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Tattoos and Piercings

This guide contains information regarding the history, cultural aspects and health issues of tattoos and body piercings.


Body art is art made on, with, or consisting of, the human body. The most common forms of body art are tattoos and body piercings. 

Tattoos and piercings are body decorations that go back to ancient times. Body piercing involves making a hole in the skin so that you can insert jewelry. This is often in the earlobe, but can be in other parts of the body. Tattoos are designs on the skin made with needles and colored ink. A permanent tattoo is meant to last forever. Permanent makeup is a type of tattoo.

The health risks of piercings and tattoos include

  • Allergic reactions
  • Keloids, a type of scar that forms during healing
  • Infections, such as hepatitis

To reduce the risks, make sure that the facility is clean, safe and has a good reputation. Proper sterilization of the equipment is important. Be sure to follow the instructions on caring for your skin.

Holes from piercing usually close up if you no longer wear the jewelry. It is possible to remove tattoos, but it's painful and can cause scarring.




Someone getting a tattoo on their shoulder.

Image Credit: Picryl

Before making the decision to modify your body, it’s important to understand the adverse side effects associated with these procedures.

Health Risks of Tattoos

When you receive a tattoo, a tattoo artist uses a handheld machine with an attached needle to puncture the skin. Every time this device makes a hole, it injects ink into the dermis — the second layer of skin below the epidermis.

Tattoos are a common form of self-expression, but they also damage the skin and can cause complications. Complications could include:

  • allergic reaction to tattoo dyes, which may develop years later; signs of an allergic reaction include a rash at the tattoo site
  • skin infection, such as a staph infection or tuberculosis
  • development of nodules of inflamed tissue called granulomas around the tattoo site
  • formation of keloids, which are overgrowths of scar tissue
  • blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, and tetanus; these can be contracted by using contaminated tattoo needles that haven’t been sanitized
  • interference with future magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests
  • burning or swelling at the tattoo site

The long-term effects of tattoo ink and colorings remain unknown. Until recently, no government regulatory agency has closely examined the safety of tattoo ink.

More than 50 colorings used in tattoos have been approved for use in cosmetics, but the risk of injecting them beneath the skin is unclear. Such pigments are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Trusted Source. (FDA). So far, the FDA has only looked at whether these pigments were safe for external use, not for injection under the skin. No coloring has been officially approved for injection under the skin.

Health Risks of Body Piercings

Modifying your body with piercings also carries a measure of risk, such as the risk for a bacterial infection. Some people develop an abscess after getting a piercing. This pus-filled mass can develop around the piercing. This is a serious side effect. If left untreated, there’s the risk for sepsis or blood poisoning.

Sepsis is a life-threatening response to an infection that can result in organ failure and death. Symptoms of blood poisoning include a high fever, chills, a fast heartbeat, and rapid breathing. Infections are more common with mouth and nose piercings because these areas contain more bacteria.

Other risks associated with body piercings include:

  • swelling around the piercing site
  • formation of a keloid around the piercing
  • bleeding caused by a damaged blood vessel

There are also location-specific risks with body piercings. A tongue piercing can cause damage to your teeth and cause you to have difficulty speaking. Additionally, if your tongue swells after getting the piercing, swelling can block your airway making it harder to breathe.

A genital piercing can cause painful sex and urination. The risk of complications is higher if you have other medical conditions like:

  • diabetes
  • allergies, especially if you’ve ever had a reaction that caused breaking out in red bumps, swelling of the throat, or difficulty breathing
  • skin disorders, such as eczema or psoriasis
  • a weak immune system

Talk to a doctor before getting a piercing if you suffer from any these conditions.


We tend to think of human bodies as simply products of nature. In reality, however, our bodies are also the products of culture. That is, all cultures around the world modify and reshape human bodies. This is accomplished through a vast variety of techniques and for many different reasons, including:

  • To make the body conform to ideals of beauty
  • To mark membership in a group
  • To mark social status
  • To convey information about an individual’s personal qualities or accomplishments

Body piercing has become increasingly popular and socially acceptable in the US in recent years. One recent study of American college students found that 60 percent of women and 42 percent of men were pierced. Common piercing sites include the ears, nose, tongue, eyebrow, lip, nipple, navel and genitals, with the ear being the most common site for both males and females. While some engage in piercing for the sake of fashion, researchers report that for others, it is a way to take control of their bodies, especially after being violated.

Tattooing has likewise grown in popularity over the last decade, with an estimated 10 percent of Americans sporting tattoos. While once associated largely with criminality and deviance, today Americans are likely to see tattoos as a way of controlling their identities, expressing their creativity, and asserting their identity. One recent study suggests that individuals who were moderately to heavily tattooed have “an increased sense of self-confidence after having pierced or tattooed their bodies."

