasize this enough. If you want a colorful sleeve of lotus blossoms, don't assume an artist who excels in black lettering is your man/woman. A bad tattoo is forever, or until you can afford laser removal.

If you end up getting a stupid tattoo, you can still embrace it as a memento of the time you were still an idiot. You can take pride in knowing how much you've wised up. If you regret going overboard in your hunger for more ink, rest assured that the other people in your nursing home will probably look just as tragic.

But wait, I haven't told you my other rule, and that is this: Don't get a tattoo unless it feels right, deep in your soul, like a beautiful note that resonates just for you. If I hadn't followed that rule, I'd be stuck with the motto, "The Customer is King!” that a friend and I saw on a menu and thought would make a great tattoo. I haven't actually dismissed the idea, I'm just saying.