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Society’s Negative View of Tattooing and Body Piercing

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    Society’s Negative View of Tattooing and Body Piercing

                The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian term tatu, which means, to mark something (Bellis, 2009). Tattoos are done by inserting ink into the skin to create a mark, a sign, or a drawing. During ancient times, tattoos were done for the following purposes: to serve as symbols of status and position, symbols of spiritual and religious devotion, medal of courage, and punishment. Today, tattoos are used for cosmetic and sentimental reasons, and for purposes of identification (I Love India, n.d).

    Body piercing is the act of puncturing a part of one’s body such as the ears, nose, navel, or tongue by the use of a needle. This is done to insert jewelry on the part of the body that is pierced. Its main purpose is to decorate or adorn the body with jewelry. Other purposes of body piercing include: self-expression, satisfaction of one’s vanity, and sexuality (Secrets of Body Piercing, 2006).

                Tattooing and body piercing are both done for mostly the same reasons. The succeeding parts of this paper will discuss the history of tattooing, myths involving tattooing and body piercing, and the discrimination felt by those who have tattoos and have piercing on the different parts of their bodies. People who have tattoos and body piercing experience some degree of discrimination in their day to day lives. The awareness of the history and myths involving tattooing and body piercing is essential to the understanding of society’s negative view on them.

    The history of tattooing dates back to as far as 5000 years ago. This was discovered in 1991 when a mummified body was excavated at the border of Austria and Italy. The “Iceman”, as they called it, had more than fifty tattoos found all over his body.  The tattoos on his body were simple lines and dots (The Art of Tattoo, 2003). They were found near his kidneys, on his knee, and on his ankles, which suggest the probability that the tattoos were used for therapeutic reasons (Design Boom, n.d.). This discovery proves that tattoos existed even before it was encountered in 1769 by England’s Captain Cook in the South Pacific.

    In 1691, tattoos were reintroduced in the west by William Dampher when he brought to London a Polynesian who had tattoos all over his body. Shortly afterwards, tattoos were once again introduced by Captain Cook when he brought from one of his trips to the South Pacific, a heavily-tattooed Polynesian named Omai (The Art of Tattoo, 2003).  Tattooing became a fad for the upper-class during this time. It was only in 1891, about twenty years later, when Samuel O’Rilley patented the first electric tattooing machine. Because of this, tattooing became less painful and more affordable. Tattoos became ordinary as average people started having them, which caused the upper class to turn away from them. Tattoos continued to be popular in the late nineteenth century towards the beginning of the twentieth century due to its connection to the circus. People who had tattoos were employed by circuses and were exhibited in shows (The Art of Tattoo, 2003).

    The popularity of tattoos was not limited only to the west, but also in countries such as Egypt, Japan, New Zealand, India, Thailand and several others, including the Middle East (Design Boom, n.d.). This fact proves that even in the ancient times, there was already widespread practice of tattooing. In Egypt, tattoos were viewed as a form of ritualistic practice.  The Japanese’ interest in the art of tattooing was mostly for decorative purposes. In New Zealand, the full-face moko (tattoo) communicated their status, line of descent and tribal affiliations. In India and Thailand, the mythical monk “hanuman” was a popular symbol of strength, and was tattooed on human bodies by monks who incorporate magical powers to them.  In the Middle East, during the days of the Old Testament, tattooing was practiced as a way of worshipping deities (Design Boom, n.d.). Today, the popularity of tattoos remains across different countries and cultures.

                Body Piercing was widely used in the ancient times among the Egyptians and the Romans. It is an ancient form or expression practiced widely among cultures. Among the Egyptians, body piercing was a reflection of both status and love of beauty. It reflects the status of a person, such as the pharaoh, because he is the only one allowed to have a pierced navel. Women wore earrings to display their wealth as well as add to their beauty (Roberts, 2004).

