Body modifications have been around for millennia, and their presence has flourished and declined throughout time depending on the current thinking of the period. Recent increases in body modifications in contemporary western society continues to stimulate interest and debate.

Tattooing History

"The earliest known firm evidence for tattoo is in ancient Egypt, where the ‘Egyptian record of 4,500 years of tattooing is presently the longest in human history.’" Modern western tattooing began with Captain Cook’s voyages in the mid 18th century to Polynesia. Sailors encountered tattooing, took a liking to it and became some of the first modern folks to display this type of body art. These "'weirdly tattooed' European men became fairground attractions, and by 1870 had attracted the attention of not only the public but the scientific and medical establishment."(1)

Many of these tattoo bearing men became part of the subculture of circus or sideshow performers and entertainers. "The fairground attraction element of tattoo subculture flourished until the First World War, when, as tattooing became more common in the general populace, interest wore off and the subculture waned."(1)

Later, the tattoo’s popularity increased, but was still associated with criminals and seafarers. It was "generally frowned upon in 'polite' society in both Europe and the United States." For a short time though, tattooing became popular amongst European nobility.(1)

In 1891, the first electric tattooing machine was patented which revolutionized the technique. Previously all tattoos were done by hand.(1)

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Tattoos in Society

The practice of tattooing was regarded as deviant by the mid 20th century.(1)

Adolf Loos stated: "Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder." (1)

Psychiatrist Armando R. Favazza stated: "Current thinking holds that many people - especially those belonging to nonconformist groups - get tattoos to demonstrate their defiance of traditional authority, to display a stereotyped symbol of physical strength and aggressiveness, and to provide a sense of identity and solidarity with other group members...Many studies link multiple tattoos with antisocial personality, an increased incidence of assaultive behavior, impulsivity, and difficulties in heterosexual adjustment."(3)

Tattoos bearers have been and are commonly stigmatized. Interestingly, this stigma is a voluntary one, and it isolates the wearer from the norms of mainstream society. "Today there is a tendency amongst some of the medical establishment to view body modification as generally negative. For example; 'psychotherapist' Braterman (1993) stated ‘It's actually quite a worrying trend ... This form of self mutilation which is about isolating oneself, alienating oneself from the environment.’"(1)

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Postulated Motivations for Tattooing

Explanations for tattooing by professionals ranged a full gamut of potential motivations. Perhaps it was sexual motivation, an expression of criminality, or a symbol of disaffiliation and deviancy.(1) Whatever the case, many have sought to answer the question "Why?" when contemplating these body modifications.

Sir Joseph Banks was the first European on record to speculate the motives for tattooing among the natives of Polynesia--it was superstition, he postulated. German anthropologist Wilhelm Joest speculated it was motivated not by superstition, but by vanity. "Tattooing, body painting, scarification, and all other forms of personal adornment are motivated by nothing more mysterious than the elemental desire of "natural man" to decorate the body."(3)

Rival anthropologists have long debated the significance of tattooing. Was it of religious significance or associated with magical beliefs? Or did tattooing have no significance beyond aesthetics?

Oxford anthropologist Wilfrid Dyson Hambly said: "Tattooing was supposed to: prevent pain; protect against gunshot wounds; cure illness; confer superhuman strength; preserve youth; enhance the supernatural powers of a shaman; ensure the survival of the soul after death; identify the soul in the hereafter; attract good luck; protect against witchcraft; ensure the protection of a deity; confer occult powers; prevent drowning; exorcise demons; ensure the protection of a totemic animal or spiritual guardian; record a pilgrimage to a holy place, etc." (3)

Hambly concluded that tattooing originated in connection with "ancient rites of scarification and bloodletting which were associated with religious practices intended to put the human soul in harmony with supernatural forces and ensure continuity between this life and the next." (3)

Later researchers concluded that the motivations driving body modifications were repressed sexual desires and perversions.(3)

Albert Parry analyzed the subconscious motivations in tattooing. He wrote, "Very seldom are the tattooed aware of the true motives responsible for their visits to the tattooers...Tattooing is mostly the recording of dreams, whether or not the tattooed are consciously aware of it. Much of man's dreaming is, of course, of his true love - of his repressed sexual world fighting its way to the surface. Thus we should expect that tattooing, the recording of dreams, would be of a decidedly sexual character. The very process of tattooing is essentially sexual. There are the long, sharp needles. There is the liquid poured into the pricked skin. There are the two participants of the act, one active, the other passive. There is the curious marriage of pleasure and pain."(3)

A reviewer of that analysis "praised Parry for the accuracy of his insights but faulted him for failing to discuss ‘the anal element in the tattoo,’ and went on to say that ‘there is surely a definite relationship between the impulse of the child to smear itself with feces and that of the adult to have himself smeared with indelible paint.’"(3)

Psychoanalyst Walter Bromberg used Freudian theory to conclude that the most popular tattoo designs symbolize "sadistic fantasies, masochistic fantasies, sadomasochistic fantasies, guilt arising from incestuous wishes, masturbation and repressed homosexual desires." (3)

The prevalence of tattooing and other body modifications in modern culture would suggest a need to reevaluate these theories in light of current thinking. Societal values change with time and these conclusions may no longer have the same validity during this time period. Often, the theories of the past are the comedy of the present.

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Tattooing Today

Tattoos and other forms of body art have become more pervasive in the last couple of decades with a rise in middleclass, mainstream clientele. It was not until the 1970s that the first tattoo conventions were held.(2) New techniques, artists, technical innovation, more professionalism and media attention have helped catapult the frequency of body modification in conventional society.(1)

"Today, the old primal pull of tattooing is stronger than ever, and along with it, both deliberate and unconscious magical connotations. These might range from specific ancient symbols to images with complex personal meanings unique to the wearer. A lot of people are eager to link up with 'something beyond,' reaffirm their connections with greater forces beyond this mundane daily life.... if they make us feel better about ourselves, and by extension others around us, the magic works. We are wearing our dreams," Don Ed Hardy said.(3)

Image sources:, 1999 Barcelona Tattoo convention or Richmond Body Art Festival & photography by Bill DeMichele, Albany, New York. © 2000

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