What would you have tattooed on your arm? Photo by Janine Carney. Used with permission. Click image for photo blog.

Are you inked?

I'm not, though I've thought about it seriously and have a pretty good idea of what I would get and where I would put it—if I could work up the nerve to get in the chair. I'll tell you one thing: It most certainly is not a QR code like Fred Bosch, who designed his tattoo to link to something new every time it's scanned. While the idea is intriguing and presents an interesting re-imagining of tattoos in the digital age, it seems to run counter to the nature of tattoos.

Tattoo As Talisman and Symbol

The word "tattoo" derives from the Tahitian word "tatau" (wound) and the the Polynesian root "ta" (drawing), which neatly summarizes the history of the practice (1). Humans have been inscribing their bodies (and the bodies of others) for thousands of years for self decoration, to display affiliation, and for punitive reasons. The oldest example of a tattooed individual is 5,200 year-old tzi the Iceman, who was found in 1991 in the area of the Italian-Austrian border. He had several tattoos on his back, right knee, and around his ankles, which researchers believe may have served medicinal purposes—possibly a form of acupuncture before acupuncture existed (2). Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian mummies dating to 2000 B.C. And sculpted artifacts and figurines marked by body art and piercings provide clues that tattooing was widely practiced from 500 B.C. to - 500 A.D. (3).

Tattoos have been used to signify occupation, patriotism, loyalty, and religious affiliation. For example, there is a rich maritime tradition of tattoos, including initials (both seamen's own and those of significant others), anchors, mermaids, fish, ships, and religious symbols (4). It seems that most seafarers in the 18th and 19th centuries entered the ranks of the tattooed with initials—possibly for identification purposes—before adding different imagery (5), reflecting what was popular at the time: seafarers born after the American Declaration of Independence displayed more patriotic symbols (e.g., flags, eagles, stars, the words "Independence" and "Liberty," and the year 1776 than those born prior). And there are also some interesting superstitions tied to them suggesting that tattooing has been an important means of exerting control over one's situation (6):

  • H-O-L-D-F-A-S-T, one letter on the back of each finger, next to the hand knuckle, will save a sailor whose life depends on holding a rope.

  • A crucifix on the back will save the seaman from flogging because no boatswain's mate would whip a cross, and if he did, the cross would alleviate the pain.

  • A seaman who could stand to have a full rigged ship tattooed on his chest would automatically make a good topman.

  • Crucifixes tattooed on each arm and leg would save a man who had fallen in the water and found himself among 775,000 hungry white sharks, who would not even bother smelling him.

That last point might be a bit of a fisherman's tale (what if it's 774,000 white sharks?), but it serves nicely to show how deeply enmeshed tattooing has been with certain occupations.

Early Christians got tattoos of religious symbols. Tattoos were purchased by pilgrims and Crusaders as proof that they had made it to Jerusalem, serving as a symbol of witness and identification. The Church largely did not approve even though there was biblical authorization for the practice: While there is evidence that "God's word and work were passed on through generations through tattoos inscribed on the bodies of Saints, like the stigmata on St. Francis of Assisi," the idea that the unmarked body is representative of God's image and should not be altered was persistent (7).

The Mark of the Deviant

Tattoos have also been associated with savagery and deviance. Greeks, Romans, and Celts used tattoos to mark prisoners, servants, and slaves. Civilized Greeks viewed tattoos as degrading and used it as a way to mark criminals and slaves who were a flight risk—the mark was placed on their foreheads or faces and were meant to help easily identify the individual. This form of branding is repeated elsewhere throughout time:

"Before the Civil War, ads in North America for runaway slaves distinguished three kinds of body marking. A 'Negro' runaway, if born and previously marked in Africa, would be said to have 'country marks,' in addition to scars from diseases, accidents, or beatings, and brands showing the name of the owner" (8).

It should come as no surprise that the Greek word for the resulting mark was stigma, bearing the same negative connotation as it does today. Punitive markings were then a means of control, serving as a record of power and subjugation, as is most clearly evidenced by the Nazi branding of Jewish concentration camp prisoners (9). They stripped the individual of their personal identity and social connections, and imposed an artificial identity that established ownership—you belonged to the nation. In late antiquity, punitive tattooing expanded to include soldiers and workers in military factories of the Byzantine Empire, who were marked for identification to inhibit desertion, but in an interesting twist, these marks also served as an indicator of rank and were also viewed as occupational insignias.

