The puzzling popularity of tattoos

Tattoos are becoming extremely common. I do not mean some little symbol discreetly placed on a small part of the body but even massive ones that cover much of it. I do not have a tattoo and have no intention of ever getting one, since I belong to a generation (and grew up in a country) in which no one I knew got tattoos. To the extent that one read about who got them, it was mainly sailors in western countries who, like Popeye, got clichéd ones with anchors or hearts with arrows through them or women’s names. The creepy 1969 film The Illustrated Man based on the Ray Bradbury story collection of that name may have cemented my antipathy to them.

I simply do not see the point of tattoos. While all of us make some effort to improve our appearance artificially, such as putting makeup or cutting and combing our hair, these are all temporary things that can be reversed quite easily, either immediately or over a short period of time. Not so with tattoos. They are not only painful to get, they are very difficult to remove.

I assume that people get tattoos because they think it improves their appearance or they are making some kind of statement. But I know someone my age who recently got a small tattoo on the small of his back where not only does no one else see it, except an intimate partner, but they themselves cannot see it. This must fill some psychological need.

I used to think that though painful to get, tattoos were benign once you got them. But this article by Greg Hall, a professor at my home institution Case Western Reserve University, says that this is not the case and that regret over getting a tattoo is high.

Almost half of people between 18 and 35 have tattoos, and almost one in four regrets it, according to a 2016 Harris Poll. Based on an estimate of about 60 million people in that age group, that would mean that about 7.5 million people have tattoo regret.

What I found was myriad unexpected and sometimes shocking concerns that everyone should know. To my surprise, there were a host of reports of ink complications, infections, toxin effects, scarring, burns, chronic irritations and much more.

Hall goes on to list all manner of other deleterious effects that arise from tattoos due to the presence of carcinogens in 83% of the black ink, the most popular color, as well as the presence of barium, copper, mercury and other unsafe components.

There is also the risk of infections during the tattooing process.

The most common infections associated with tattooing involve staphylococcus aureus or pseudomonas bacteria arising from poor skin preparation or equipment sterilization. “Staph” skin infections can become serious and even life-threatening, as antibiotic-resistant strains become more prevalent.

Three percent of tattoos get infected, and almost four percent of people who get tattoos recount pain lasting more than a month, a 2015 study from Tulane University School of Medicine found. About 22 percent of participants with new tattoos reported persistent itching that lasted more than a month.

More serious tattoo-induced skin disorders like sarcoidosis, lichen planis and lupus-like reactions are increasingly reported in current literature. These skin problems can be more long-lasting and leave permanent scarring.

A study reported in Hepatology found that “tattoo exposure is associated with HCV (hepatitis C virus) infection, even among those without traditional risk factors. All patients who have tattoos should be considered at higher risk for HCV infection and should be offered HCV counseling and testing.”

He points out that the removal process involving lasers also carries risks.

Because the laser shatters the pigment particles under the skin for removal by the body, the issues with infections, scarring and the ink spreading become a concern again. Tattoos covering extensive areas of the body are simply too large to tackle in one session, and could take years to remove.

Laser complications include pain, blistering, scarring and, in some cases, a darkening of the tattoo ink can occur, according to dermatologists.

I can tell you that if there was the remotest possibility that I would get a tattoo, this article pretty much killed it. To me it seems like the highly nebulous benefits of tattoos do not outweigh the real risks. But maybe it is because I am an old fogey who has never cared that much about making a statement using my appearance alone.


  1. felicis says

    I have three tattoos -- gotten during military service. Partly I was going along with the notion that it is what was done. Partly I was going along with the crowd I was hanging out with (for the first one). Partly it was pretty cool.

    I don’t really regret getting them. I had no bad effect at all (aside from the initial pain of them), but I won’t be getting another and don’t really take any particular pride in them anymore. I sometimes think about getting them removed, but that’s more bother than it’s worth and mostly I don’t really think of them at all.

    I do think tattoos are a young-person’s thing. Mine were all gotten before I was 25. I find it unlikely that if I had not gotten one then that I would have gotten a tattoo after.

