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Tattoos an ancient art

NCR Staff

There’s certainly nothing new about being tattooed. The Maoris and other Polynesians have done it since time immemorial; a 4,000-year-old mummy released by an Austrian glacier bore tattoos. Winston Churchill’s American mother, Jenny (Lady Randolph Churchill) had a snake tattooed as a bracelet around her wrist.

Imperial Europe’s 18th and 19th century sailors and soldiers, seeing the world -- and seeing tattoos -- popularized tattooing. “Tattooed ladies” began appearing as sideshow freaks. “It has become an eccentricity among the lower and criminal classes of the great cities,” intoned one 19th century writer.

About nine percent of young Americans have tattoos. The age at which they get them drops every year, on average from 16 years in 1993 to 14 years today. One Texas study identifies being tattooed as another teenage “risk-taking behavior;” about two-thirds of those tattooed are males.

If having a tattoo erased gives the person a sense of “being free again,” as Dominican Sr. June Wilkerson remarked, why do people get tattoos?

“Peer pressure,” she replied. Often the young women tell her “their boyfriend was in the gang and told her she had to get one. That’s one reason, another is wanting to be ‘in.’ ”

A mark of courage in some societies, identification in others, passing through puberty in some tribes, having religious significance in others. The late 20th century United States was remarkable in seeing the emergence of a new trend: Christian tattoo parlors.

Tattoos are meant to make a lasting impression. But as tattoo removal centers become more prevalent, it’s obvious that for many people, the impression isn’t one people necessarily want to carry with them for life.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001