Tattooing is the art of decorating the body with permanent pictures or symbols by pushing ink under the skin with sharp implements. Tattoos have been used by many different cultures, and in each culture the tattooed art has its own meaning. The English word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word tatao, meaning "to tap," which describes the technique by which sharp spines filled with color were tapped into the skin to make tribal designs. People in the 1980s wore tattoos of specific symbols to identify themselves as part of a particular social group. Their tattoos set them apart from mainstream society but were also visible signs by which they could recognize each other.

A man covered with intricate and colorful tattoos. Reproduced by permission of

Tattooing is an ancient and widespread practice. Tattoos have been found on the bodies of mummies thousands of years old, and certain tribes, such as Polynesians and the Maori of New Zealand, have used tattoos for centuries as a mark of membership in the tribe and a symbol of strength earned through pain. Modern tattooing began in 1900 when an American named Samuel O'Reilly invented the first electric tattoo machine. Most tattoo artists and their customers were outside the mainstream of society. However, many people who would never have dreamed of wearing a tattoo were fascinated with the art, and they lined up at carnivals and sideshows to gawk at elaborately tattooed men or women. Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tattoos were considered low class and vulgar among Americans and Europeans, a common adornment for criminals and drunken sailors.

By the 1970s and 1980s tattoos had become part of fashion trends developed by small groups seeking to create distinctive looks to identify with their peers. Beginning in the 1970s many youth adopted a punk style, wearing outlandish clothing and hairstyles to announce the separation they felt from mainstream society. Much of the intent of the punk style was to shock, and tattoos and body piercings became a part of the shocking punk style. While some had colorful pictures that were personally meaningful placed on their bodies, many chose stark black tribal designs, such as Celtic knots, tattooed around the arm or ankle.

Though many people still consider tattoos to be self-destructive and offensive, many more have come to see them as beautiful body art. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and into the twenty-first century the popularity of tattoos has continued to increase, and many mainstream youth have begun to adorn their skin with tattoos. Other stylish youth have imitated the fashion introduced by the punks, and many stores now sell temporary tattoos, which offer the tattooed look for those who wish to avoid the pain and permanence of the needle.


Hewitt, Kim. Mutilating the Body: Identity in Blood and Ink. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1997.

Rubin, Arnold. Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

Steward, Samuel M. Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors and Street-Corner Punks, 1950–1965. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 1990.

[ See also Volume 2, Early Asian Cultures: Tattooing ; Volume 2, Oceania: Tattooing ; Volume 2, Native American Cultures: Tattooing ]

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