  2. says

    I don’t regret mine at all. It’s a tattoo which speaks to my indigenous half, my culture. Never had the slightest problem with it, but there’s no black ink involved. I’d like to get another one, but only if I could go traditional.

  3. says

    I like tattoos, but I’d never get one because I know I’d get sick of it. Even if it was placed somewhere I couldn’t see it just the knowledge that it was there and there to stay would annoy me.

  4. theoneandonlymike says

    I dunno. one in two apparently regrets getting married too. How do we feel about getting older/fatter/doing this/not doing that.

  5. says

    Tattooing has practically always been a class issue. In some societies, sporting tattoos showed you were a warrior. In others it was a sign that you were “working class”. Or a prisoner. Or military. They’re ways of broadcasting affinity under the control of the broadcaster (e.g: the discrete Waffen SS tattoos, versus gigantic prison gang tattoos)

    When someone says they don’t get tattoos, or (as you have done) sort of abstractly questions the point of tattoos, I am virtually certain that they were raised middle class, if it’s US society. Upper class do whatever they want (it’s “edgy” to be like Angelina Jolie and get tattoos just to make life harder for a hollywood A-lister’s makeup team) Middle class are uncomfortable with tattoos because it may be taken as a sign that the ascent from lower class was fairly recent. It’s a social class signal just like wearing a bowler hat as opposed to a top hat (1900) or a necktie or an open-collar shirt (1980) carrying a cell phone (1985) or having bodyguards (1995) Yes, having tattoos makes as much sense as wearing a necktie, but tattoos have the advantage that you don’t have to re-tie them, and you can shower with them on.

    With regard to the difficulty of getting them removed, or the pain of having them done: mine were less painful than sitting in cattle-car class on a coast to coast flight, and I’ll never have them removed. Only idiots have tattoos done and then think to remove them -- that utterly and completely misses the point of tattoos! Temporary tattoos and body paint are loads of fun for someone who wants casual decoration. As are clothes!

  6. says

    If a tattoo or other body modification is forced upon the unwilling (e.g. Nazi tattoos of jews, gang tattoos), then I absolutely am against them. Otherwise, it’s one’s own choice. I am not criticizing Mano’s view, but like many other things, tattoos only affect those who want to have them, not those who see others bear them.

    I have one and have never regretted it, though I have rarely contemplated getting another. Mine coincided with major positive changes in my life, and remains a positive reminder. As for seeing it, only about half if I don’t have a mirror.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    I don’t have any, and am unlikely to change. I am a regular blood donor, and the American Red Cross says:

    Wait 12 months after a tattoo if the tattoo was applied in a state that does not regulate tattoo facilities. Currently, the only states that DO NOT regulate tattoo facilities are: District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming. This requirement is related to concerns about hepatitis…
    A tattoo is acceptable if the tattoo was applied by a state-regulated entity using sterile needles and ink that is not reused. Cosmetic tattoos applied in a licensed establishment in a regulated state using sterile needles and ink that is not reused is acceptable. You should discuss your particular situation with the health historian at the time of donation.

    They even offer a course:
    Bloodborne Pathogens Training for Tattoo Artists -- Online Course

  8. CJO says

    Further to Marcus’s point about class, the upsurge in in popularity of tattoos along with non-earring piercings among young, middle class people starting in the 90s was a more or less self-conscious inversion of those class norms. In the same way that African-American and other counter-cultural expressions have long been adopted by mainstream, youth focused popular culture as “edgy” and thus cool (best metric is the degree to which it pisses of your elders), so the “stigma” of tattos and facial piercings were embraced.

  9. david sowerby says

    I got my first tattoo at 50, my second at 60 and this week I’m turning 65 and will get another. Every five years from now on :-).
    They are small and not normally visible. They mean something to me. I hate to see them on young peoples faces, necks etc. But that’s just me.

