“Remember something about attention. Yes, it’s possible to buy, grab or even steal it. But it’s far better to earn it.” — Baratunde Thurston
As a child growing up in Phoenix, the only people I noticed wearing tattoos were former Navy guys and bikers. By the time I became a doctor, I realized they had become a lot more prevalent. A lot.
Back in the day when I asked a patient to tell me about the story of their tattoo, they would often say somewhat sheepishly, “I was very young.”
Tattoos often represent important stories in people’s lives. An acquaintance who had her wedding trip to Hawaii canceled because of COVID had a beautiful hula girl tattooed on her deltoid. Another couple who helped build a local church put matching church logos on their wrists. Many folks have mementos of a passed loved one like a heart, a butterfly, rainbow or other symbol as a tattooed reminder.
Tattoos are now so popular that celebrities, sports stars and other people flourish them as signs of artistic self-expression. Some use them as a display of their wealth since elaborate tattoos, applied in multiple sessions, can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Tattoo artists are now monetizing their art by licensing their work.
Tattoos seem to have become a socially acceptable way to express one’s feelings. Of course, feelings may change over time. What if a heart tattoo with “I Love Lucy” needs to be changed to “I Love Louis?” Trouble in Tattoo City.
Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” once visited a tattoo studio in Hong Kong. When he asked the proprietor what was the most popular tattoo it was “Born to Lose.” Surprised, Peale asked why. The Chinese tattoo artist pointed to his forehead and said in broken English, “Tattoo in mind, before on body.”
Tattoo application does have some risks. Infections like HIV and hepatitis, which used to be a major concern have been mostly reduced by improved hygiene, training and regulation. Reactions to the ink, allergies, scarring, difficulty identifying skin cancers, issues getting an MRI with iron pigments are all reported.
Buyer’s remorse is another. Remember the Jimmy Buffett song about waking up with a tattoo of a Mexican beauty and no idea of how she got there after drinking too much?
Tattoos can help identify a person, dead or alive. Police forms and rap sheets request descriptors like tattoos for that reason. Some gangs require tattoos as a matter of enrollment.
The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word “tatau” meaning to mark or strike. Many cultures use tattoos as initiation to manhood or womanhood. Native Americans, Maori in New Zealand, Inuits, Japanese, Africans, Polynesians, Chinese all have a tradition of using tattoos for marking life passages and many other cultural reasons. They have been found in mummies thousands of years old, sometimes marking acupuncture points.
Tattoos are difficult to remove, requiring expensive laser treatments, so “think” before you “ink.” Personally, I’ll pass on getting one.