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Tattoos: Under Society's Skin

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Part one of two: From Cure to Rebellion

Self-transformation. Memorials. Beautification. While researching tattoo culture for my legal thriller TATTOOED (June 2010, MIRA Books), I discovered these were some of the reasons that people get inked. With the popularity of Miami Ink and its spin-off reality shows, the tattoo culture appears to have finally come full circle and, to the dismay of hardcore tattoo enthusiasts, become mainstream.

"The human body is always treated as an image of society," observed renowned British anthropologist Mary Douglas. There is little doubt that the human body has become a sacrificial lamb to the billion-dollar beauty industry in our youth-obsessed society. But beyond the cosmetic surgeries, laser peels, and artificial fillers, the popularity of tattoos reveals the need for transformation that goes beneath the skin.

Tattooing is at least 5,000 years old as evidenced by the finding of 57 tattoos on the mummified body of Oetzi, the Tyrolean iceman. These tattoos probably served a therapeutic purpose, according to the Journal of Archaeological Science. The tattoos were likely a form of acupuncture, and were fashioned from fireplace soot mixed with the crystals of precious stones (these were not believed to have been mixed intentionally with the soot. They were merely in the dirt on which the fire was laid).

Historically, tattooing played many roles in societies. Vince Hemingson is the Canadian photographer who documented the dying art of hand-tapping tattoos by the headhunting Iban tribe in the National Geographic's The Vanishing Tattoo. His book, the Tattoo Design Directory, gives a fascinating overview of the social and religious roles of tattooing in cultures around the world. For the Polynesians, the highly intricate, geometric tattoos denoted social hierarchy and were a rite of passage. In North America, the Haida people used tribal designs of family crests that identified their spiritual relationship to the animal world. Tattoos are also spiritual protectors in Thailand, where once a year at the Temple of the Flying Tiger, Buddhist monks bless festival attendees while tattooing them with yard-long tattoo instruments.

Anthropologist Douglas espoused the theory that bodily control was a form of social control, and the historic use of tattoos as a stigma supports that theory. Tattoos were used in ancient Rome to mark slaves and mercenaries so that they could not easily escape. This practice ended in the eighth century when Pope Hadrian I forbade tattooing. Interestingly, it was in the eighth century when Japan began to punish criminals by marking them with tattoos, and this practice continued for another thousand years until the late 18th century, when tattooing for any purposes was declared illegal.

What is rather ironic is that the Japanese classes that had been stigmatized with tattoos -- the criminals and outcasts -- continued to seek them, albeit with decorative and symbolic art. The Yakuza, Japan's organized crime gangs, were renowned for their body art. According to Hemingson, the Yakuza felt "that because tattooing was painful, it was a proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them outlaws forever."

From the mark of social outcast to rebel to organizational solidarity, tattoos play a myriad of roles in our society. Part II of this series explores the question of whether the tattooed are mainstream enough to succeed in business.