  10. says

    Life is full risk/reward assessments. I am a woman in my 40s who has chosen to never have children. I look at having them the way you look at tattooing. I think it’s a huge, basically irreversible commitment to something full of risk and danger with rewards that vary by person and situation. It has never appealed to me and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I also have two tattoos and love them and will probably get more over time. Much like pregnancy (and sex and driving a car and many other potentially risky choices we make in life) tattooing can be dangerous but those dangers can be mitigated. There is a big difference between the person who gets drunk and walk into a late-night tattoo parlor on a whim and someone who schedules time with an experienced tattoo artist who charges a hefty sum to cover the cost of buying high-quality inks and keeping an impeccably clean workstation. Not to mention the fact that there are even less safe ways of getting tattoos including folks who do it themselves with or for a friend, with stationary ink or other ink that isn’t intended for tattooing.

    But, just like having children, I wouldn’t dream of encouraging someone to get a tattoo who didn’t want one, so if that risk has no reward for you, then you’ve made a great choice for yourself. And just like having children, some people will do so and regret it and some will do so any love it and there will be people with more complicated feelings, somewhere along that spectrum.

  11. G. Priddy says

    I have five, and have a slight regret about only one of them. The symbolism of all five is important to me, but the one was a bad design choice on my part. I didn’t get the first one until I was about 40, so I was well past the impulsive stage of my life. I carefully considered the designs, and made sure they were not images I would later regret or grow tired of.

    I even have my wife’s name on me, which is typically considered unwise. We had been together many years already at the time I got it, and I had no fear that I was making a mistake. Even if I were to outlive her, she is as indelible a part of my life as the tattoo.

  12. Smokey says

    I’d love to get a tattoo. But I’d have to draw it myself to get something personal. I think most of the regrets stem from getting a run-of-the-mill “fashionable” tattoo while drunk. “Oh, look, a hummingbird! Quick, where’s the nearest pub and tattoo studio?” They should just combine the two.

    “Tramp stamps” used to be edgy. Or should I say hip? Now they’re a slut label. “Oh look, a warning sticker on the butt!” If you see one, get a doctor’s appointment before it hurts to pee.

    Tramp stamps, celtic knots, glyphs, GPS coordinates, “this too shall pass”, hashtags!!! Yeah, you’re an idiot. Thanks for the warning. Constellation tattoos are great, they’re a double warning. An idiot, and superstitious as well.

    But of course I’d say that. I’m a Sagittarius.

    “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and we’re skeptical.”
    (Arthur C. Clarke)

  13. says

    There are a couple of other things about tattoos…

    One of my exes was the head of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, which teaches health and safety practices to the industry. I got to sit in on a few of the classes, interesting stuff.
    1) Spend the money for custom art that is good that fits you, you’ll be less likely to want to remove it
    2) Never get a tattoo you think is funny. It won’t be funny after 20 years.
    3) Before someone starts inking on you, watch how they behave -- do they put their hands on their face? Do they keep taking off and throwing away gloves? The scariest thing I saw was one tattooist who pulled his gloves off, shook a guy’s hand, put the same gloves back on (after they had been sitting on a tray) brushed back his hair from his face, and went back to inking.

    A fun game she used to do to teach people how serious the problem is, is she’d squirt everyone’s hand with a bit of luminol and have them rub it in, then go to the bathroom and “clean your hands really well” at the break. After everyone came back, she’d turn the lights off and turn on an ultraviolet bulb — suddenly you’d see people with luminol on their faces, coffee cups, hair, shoes (!) -- crazy stuff. And to finish the point, she’d take the UV lamp into the bathroom and everyone could see that every surface was lit up like a torch. It really made the point.

  14. says

    I hope you’re not so judgemental about your personal aesthetics in all respects. “Hey that music you listen to is for jerks” etc, etc. It can be painful living in the world when you’re such an arbiter of what’s cool and what’s not, because there sure are a lot of perfectly uncool people.

  15. AnnieT says

    I have several tattoos, including a full back. In general, it is easy to move on and forget the lessons to be learned from certain life experiences. The combination of the pain from getting each tattoo and the visual imagery takes me back to different phases of my life. The help me to not forget the lessons I have learned, plus they’re pretty art I will never lose.

    Tattoos are not for everyone and not everyone should get one. The medical issues noted arise from getting your friend who is dabbling to tattoo you in their grungy apartment. Take your time to find a reputable artist, ask about the inks, and think about your art and you will likely be highly satisfied.

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