Arm tattoo

Tattoo me

Body modification is one way of expressing identity

Surveys suggest about a fifth of people in the UK and USA have tattoos. The number is higher in young people, with more than a third of Americans aged 18–25 claiming to have been ‘inked’.


Tattooing is an ancient art. In the Pacific region it is a deeply ingrained cultural practice (in Maori and Samoan cultures for example). In Europe tattoos can be traced back to the Stone Age – even Ötzi the Iceman had them.

Tattooing in the modern era in the West has its origins in James Cook’s voyages to the Pacific. He noted the practice on a voyage to the Marquesas Islands in 1769. Cook’s crew brought the practice back to England, leading to its popular association with sailors. Cook even presented a tattooed Tahitian chief to the Royal Court.

The chief must have made an impression in royal circles. The future King George V had a cross of Jerusalem tattoo, while Edward VII was also tattooed. It was even rumoured that Queen Victoria had a tattoo in an ‘intimate location’. Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, had a tattoo of a snake around her wrist, while Winston himself had a tattoo of an anchor on his arm.

Modern obsession

Tattooing has lost its association with the aristocracy. It became linked instead to rebellion and self-expression, as in biker culture. In recent years many celebrities – David Beckham being a notable example – have had tattoos, leading to an increase in their popularity. In parallel, body piercing has also become more common and socially acceptable.

Even so, tattoos may not be viewed positively, especially on women. A 2007 study carried out by researchers in Liverpool revealed that tattooed women were perceived as less attractive and more promiscuous than their untattooed counterparts, while a 2013 study showed men were more likely to approach tattooed women at the beach, but also more likely to expect them to have sex on a first date. Having a tattoo may also impact on your job prospects, with potential employers ranking tattooed candidates lower compared to equally qualified candidates without tattoos.

Body modification

Tattooing involves an indelible ink – one that can’t be erased – being injected below the surface of the skin. Today this is usually done using the needle of an electric tattoo machine. Tattoo pigments become permanently trapped in a layer of the skin called the dermis. Different colours are made up of different-sized pigments and fade at different rates because the body is less capable of disposing of the bigger particles.

Tattoos are just one type of body modification, which is an extremely ancient and widespread practice. The significances of such practices vary widely from culture to culture. Typically, though, they may relate to rites of passage, beautification or social desirability, group identity or individual status.

Some extreme forms of body modification have been practised since ancient times. The Mayans compressed newborn infants’ heads between two wooden boards for the first few years of their lives, to mould the skull to the cultural ideal of flatness. In the Congo elongated heads were thought very beautiful. Today, the Mursi women of southern Ethiopia insert clay plates into their lower lips to stretch them out, increasing the size of the plate incrementally to make their pouts extremely large. This ritual is a symbol of both sexual maturity and beauty.

Lead image:

Andrew Lawson/Flickr


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Ecology and environment, History
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development