This association with deviance has been hard to shake. When colonial expansion brought Europeans in contact with people among whom tattoos were commonplace and adopted by both sexes, the idea of the tattoo as a savage symbol gained footing:

"The tattooed body is first widely observed, then, as an artefact of Europe's encounter with its 'new' worlds, initially the Americas, then the South Pacific. Images, descriptions and eventually 'specimens' of tattooed people had been brought back acros the Atlantic since the 16th century; among other exotica imported to satisfy European fascination with this first new world, two tattooed 'Indian princes' toured English and European fairgrounds in the early 1720s" (10).

Though the exposure did much to broaden awareness of tattoos and introduce Pacific and Asian techniques and styles to a larger audience, tattoos remained on the fringes of European society:

"Within a few years some Europeans were also taking financial advantage of the public fascination with exotically decorated bodies. Typically these showmen equipped themselves with sensational stories of adventure, kidnap or captivity to accompany and explain the origin of the elaborate tattoos they displayed. Among the earliest were Joseph Cabri, the first European known to have tattoos across his whole body, and the English sailor John Rutherford, who toured Europe in the 1820s with a dramatic tale of capture and forcible tattooing and scarification by Maoris" (11).

The stories, for the record, were by and large false, but they drew a crowd. These exhibitions would give rise to the "Tattooed Lady," and while tattoos were slowly gaining ground in Europe as a form of self decoration, the activity was largely a male one and it was further stigmatized as criminal investigators used the marks to identify persons of interest—cementing the idea that tattoos were the trademark of the outsider. This perspective overlooked the ways tattoos have been used as means of personal identification by non-Westerners, and minimized the meanings that can be gleaned from the intricate designs.

Toward A Personal Brand

Tattoos can craft a personal brand. Photo by Janine Carney. Used with permission. Click image for photo blog.

Tattoos create a "social skin" that reconcile the individual with society (12). In African societies, for example, tattoos established local identity as well as status and membership in different social groups. In the Edo Kingdom of Benin, no male citizen could claim his place as a member of palace society without a tattoo. Similarly, Igbo scarification denoted age, gender, and political affiliation. And Kayapo body modifications are a social initiation to the larger social group because they are tied to life-cycle events.

Contemporary attitudes are changing—though slowly. The "tattoo rennaisance" that began in the 1960s identified by art historian Arnold Rubin marked shifts in practice and experience, including the establishment of tattoo artists as professionals, increased access to tattoos, a shift in iconography to include full body art and Asian styles, and the broadening of clientele. By the 1990s, tattoos had become fairly pervasive among the middle-class, normalized by celebrity use but still plagued by hints of disapproval marked by judgments about the morality of tattooed individual.

Sociologist Katherine Irwin has documented the experience of this disapproval as being rooted in a fear of deviating from convention, losing status among peers and relatives, and having success compromised. The basis of this fear is ill defined but perhaps we can understand it in terms of the punitive administration of tattoos. If you bore a tattoo as punishment, you were stripped of free will, independence, and identity. To be marked by several tattoos for this reason put you on par with hardened criminals. These social consequences may have survived in perception. In this line of reasoning, to seek a tattoo voluntarily is an impulsive act that the individual will regret, which contributes to a sense of and fear of disapproval. There is a concern that deviant behavior will taint the network because behaviors reflect the skills (or apparent lack thereof) concerning connected parties like relatives and friends. Still, the nature of tattoos as that which highlight the boundaries between the individual and society and between experience and representation persists:

"For some men and women, becoming tattooed marked a passage from one life phase to another. Potential tattooees often saw this passage as representing movement out of an oppressive phase and entrance into a freer and more independent one. This passage included such activities as moving out of their parents' houses, graduating from college, or ending unsavory relationships. Because they saw having tattoos as a violation of female beauty norms, many women used their tattoos to symbolically "take back their bodies" from their husbands' or boyfriends' control" (13).

