Tattoos and Piercing

Since the mid- to late 1980s, body modification has moved from the margins of society to the mainstream, especially among adolescents, for whom the three most common forms are piercing, tattooing, and scarification. All three can be found in various cultures, ancient and modern, worldwide. Piercing is the most widespread form of body modification. Historically, tattooing has been more prevalent among peoples with lighter skin and scarification has been more prevalent among peoples with darker skin; however, among adolescents in contemporary American culture, such generalizations cannot be made.

With the exception of piercing female earlobes, these modifications have historically been interpreted as marginal or taboo activities in Western culture, but they were hardly unknown. As Europeans encountered new peoples during the era of colonialism, they brought back practices that had been part of ancient European cultures, but had been dormant for centuries. Piercing was among them, but tracing the history of piercing is difficult, since the European men who were involved in colonialism or foreign travel were more likely to have their glans penis pierced than more visible parts. Tattooing, which was introduced to Europe from Polynesia and Japan, was also a private pleasure among those who wished to remain part of polite society. Scarification, also known as branding, was generally not adopted into Western culture, except as a means of marking slaves and criminals.

Piercing and tattooing remained private vices of the upper classes or were considered public vices of sailors and criminals until the mid-twentieth century. During the 1960s, when American youth were being exposed to free expression and cultural differences via the hippie movement, rock-and-roll, and the Peace Corps, tattooing and piercing moved from private or forced acts and expressions to acts of self-expression and identity, although they were still signs of marginalization. The associations of tattooing and piercing with criminality and SEXUALITY and the Christian notions that the body is a temple and should not be altered were enough to prevent either tattooing or piercing from becoming part of the mainstream during the 1960s and 1970s.

During the 1980s, two things happened that changed the evolution of body modification in Western society: Music Television (MTV) and the AIDS virus. MTV was able to bring the countercultural expressions of rock musicians to younger audiences (especially since many children were unsupervised when they watched television) and to far greater numbers than ever could have attended concerts. The video audience was also able to see the musicians up close, so body modifications were more visible. However, these children were also being told that needles could spread AIDS. This delayed the advent of tattooing and piercing among young MTV viewers. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, as AIDS was better understood and tattooing and piercing establishments began advertising the sterility of their equipment, many college-age and teenage individuals began getting tattoos. Within a few years, tattooing became common at high schools and colleges. In "Tattoos and Tattooing, Part I," Kris Sperry estimated that as many as 25 percent of fifteen to twenty-five year olds had tattoos.

Once tattooing became this common, it no longer represented individuality or rebellion, and by the mid to late 1990s was replaced by piercing as the body modification of choice for adolescents. The most prevalent and generally the first piercing is the earlobe. For most of the twentieth century, only girls had their ears pierced. Some parents have their daughters' ears pierced only months after birth. Before the 1980s, pierced ears for men and boys were considered the domain of criminals or homosexuals. However, during the 1980s, there was a radical shift in the sexual connotation of pierced ears for boys; it was considered cool for boys to get their ears pierced, and many did and still do, with their parents' consent or encouragement, at ages as early as five or six

Since the 1980s tattooing–once considered suitable only for sailors and criminals–has moved into the mainstream as a form of body art. Jeff White © 2003.

years. By the 1990s, with so many girls and boys having their ears pierced, one had to pierce other parts of the body in order to set oneself off as different, to gain attention, or to rebel. Body parts that are frequently pierced include the nose, eyebrow, lip, tongue, navel, nipple, penis, and labia.

According to Myrna Armstrong and Cathy McConnell, adolescents often get their first tattoo around age fourteen, although some started as early as ten. Since many states prohibit the tattooing of minors without a parent's consent, and most who get tattoos at this age do so without a parent's knowledge, almost half of adolescent tattooing is done with straight pins or sewing needles and ink, or pens and pencils. Since the 1980s, professional tattooing has shifted in the eyes of many from the sign of a social outsider to a form of body art. The technology and artistry has improved, and the color and definition last much longer. Many who get tattooed state their reasons for doing so as aesthetics, individuality or community, sexuality, or to commemorate a person or event (this is much more common with women).

Scarification is the broad term that describes the deliberate scarring of the body by burning and/or cutting. With scarification, intent is important: if one burns or cuts oneself with the intent to do bodily harm, then it is considered self-mutilation; however, if the motive is aesthetics, commemoration, individuality, rebellion, sexuality, or attention, then it is body modification. The great majority of scarification is self-inflicted, although there are scarification artists who use surgical tools and chemicals. Those who cut or burn themselves generally begin earlier than those who tattoo–all one needs is a razor blade or a cigarette lighter–but many who begin earlier are considered self-mutilators. The visibility or location of the body modification can also signify meaning and intent. Visible modifications can suggest acts of rebellion or cries for attention or help. Body modifications that are covered by clothing tend to be more personal or sexual; they also indicate that the individual is conscious of the social or familial ramifications of such behavior.

See also: Fashion.


Armstrong, Myrna. 1998. "A Clinical Look at Body Piercing." RN 61, no. 9: 26–30.

Armstrong, Myrna, and Paul R. Fell. 2000. "Body Art: Regulatory Issues and the NEHA Body Art Model Code." Journal of Environmental Health 62, no. 9: 25–30.

Armstrong, Myrna, and Cathy McConnell. 1994. "Tattooing in Adolescents, More Common Than You Think: The Phenomenon and Risks." Journal of School Nursing 10, no. 1: 22–29.

Camphausen, Rufus C. 1997. Return of the Tribal: A Celebration of Body Adornment: Piercing, Tattooing, Scarification, Body Painting. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

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Greif, Judith, and Walter Hewitt. 1999. "Tattooing and Body Piercing: Body Art Practices among College Students." Clinical Nursing Research 8, no. 4: 368–385.

Hardin, Michael. 1999. "Mar(k)ing the Objected Body: A Reading of Contemporary Female Tattooing." Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture 3, no. 1: 81–108.

Houghton, Stephen, and Kevin Durkin. 1995. "Children's and Adolescents' Awareness of the Physical and Mental Health Risks Associated with Tattooing: A Focus Group Study." Adolescence 30: 971–988.

Sperry, Kris. 1991. "Tattoos and Tattooing, Part I: History and Methodology." American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology 12, no. 4: 313–319.

Waldron, Theresa. 1998. "Tattoos, Body Piercing Are Linked to Psychiatric Disorders in Youth." Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter 14, no. 7: 1–3.