                Body piercing among the Romans represented their strength and dedication to the Empire. Nipple piercing for the Roman centurion served as a badge of honor. Julius Caesar also had his nipples pierced to identify with his men. For gladiators, piercing was used to tie their organs back to the testicles to avoid injury during combat, and to prevent them from having sex without consent form their owners. Among the Aztecs, Maya and American Indians, body piercing was a form of religious ritual. As part of their religious and superstitious beliefs, even sailors began piercing their ears and spent big amounts for large, gold earrings, as this was thought to improve their long-distance sight (Roberts, 2004).

                Modern-day body piercing is popular among celebrities because it is a form of styling and a reflection of their taste in fashion.

    The following are common myths about tattooing and body piercing (Sawyer, 2007): First, one can do body piercing on his own by using a safety pin, an ice cube and a potato.

    Second would be is that one of the safest metals for body jewelry is gold.  Third, removing jewelry from the pierced portion of one’s body will allow healing and the disappearance of the piercing. Fourth, one can have any part of his body tattooed. Lastly, blood can be donated shortly after getting a tattoo.

    These myths may be answered by the following facts, respectively:

    1. This is not advisable because it can cause infection on the part of the body that is pierced; 2. Surgical materials such as titanium and steel are less likely to cause allergic reactions than gold and nickel. 3. A keloid can be formed from a piercing.  Also, a stretched piercing may be permanent. 4. Palms, fingers, and soles of the feet are not allowed to have tattoos.  There are existing laws which prohibit having tattoos on the face and near the eyes. 5. According to the Red Cross, blood may be donated after twelve months from the date the tattoo was acquired (Sawyer, 2007, pp. 38-40).

    In the past, people who had tattoos and body piercing were convicts, sailors, servicemen and rock stars (Sullivan, 2009). This is one of the reasons why people with tattoos are discriminated against. Other people see them as convicts who want nothing but trouble. Since it is but natural that people are judged by their appearance, those who adorn themselves with tattoos and piercing as a means of self-expression are not excused from such discrimination.  During the 60’s and the 70’s, those who wanted to defy what was acceptable by the culture were the ones who had tattoos and body piercing (Gay & Whittington, 2002). Since tattoos and body piercing have been around for a very long time, as their history presents, the discrimination against those having them may very well be traced back to history.  After World War II, tattooing and body piercing started to be associated with bikers and Juvenile delinquents. An outbreak of hepatitis in 1961 contributed to the negative image of tattooing (History of tattooing, 2003). Another reason for the discrimination against tattooed and pierced individuals is that they have for a long time been associated with criminality (Design Boom, n.d.). Prisoners make their own tattoos to signify their desires of freedom and autonomy. Gang members decide to have markings on their bodies to show their commitment to their gang. Hence, the negative image of tattooing and body piercing which then leads to discrimination.

                The existence of tattoos and body piercing has dates back to more than five thousand years. They have had their times of popularity and unpopularity. Throughout history, both positive and negative aspects of body piercing and tattooing have emerged. Today, tattooing and body piercing are becoming more acceptable, but the society still has a negative view on them.  This negative view results from concerns on safety as well as social deviance. The negative view of society may be traced back to the long history of tattooing and body piercing, which is also responsible for the emergence of myths about these body modifications. Tattoos and body piercing are intimidating to the general public because it leads to the perception of bad boys/girls. Even employers would think twice about hiring someone with these body modifications because of the stigma associated with it (Redemske, 2009). Practices such as tattooing body piercing, which has been around for a very long time, will always have both negative and positive feedback from the society.


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    Design Boom (n.d.). A brief history of tattoos. Retrieved from

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    I Love India (n.d.), Purposes of tattooing. Retrieved from

    Redemske, P. (2009). Tattoos, piercings and discrimination in the workplace. Retrieved from

    Roberts, L. (2004). The history of body piercings-ancient and fascinating around the world. Retrieved from—Ancient-and-Fascinating-Around-the-World&id=2948

    Sawyer, S. (2007). Body piercing and tattooing: The hidden dangers of body art (pp. 38-40). The Rosen Publishing Group.

    Sullivan, A. (2009). Acceptance of Tattoos and Body Piercing in a Modern Age. Retrieved from

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