Tattoos may also act as a means of commemorating or moving on. It is not uncommon for trauma victims, those with disabilities or serious illnesses, or marginalized groups to tattoo as a way of claiming positive ownership of their own bodies, their own identities. In this way, tattooing can serve to heal, to empowering, and to promote body acceptance and self-esteem. 

Adapted from Bradley University LibGuide

A new study shows that the perception of tattoos in the workplace has changed so much that even a visible tattoo is not linked to individual employment, wages, or earnings discrimination. Specifically, the study found wages and annual earnings of tattooed employees were statistically indistinguishable from those without them.

Surprisingly, tattooed job seekers are also just as likely, and in some instances even more likely, to gain employment.

About 20 percent of all American adults and 40 percent of millennials have tattoos, according to the Pew Research Center. The research team at the University of Miami Business School and the University of Western Australia reached their results by surveying more than 2,000 subjects from all 50 US states, with roughly half of the respondents coming from urban areas with a population over 1 million. The team started collecting data in the summer of 2016. A new study shows that the perception of tattoos in the workplace has changed so much that even a visible tattoo is not linked to individual employment, wages, or earnings discrimination. Specifically, the study found wages and annual earnings of tattooed employees were statistically indistinguishable from those without them.

The long-held stigmas associated with having tattoos, and particularly visible ones, may be eroding, especially among younger individuals who view body art as a natural and common form of personal expression. Given the increasing prevalence of tattoos in society – around 40 percent for young adults – hiring managers and supervisors who discriminate against tattooed workers will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the most qualified employees.

Previous research found that hiring managers widely perceived tattooed people as less employable than people without tattoos. This was especially the case for those with visible or even offensive tattoos that are difficult to conceal at work.

But now, workers with ink can breathe a sigh of relief when they start sending off their resumes.

Good News Network

Getting a tattoo has never been safer, primarily because of the use of disposable needles, but people with tattoos and those considering getting one should still remain mindful of the possibility that someday they may no longer want it. Industry experts say that 50 percent of people with tattoos will someday consider having them removed.

The good news is that patients have more options now than ever before when it comes to removing tattoos. New techniques in lasers have improved results, reduced the risks and broadened the spectrum of patients who can benefit from this technology. Selecting a dermatologist to remove a tattoo is a serious decision. Patients should try to find a specialist with experience and equipment specific for tattoo removal. Good questions to ask of a potential doctor include how many tattoo removal procedures they have done and whether they own their lasers or lease them. Doctors that own their lasers typically do more tattoo removal and as such have more practical experience.

There are currently three types of lasers available for tattoo removal: Alexandrite, YAG and Ruby. Each works on different pigment colors and compounds, so the dermatologist will use one or a combination of lasers depending on the nature of a specific tattoo. It follows that you would want to select a dermatologist that has the specific laser necessary for removing your tattoo. A tattoo's pigment has been inserted into the dermal layer of the skin through ruptures in the skin's top layer, or epidermis. In very short pulses, the laser light is selectively absorbed by the color of the tattoo ink. This high energy causes the tattoo ink to fragment into smaller pigment particles that are then removed by the body's immune system. Whether it's a tiny fish on an ankle or a large design covering half of the back, in most cases laser treatments can remove up to 90 to 95 percent of a tattoo, although multiple sessions will most likely be necessary.

It is possible that tattoo removal treatment could bring out a latent herpes infection so a patient must alert his dermatologist if he has a herpes infection in the area of the tattoo. In some cases where herpes is involved the doctor will prescribe a preventative antibiotic prior to the tattoo removal procedure. Additionally, it is advised that patients don't go into the sun prior to having a tattoo removed because skin burnt from the sun reacts more strongly to laser treatment.

Scientific American

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If you have a tattoo, you’re part of a rich cultural history that dates back at least 8,000 years. Where did this practice of body modification come from, and how has its function changed over time? Addison Anderson tracks the history of getting inked.

For nearly twenty years, anthropologist and photographer Lars Krutak has been on a mission to document the vanishing world of Indigenous tattooing culture. His research explores these ancient human traditions, revealing how this language of the skin exposed individual desires and fears as well as cultural values and ancestral ties that were written the body. Lars Krutak is a tattoo anthropologist, author and television host who has spent the last two decades traveling the world, learning about unique tattoos and the meanings behind them.  Lars has a special interest in preserving Indigenous knowledge of tattooing, as this ancient culture has begun to vanish quickly around the globe. Having published several books on the subject, and hosting a Discovery Channel series, entitled “Tattoo Hunter”, Lars has worked to reveal the cultural diversity of tattoos, the biographies they represent and what they say about being human. Lars’ latest project is a recently published book highlighting the Indigenous tattoo history of the North American continent.