Definition of Skin, tattooing of the

Reviewed on 3/29/2021

Skin, tattooing of the: The permanent insertion of ink or other pigments into the skin using a sharp instrument. Humans have done tattooing for cosmetic and ritual purposes since at least the Neolithic era. In the Western world, tattooing has historically served as a brand of criminality, a sign of shame (like "The Scarlet Letter" of Nathaniel Hawthorne), a tradition dating back at least to the biblical mark of Cain. Note along these lines also the branding of slaves, the tattooing of prisoners of war in ancient Athens, and the marking of the foreheads of French prisoners in the 18th and 19th centuries with letters signifying their punishment. In the Middle Ages tattooing was done of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, the tattoo symbolizing the "stigmata of the Lord Jesus." In the Renaissance tattooing was done of astrologic signs to invoke their magical powers.

Today the practice of tattooing can be made safer through the use of:

  • non-reactive pigments;
  • sterile, disposable needles; and
  • sterile work conditions.

Without these refinements, inks may cause inflammation, and infection is an ever-present danger. Persons who are prone to keloid scarring should be aware that tattoos can trigger the formation of disfiguring keloids. Ink lines may also spread or change color over the years, a fact of special concern for those interested in so-called "permanent cosmetics" (tattooed lip color, eyebrows, eyeliner, and the like).

Tattooed skin requires some special care. Fresh tattoos should be kept clean, dry, and covered for the first day, and ointment should be used for several days to promote healing.

The word itself comes from the Polynesian markings known as tatu or tatau. These markings were first described by Captain James Cook on his 1769 journey to the South Pacific.


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