Tattooing - The Science and History Behind One of the World’s Oldest Traditions | Teen Ink

Tattooing - The Science and History Behind One of the World’s Oldest Traditions

January 10, 2019
By Anonymous

While the idea of getting a piece of artwork permanently displayed on one’s body may be daunting or taboo to some, tattooing is a practice that has been proven to be safe and socially acceptable. The process of permanently tattooing one’s body dates back thousands of years in human history and has remained a key component in hundreds of cultures,has been proven to provide numerous health benefits, and  allows for self expression and individuality amongst one’s peers.

The process of getting a tattoo may seem all too barbaric on paper. However, the actual act of getting one done is not nearly as painful and terrifying as one may believe it to be. As nearly all people know, a tattoo is ink that lies underneath the top most layers of skin. However, in order for the ink to make its journey from jar to body, a tool is used to puncture the skin repeatedly and inserts the ink as it inserts and retracts (Tatera). While the depth of the individual wounds inflicted varies depending on how dark the artwork is intended to be, all ink must lay below the dermis, the layers of skin below the top layers of skin, in order for the tattoo to withstand the daily shedding of epidermis, the top most layers of skin, skin cells without any damage to the tattoo (Tatera). Once the ink makes its way from tattoo gun to to skin, the body immediately starts to make the tattoo permanent. As each individual wound is inflicted from the tattoo gun, the body immediately sends immune system cells to the injured area to try to start the healing process and remove any foreign substances, the ink in this case, from the area to prevent infection (Tatera). However, not all of the ink inserted underneath the skin is able to be carried off by these cells which results in the remaining ink being absorbed into skin cells in the dermis (Tatera). This is why the tattoo ink is still permanently visible on the skin regardless of the body’s efforts to remove the ink from the inflicted areas (Tatera).

The earliest found evidence of the practice of tattooing was found on an ancient mummified male that scientists refer to as “The Ice Man” (Hays). The remains of The Iceman, officially named Ötzi (pronounced “oot - zee”), were found in the Ötztal Alps in the 1990’s and have since allowed for an unprecedented look into the life of humans approximately five thousand years ago (Hays). This unprecedented look, while providing invaluable insight into numerous other aspects of life, has proven the use of tattoos in cultured thousands of years ago through the discovery of multiple tattoos still present on the mummified remains of The Iceman. While it is believed that the tattoos found had various purposes and meanings behind them all, each tattoo proves the use of tattooing in Copper Age European culture (Hays).

Tattooing was not only used culturally in Europe five thousand years ago however. The practice of tattooing has been proven to be a large component of Ancient Egyptian culture as well as a part of Greek, Roman, and various asian cultures all the same (“Where Did Tattoos Originate?.”). Similar to The Iceman, evidence of tattooing has been found on mummified remains and markings of Ancient Egyptian females. However, these tattoos and markings are believed to have a whole different purpose than those found on the remains of other cultures. The upholding theory as to why the Ancient Egyptians practiced the art of tattooing was to protect women from tragedy and illness during and after pregnancy (“Where Did Tattoos Originate?.”). The use of tattoos has also been traced back to various ancient asian cultures in the form of body art. The studying of ancient remains from China and other surrounding areas has proven that it was common practice amongst cultures in the area to decorate one’s body and face in tattoos for spiritual and creative reasons (“Where Did Tattoos Originate?.”).

The uses of tattoos do not just lay in the realm of cultural expression however. As researchers and scientists continue studying this ancient tradition, various health benefits of having tattoos done are being discovered. One potential health benefit is pain and agitation alleviation through the use of tattooing over stress relieving points on the body (Hays). It is widely believed and accepted as fact that a majority of the tattoos found on the remains of The Iceman were done in order to reduce pain and agitation in various muscles and joints on the body (Hays). This is done in a way very similar to acupuncture, which is still practiced today. By tattooing over certain locations on the body, one may experience reduced pain and inflammation of joints in certain corresponding areas of the body, with arthritis pain being the most common to be treated in this way (Hays).

