Body art has taken many forms throughout many cultures. Countless reasons motivate people to permanently apply images to their bodies. Depending on the time or the culture, the reasons range from rite of passage, status symbol, sign of social position and rank, membership in a select group, rebellion, and artistic expression.
Millions of specific personal reasons inspire people to get tattoos, but trends are easily identified that explain why many people in the United States and other Western societies choose to have one or more tattoos.
Memorial tattoos – Tattoos are frequently inspired by the loss of a loved one such as a spouse, parent, grandparent, or child. A person will have the name of the deceased along with any combination of images, symbols, words, and birth and death dates to honor the passing of a loved one. Placing this memorial onto the flesh is a powerful tribute to the dead person and allows the person with the tattoo to maintain a physical connection to person who has died.
Birth tattoos – An increasing amount of mothers and fathers celebrate the birth of their children by tattooing the names of children along with birth dates on their bodies. A November 2007 report from KING 5 News in Seattle stated that moms getting tattoos related to their children was a full-blown trend. The report quoted tattoo artist Chris Collett as saying that mothers come to his shop all the time to get birth dates and infant footprints inked onto their bodies.
Sports tattoos – Those people who paint their faces in the team colors know nothing of devotion compared to fans that get tattooed with the names and logos of their favorite sports teams. When the Colorado Rockies went to the World Series in 2007, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Denver tattoo shops had been hit with a run on clients who wanted Rockies tattoos. The proprietor of Freaky’s Tattoo and Body Piercing said that sports tattoos had been popular for years.
Military tattoos – Members of the armed forces have been getting tattoos for decades to signify their membership in a group and mark rites of passage like tours of duty. But the old basics like “USMC” or the sailors’ pin-up girl have been updated by contemporary soldiers, who sadly these days often honor their fallen comrades with tattoos. A touching article in the L.A. Times recounted the story of a Marine Corps Iraq War veteran having the names of his 10 dead comrades tattooed onto his back along with artwork. The shrapnel scars of his own wound received from the explosion that killed his friends were intermixed with the tattoo.
The reason why I do tattoos
Another interesting motivation behind tattoos has been detailed by Maureen Mercury, author of Pagan Fleshworks: The Alchemy of Body Modification. In her book she attributes the rise of tattooing among Western societies to a need – whether consciously realized or unconsciously felt – to feel with our bodies again. Modern society and philosophies emphasize the mind and thinking over the body, and people feel disconnected from their flesh. The pain of tattooing reactivates the sensory world of people and lets them feel again with their flesh. This is in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly mental way in which people interact with the modern world through reading words, viewing images, sitting in cars, sitting at desks, etc. Mercury also stated that the tattoo leaves a “badge” that permanently marks the experience and allows tattooed people to remember the sensations of the experience for the rest of their lives.
Beyond the heavy psychological needs cited by Mercury, tattoos can easily be motivated by a person’s desire for creative self expression coupled with the undisputed ownership of one’s body. A person’s skin represents a place where art can always be possessed and enjoyed. It’s not like remodeling a kitchen and then selling the house. A person will always have the tattoo and never have to worry about having a wall on which to display the art. In our highly mobile society, the permanent possession automatically enabled by skin art has appeal for many people. This unrivaled possession is hard to achieve in any other way, and, in ideal circumstances, a tattoo allows a person to be fulfilled by the artwork.
“Skin deep” by Lynell George, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2007.
“More moms getting inked” by Mimi Jung, KING 5 News, Seattle , November 3, 2007.
“Fans marking support with a touch of ink” by Bill Gallo, Rocky Mountain News, October 26, 2007.
“Pagan Fleshworks: The Alchemy of Body Modification” by Maureen Mercury. Park Street Press, 2000.