TISINGER: Tattoos should be recognized as art

Sarah Tisinger

“How many of you have tattoos?” Dr. Kenealy asked his class on Monday. A fair number of hands rose in the small Kildee auditorium. Prior to the question, he’d been speaking about racehorses having lip tattoos for permanent identification, but it brings to mind the subject of how many tattoos have been seen around campus.

A study in 2006 showed that 24 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 had at least one tattoo, which was almost twice the number as in the previous decade. Now, every generation has to make its statement. The ‘70s had earth tones and bell-bottoms. The ‘80s claims huge hair and disco, and the ‘90s had alternative music and stonewashed jeans. Our generation, though perhaps not more inventive, has chosen something a little more permanent by which to be remembered.

Tattoos have had many meanings and uses throughout the ages, though not many people think about where it all started. The origin of the English word “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “Tatau”, meaning a mark. It is thought that tattoos originated in Tahiti and on other Polynesian Islands, and then spread to other regions, although evidence of tattoo body art was found on a mummified Iceman, thought to have dated 3300 B.C. Tattoos have also been found on Egyptian mummies dating around 2000 B.C. 

Greeks and Romans used tattoos to identify criminals and slaves, much like the tags used on victims during the Holocaust. Soldiers in Greece and Rome would use tattoos to tell the stories of their lives in case of their deaths, and soldiers during the Crusades would tattoo crosses onto their hands to signify that they wanted a Christian burial. This practice seems similar to our modern dog tags.

The Maori of New Zealand are one of the most well-known cultures with tattoo traditions. Men would tattoo their faces by making cuts with bone chisels and rubbing in ink or ashes in beautiful spiral patterns. Maori women would tattoo their lips and chins.

The people of this culture used tattoos to mark significant changes in their lives, the first being the step from childhood to adulthood. The tattooing was just one part of a series of rituals and rites. This was often very painful and so going through this was a mark of their strength and resilience.

Later, sailors and travelers who had been to these places and seen these designs got tattoos for their own purposes, but sailors and criminals with tattoos have given tattoos a bad reputation. What is one of the first things you think of when you think of a person with tattoos? Hell’s Angels? Biker bars?

Young people of our generation are getting ink done, though not quite for the same purposes as originally intended. Celebrities have been seen on the red carpets sporting their body art as well. Angelina Jolie, for example, currently has at least a dozen, though a few have been redone or removed due to breakups with former husbands. Alyssa Milano sports at least six and Nicole Richie about eight.

There are even television shows glamorizing tattoos. Miami Ink is a popular show with five tattoo artists. “They have tattooed everyone from David Arquette to David Lee Roth and are celebrities in their own right. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about the art,” said the Miami Ink Web site.

That’s not to say the choice to get a tattoo is the right one, however. “I believe tattoos should mean something,” says Sara Schaubroeck, freshman in chemical engineering. “I think you should be able to look at your tattoo 50 years from now and still have it represent something important in your life.”

Elizabeth Lott, junior in anthropology, agrees that people should wait before making their final decisions. “I thought about getting a tattoo for a year before I even figured out where or what I wanted. I designed my own and then still waited about six months before I actually got it, just to make sure I wouldn’t regret it whatsoever.”

She said she also believes people are more acceptable of tattoos. “It’s a form of art — it’s decoration. It’s the same thing as jewelry, earrings, necklaces and things. It’s a slightly different form and a bit more permanent. I think it is changing, but it will still take a long time for it to actually become completely, totally acceptable.”

It’s not only ISU students who feel this way. Amber Sarnes, sophomore at University of Iowa, already has three and plans to get more, saying “it’s a great way to share your artistic side with the world.”

Colleen Gould, second year at Scott Community College near Davenport, says she currently does not have any, but she wants a shamrock to represent her Irish heritage, and also says she believes tattoos are becoming less taboo and more acceptable in society.

For those who oppose having permanent body art exposed, black light ink is becoming very popular. The ink only shows under black light, not to be confused with glow-in-the-dark ink.

To those with tattoos, you are representing a select group of people who are trying to break ground and change people’s minds about tattoos. It’s not only bad boys with them — the good girls are getting inked, too, and that doesn’t change who they are inside. To those in opposition, open your minds and realize tattooing shouldn’t be taboo, nor should it change your opinions of a person. It’s art, and it’s meant to be recognized.

— Sarah Tisinger is a sophomore in pre-journalism and mass communication from Bettendorf.