Tattoos, for most of us, are a curiosity. Before I get started here, I should offer a quick disclaimer; I do not have any intentional tattoos. I do have a discolored place or two, now fading, resulting from such things as the introduction of asphalt into the skin after a nasty bicycle spill and a nearly invisible unintentional tattoo resulting from a jab with a sharp pencil, quite accidental in nature. I should also note that cultural responses to tattoos have dramatically changed over the past decade, and they have become quite fashionable and acceptable in our society. I thought I might offer my readers a little insight into the historical perspectives associated with this practice, so that you might smile appreciatively when the next waiter or waitress pours your coffee with a beautifully inked arm. Let’s dig in….
Tattoos are forms of body modification where a design is created by inserting ink, dyes and pigments into the dermis layer of skin, the layer just below the outer layer referred to as the epidermis. Tattoos are grouped into five broad categories by the American Academy of Dermatology; traumatic tattoos (the pencil), amateur tattoos ( jailhouse stuff), professional tattoos (skilled artists), cosmetic tattoos (permanent makeup), and medical tattoos (such as in breast reconstruction after surgery). For our purposes today, we can group tattoos into three broad categories; “decorative”, “symbolic” and “pictorial”. The word tattoo evolves from the Polynesian word “tatau” which literally means “to write”. Folks today refer to tattoos as “ink”, “skin art”, “tattoo art”, “tats” or simply “work”. Given the incredible detail and precision that is evident today from the best studios, the tattooists today are most often referred to as artists.
When I joined the Highway Patrol in 1971, tattoos were not permitted, period. One of my classmates was forced to have a rather prominent tattoo on his upper arm surgically removed, resulting in a disfiguring scar that I am sure looked no better than the tattoo that was removed. Why, you ask? A number of studies conducted by noted behavioralists seemed to indicate a strong relationship between tattoos and deviance, personality disorders and criminality. Before you grab your laptop and begin deleting the names of your friends with tattoos, you should know that since the 1970’s, tattoos have become a mainstream part of Western fashion, common among all genders, to all economic classes and to age groups from the teens to middle age. The tattoo has undergone a rather pronounced redefinition and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression. Whew! Good to know. The tattoo you see today is likely there for artistic, cosmetic, sentimental, memorial or religious reasons as opposed to the reasons that predate modern times.
Having offered the foregoing rosy synopsis of todays tattooed society, and in the interest of a balanced article, tattooing enjoys a rather sordid past. Who can forget the tattooed numbers on the arms of Auschwitz survivors? (Curiously, out of the many camps, only Auschwitz participated in this ritual.) Along these same lines, the notorious Waffen-SS required the tattoo of each members blood type on the respective member, a tattoo that was considered prima facie evidence of their participation in this unit’s activities. Those of us in law enforcement understand the implications of gang tattoos that denote sexual conquests, murders and other illegal activities. We are trained to immediately recognize tattoos associated with gangs such as MS-13 who are quite proud of their lifestyle laced with criminality. Other, more legitimate uses of tattoos include the tattooing of identifying information on Alzheimer patients. The medical use of tattoos is increasing at a dramatic rate, primarily in the neutralizing of skin discoloration and the creation of deeply pigmented areas after surgical intervention. They are of particular value in mastectomy, for obvious reasons. Although not related to their original intent, tattoos are of particular value to law enforcement in the provision of absolute identification of people who seek to change their identity. Indeed, we have made many post-mortem identifications on the basis of tattoos.
Tattoos are an intrinsic part of military culture. Today, it is a rare member of the military, particularly the younger members, who does not have some form of a tattoo. Often, these tattoos are in the form of “sleeves” or full arm tattoos, beginning at the shoulder and ending at the wrist. These young people would not be considered for police service in my day but are enjoying wide acceptance, upon separation from the military, in most progressive police agencies today. Unfortunately, archaic thinking, linked to age old cultural biases are still resulting in the denial of many of these otherwise excellent applicants to various police agencies. It would be wise for those agencies to rethink their positions.
So where are we? Most professionally conducted polls indicate that between 14 and 21% of all Americans have at least one tattoo. In 2016, Americans spent an estimated $1,650,500,000.00 on tattoos! Folks, it is a growing form of expression that is showing no signs of slowing down. Is there a chance that I will go out and have a motorcycle, airplane or boat logo inked onto my arm?
No……my skin is thin and I am told it hurts……for me insurmountable obstacles!