The health benefits do not stop there, however. Recent studies have shown that repeatedly having tattoos done may boost one’s immune system (“The Upside of Tattoos: Health Benefits of Getting Tattooed”). The studies done reported those who have multiple tattoos done on had better responses from their immune system with each tattoo (“The Upside of Tattoos: Health Benefits of Getting Tattooed”). This discovery can lead to a multitude of applications such as future ways to fight off common illnesses through tattoo induced immune system boosting.

A third health benefit to having tattoos done to oneself is the possibility of medicinal monitoring through tattoos (“The Upside of Tattoos: Health Benefits of Getting Tattooed”). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more commonly referred to as MIT, and Harvard have recently come together on a research project concerning the possibility of medicinal tattooing (“The Upside of Tattoos: Health Benefits of Getting Tattooed”). In this research project, standard ink used for tattooing was replaced with biosensors that, when in the presence of varying amounts of fluids inside the body, change color to indicate the levels of said fluid (Kan). To date, this type of monitoring via biosensors has allowed for the monitoring of pH, sodium, and glucose levels in subjects (“The Upside of Tattoos: Health Benefits of Getting Tattooed”). While this research is not ready for clinical testing on humans or animals just yet, the life saving potential in this project is immense.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is a number of negative effects that tattoos may have on the body as well. Aside from the most common and well known negative effects of having a tattoo done on one’s body, such as skin infections and discoloration, one who gets a tattoo runs the risk of a list of negative side effects. One of which is disease. Due to the method in which tattoos are administered, every individual who gets a tattoo runs the risk of contracting any blood borne disease. Some potential blood borne diseases that one may contract are Hepatitis B and C, HIV, and tetanus (“12 Shocking Side Effects of Tattoo That Everyone Need To Know.”). Another negative effect that getting a tattoo may have on an individual is an increased risk of cancer and the potential for poisoning. Despite their exponentially growing popularity, tattoos are not very regulated in what is and is not allowed in tattoo ink or how much of any substance may be put in said ink (“12 Shocking Side Effects of Tattoo That Everyone Need To Know.”). Due to this, any individual who gets a tattoo runs the high risk of developing cancer or devastating and potentially lethal side effects from being poisoned by whatever materials, typically various metals and plastics, are used in the ink that makes up their tattoo or tattoos (“12 Shocking Side Effects of Tattoo That Everyone Need To Know.”). The possible negative effects do not stop there, however. Any individual who gets a tattoo done will also take on the life long risk of increased skin sensitivity where the tattoo is located. The use of certain pigments in tattoo ink, namely yellow and red based pigments, commonly caused photosensitivity to the tattooed area. This means that when any tattoo that is red or yellow based in color is exposed to sunlight, the individual runs the risk of getting a burn to the skin due to the chemicals and materials used in these pigments (“12 Shocking Side Effects of Tattoo That Everyone Need To Know.”). Tattoos have also been found to cause a painful, burning skin irritation when exposed to MRI machines. This is caused by the machine’s use of magnetic fields and radio frequencies that react negatively with the the metals and other materials used in tattoo ink (“12 Shocking Side Effects of Tattoo That Everyone Need To Know.”).

However, the art of tattooing is not always synonymous with negativity and pain. The ever growing trend that is tattooing has grown such a following due to the amount of self expression and creativity that can be put into each and every tattoo. The world of tattooing attracts individuals from all walks of life. Those who love to create art often find themselves in love with tattoos due to all of the possible people and places that could help them get their artwork exposure and attention from the public. Tattooing attracts those who may have found themselves on the wrong side of the law due to how common tattooing is in penitentiaries. It also attracts those who love to make other individual’s dream artwork a reality in the form of a tattoo (“Why are tattoos still such a popular form of art?”).

Tattoos, while some may shutter at the very thought of getting one, have taken on a number of uses over the centuries. They have allowed for everything from cultural expression and identity to being able to detect medical conditions and save lives. They have also allowed for people of all walks of life to come together over one creative activity. Whatever the reason for getting one, one must agree that they have shaped the very way people have lived, communicated, and expressed themselves over the centuries.


The author's comments:

An informative piece on the history and science behind the ancient tradition of tattooing.


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