When forced on a person, as in the case of punishment, tattoos may serve as a means of control and branding. However, following these experiences, they can also be a means of reclaiming self and (re)establishing oneself within a social order:

In Brazil, on the Indian subcontinent, in Russia, and elsewhere, convicts marked by the penal authorities are known to reclaim their bodies by writing over the inscriptions or by displaying them in new social situations as a sign of resistance. Penal and gang tattoos often represent a coalescence of socially imposed and voluntarily assumed marks, gaining some of their power from the fusion of subjection and resistance. Similarly, sex workers are said to reclaim their bodies through tattooing, using their tattoos to confront the fantasies that others project onto them (14).

Irwin describes a type of mediation that occurs where tattooees work to establish the act of getting a tattoo as a thoughtful process (14). They use tattoos to commemorate celebrations marked by conventional norms, show consideration in choosing and emphasizing a meaningful symbol, are careful to select a clean, reputable establishment, and often—particularly if it is a first tattoo—will choose a discrete location. Irwin maintains that these steps do much to assuage the concerns of a conventional perspective.

Tattoos aren't necessarily a way to break from the social order—as has been the fear—but can be a way to establish a deeper connection to a social group, as they have been used elsewhere historically. They are a way of of publicly sharing one's interests, and the artistic quality of tattoos today does much to dispel the notion that they are ugly, antisocial tools. That is not to say that some people don't get tattoos to be different, but this act of public display (even if it is only a representative display typically covered by an article of clothing) is an act of sharing an element of self and creating a personal brand. Individuals with multiple tattoos are engaged in creating a rich symbology weaving together meaning and experience utterly unique to them that may grant them access to multiple social groups.

So, About That QR Code Tattoo?

If tattoos are a personal brand, the QR code tattoo could potentially be an excellent branding tool. It neatly does away with concerns about iconography and can be discretely placed. It seems to lend itself to convention. It also offers flexibility: Imagine not having to to remove your ex-lover's name from your body, and instead, just changing the associated image with your QR code. It might perhaps be a really interesting way to get ink that doesn't get old—tattoos that can grow and change with you. On the other hand, it seems largely depersonalized, which runs counter to the idea of being inked, and of having some visible sign of something that's important to you that can grant you access to the communities to which you belong.

Show and Tell

Tattoos are sometimes deeply personal, sometimes social, and are always meaningful. They reflect who we are and what's important to us.

So what would I get if I ever took the plunge? The Eye of Horus—though I'll spare you the explanation why until I actually get it done. What about you? Do you have one? Are you thinking about doing it? Would you do it?

By the way, I'd be remiss not to point you to Carl Zimmer's collection of science-themed tattoos, Science Ink. The New York Times feature on the collection shares several of the fantastic tattoos people have had done.



Caplan, J. (1997). 'Speaking Scars': The Tattoo in Popular Practice and Medico-Legal Debate in Nineteenth-Century Europe. History Workshop Journal: HWJ (44), 107-42 PMID: 11619699

Dye, I (1989). The tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133 (4), 520-554

Irwin, K. (2001). Legitimating the First Tattoo: Moral Passage through Informal Interaction Symbolic Interaction, 24 (1), 49-73 DOI: 10.1525/si.2001.24.1.49

Schildkrout, E. (2004). Inscribing the Body Annual Review of Anthropology, 33 (1), 319-344 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143947


(1) Caplan 1997:117.

(2) This article from the Smithsonian has more on the Iceman and Egyptian tattooing practices.

(3) Sculptures from the Jama-Coaque culture show piercing on the face and torso of men and women; Mayan figurines depict body art for royalty; and fourth-century Thracian vases show tattooed figures (Schildkrout 2004: 326).

(4) Dye 1989: 537.

(5) How did they get those tattoos? One potential method called for a thin trail of gunpowder to be laid out on the skin, or rubbed into cuts in the skin modeled after the design, and then ignited, leaving behind a black scar in the shape of the design. While researchers have dismissed this as a myth, it seems a likely means of getting tattooed given the availability of gunpowder on the ships (Dye 1989: 531).

(6) Dye 1989: 521.

(7) Dye 1989: 547.

(8) Schildkrout 2004: 323.

(9) An earlier version of this post omitted a reference to the tattooing of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Following comments below, a small change was made to include this information

(10) Caplan 1997: 117.

(11) Caplan 1997: 119.

(12) Schildkrout 2004: 321.

(13) Irwin 2001: 56.

(14) Schildkrout 2004: 324 - 325.

(15) Irwin 2001: 60-64.