Literature on American tattooing appears in varied forms, from the scholarly journals of anthropology, history and sociology to newspaper stand magazines that can be construed as “soft” pornography.
In its definition and also its application, the tattoo is permanent; this is to say it is a permanent body modification (Camphausen, 2000; Mercury, 2000; Millner & Eichold, 2001). If appropriately applied, it does not disappear through time, or “use”. It is the oldest and the best known of the different types of body modification (Hambly, 1925).
Since the rise and burgeoning of the labelling perspective in the 1960s and 1970s, the field of deviance has become a highly polemical terrain marked by many lively debates. Not the least of these are the arguments surrounding what is known as positive and negative deviance (cf. Best and Luckenbill 1982; Goode 1991; Sagarin 1985).
As possibly the first, and certainly the most obvious, a canvas upon which human differences can be written and read, the skin has been a topic of continuous interest in anthropology and related disciplines from the earliest descriptions of exotic people to postmodern theorizing about the body in contemporary society. Skin, as a visible way of defining individual identity and cultural difference, is not only a highly elaborated preoccupation in many cultures; it is also the subject of wide-ranging and evolving scholarly discourse in the humanities and social sciences.
It is a simple truth that tattooing largely reflects the visual culture from which it emerges, at least in the West. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, European pilgrims to the Holy Lands were tattooed with the devotional iconographies of their faith (crosses, Christograms, images of Christ). At the turn of the nineteenth-century, tradesmen marked their skins with signs of their professions and sailors repeated on their bodies the suns, anchors and pierced hearts they carved into tobacco tins and whalebone whilst at sea. In the 1930s, Mickey Mouse appeared on the sheets of pre-drawn designs (“flash”) which tattooists traded amongst themselves and advertised to customers.
The body has long been an integral concept in sociology, whether as a metaphorical tool or a literal construct wherein the individual identity is situated. Classical theorists, particularly Karl Marx, have understood the body as a fundamental element of social structure where the embodied actor must interface directly with society through labour. Maximilian Karl Emil Weber’s themes of domination and power, though intellectually framed as the machinations of a political system, in practice must be exerted upon the physical actor. Theorists such as Paul-Michel Foucault or Pierre Felix Bourdieu have conceptualized the body as a site for examining power dynamics and action, while feminist theorists have posited the body as a location of oppression or liberation.
Although the medical and mental health literatures bemoan the dangers of tattooing as a predictor of deviance and a source of negative sociality, recent research in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies reveals the multiple reasons individuals become tattooed in the contemporary United States of America. Analysis of these works shows that many individuals become tattooed to face social-psychological challenges and to exert control over themselves and their lives through the modification of the body. Specifically, the study of contemporary body projects like tattooing illuminates social-psychological concepts regarding the self, including: coping, mastery, self-efficacy, and the construction of the self through life narratives.
To get a more accurate understanding of current attitudes towards tattooing, it was essential to be familiar with tattooing in a historical context, finding out where tattooing has its roots, tracing how or if attitudes have actually changed towards people with tattoos and trying to find out if the types of people getting tattooed have also changed.
The remains of tattooed prehistoric bodies have been found from Russia, China, and Europe to South America, and written sources provide additional information about tattooing in later periods. In the British Isles, knowledge of ancient tattoos derives primarily from written sources.
Australian archaeologists have examined prehistoric obsidian tools from the Nanngu site in the Solomon Islands and have determined they may have been used for tattooing people. The 3,000-year-old chips of glass-like volcanic rock have residues of ochre, charcoal and blood and traces of wear that the researchers replicated by using other pieces of obsidian to make tattoos on the pigskin.