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Body mods – tattooing

AKA tats, ink; ‘inked’ means has tattoos.

What are body mods?

Body mods are a range of things that permanently or semi-permanently alter parts of the body. They include piercing, branding and scarification, and tattooing.

Tattooing and the law

Following the Operation Spanner trial in the 90’s, it was established in English law that you cannot consent to serious, lasting harm to your body. So certain, more extreme body modifications (but not professional piercing or tattooing) may be against the law to perform or have done to you.

What is tattooing?

People have used sharp objects to inject pigment under the skin for thousands of years. Tattoos have been found on mummified Egyptian pharaohs and Oetzi the Ice Man (the 5,000 year old caveman found preserved in the Alps).

Tattooing was traditionally associated with native peoples, especially Polynesia, which is where the word tattoo comes from. New Zealand Maoris are famous for their tattoos, especially on the face. Contact with Polynesians by European sailors spread awareness of tats, making a link with sailors that lives on to this day.

Until recently tattooing was largely a taboo in the West because of its links with ‘primitive’ pagan cultures and groups on the edge of society. There were religious prohibitions too; tattooing is forbidden in the Bible* and Islam.

What’s the attraction?

The appeal of tats perhaps first came out of their links to groups seen as dangerous: ‘primitive’ cultures, prisoners, the military, biker gangs and the delinquent or morally suspect. In modern-day Japan, tattoos are still banned in many public places like baths and hot springs due to their association with gangsters (yakuza).

These days tattoos are common, and can embody any manner of decorative, artistic or symbolic expression. With more sophisticated techniques, tattooing is becoming recognised as an art form – and people with them as human works of art.

Tattoos can be an expression of individualism, with designs – especially ones featuring animals – often mirroring how the wearer feels or wants to be seen. They can symbolise being part of a gang or select group: for example, some poz men wear a bio hazard symbol to signal their HIV status and ‘in your face’ attitude to having HIV.

People often get a kick from being tattooed, with people saying they’re addicted to being inked. For others tattooing is just a fashion. One American survey (a 2008 Harris poll) showed that 16% of people regretted being tattooed and that gay and bisexual people have higher rates of being tattooed than the general population, at around a quarter, compared to 14% of the general population.


Last review: 19/09/2018
Next review: 19/09/2021