How long the practice of tattooing as been going on and the exact origin of its use remains a matter of much speculation. There’s evidence to suggest that kings and pharaohs have been tattooed since way back, debunking the myth that ink was originally used only for marking criminals and other undesirables.
For years a stigma has been imbedded in body art as ink is in the skin. Perhaps that attitude was perpetuated by the fact that traditionally, tattooed people tended to be somewhat on the fringes of society, and have occupations that were not exactly mainstream and a little mysterious, like pirates, merchant sailors, gypsies and non-Christian clergy, giving body art a rather romantic, outlaw reputation.
Over time, rebels of all kinds, and some falsely accused of rebellion, have adopted tattoos as a symbol of their beliefs. For example, a particular sort of rainbow is associated with homosexuality. The rainbow in question has six specific colors: red, for life; orange, for healing; yellow, for sun; green, for nature; blue, for harmony and purple, for spirit. This rainbow was first introduced as such in 1978 at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride Day parade. The movement desired a banner that could represent them through the ages, and some feel strongly enough to have it permanently inked into their skin so they can always be identified with their cause. For similar reasons, modern Christians, despite traditional religious objection to the practice of tattooing, opt for crosses or fish symbols to illustrate their faith.
Of course, for every action there is an opposite reaction. Various hate groups also have their own tattoo. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious white supremacy group, often brand themselves with ink that supports their raciest views. Designs popular with this group may not come right out and say Aryan Brotherhood. Instead they just contain the letters AB or the name Alice Baker to symbolize their hatred. Similarly, other branches of racist extremism, such as skinheads and neo-Nazis, utilize the swastika and the confederate flag.
In the 1960s and 70s, society was in a mess. The black civil rights movement was coming to a head, and women were finally starting to exercise the independence they had been trying to gain for centuries. There were activists for or against so many things. Nixon was on his way out of the White House and people were discouraged with their government. This era was a turning point in widening the social acceptance of tattooing. Suddenly the status quo wasn’t really worth preserving any more.
It seems like movie stars are prone to jumping on band wagons and getting tattoos. The general public’s fascination with celebrity gives them the power to give a voice to their cause, and influence our culture. More and more stars are making appearances with their tattoos hanging out and showing them off in photo shoots, giving their adoring fans one more reason to run out and get inked.
For better or worse, it’s the idea of symbolism that draws people to tattooing. People commonly seek designs that celebrate or commemorate significant events in their lives, such as the birth of a new baby or the death of a loved one. Some people chose a symbol of a monumental accomplishment, like graduating from college, surviving cancer or serving in the armed forces.
Though we obviously have a long, long way to go before every person is free to be themselves in this world, self expression has become more and more acceptable. Getting a tattoo is a way to display art that is deeply meaningful to the owner. It’s ok to ask someone what their tattoo stands for. They wouldn’t have it so prominently displayed if they didn’t want you to notice it.