tattoo, the marking of the skin with punctures into which pigment is rubbed. The word originates from the Tahitian tattau [to mark]. The term is sometimes extended to scarification, which consists of skin incisions into which irritants may be rubbed to produce a permanent raised scar. The modern method of tattooing employs an electric needle. Puncture tattooing reached its most elaborate and artistic development among the Maori of New Zealand and among the Japanese, who perfected the use of color. It was introduced into Europe by sailors. In modern Western cultures, it has been alternately regarded as a somewhat vulgar practice and as a sign of high fashion. It has been used by modern states as an instrument of control, as in the identification of criminals and political prisoners; it is also used to identify race horses. In medicine, it may be used to remove birthmarks by injecting a pigment of the color of the natural skin. Tattooing has been banned in some areas for health reasons; unclean needles can transmit hepatitis or HIV, the virus leading to AIDS. The Old Testament enjoins the Israelites against the practice, it was forbidden by Muhammad, and a Roman Catholic council condemned it in 787. Tattoos may be removed by a slow, difficult process. For the significance of tattooing and scarification, see body-marking.
See C. R. Sanders, Customizing the Body (1989); J. Caplan, ed., Written on the Body (2000).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.