For thousands of years, dating back through history and prehistory, humans have deliberately and permanently modified and marked our skins.The reasons and purposes behind such modification vary greatly. Rites of passage; protection from evil; displays of group identity; proof of status and wealth; medical therapy; beautification; memorial; and even to guarantee entry into the afterlife, are but a few of these reasons. Underlying most of these experiences, though, and providing a common thread among them, is the unspoken understanding that tattoos carry meaning. Sometimes it is general, as in the desire for beauty and appeal, other times specific, as in the display of familial descent. In either case, tattoos are forms of expression.
The thought that a tattoo is capable of expressing so many different concepts, and is, therefore, a means of communication, is not a new one. Writers, observers, tattooists, and the tattooed have all remarked upon this aspect. We seem to intuitively seek something beneath the surface and behind the obvious to explain what we see. The silent exchange that takes place between the bearer and viewer of a tattoo may be one of the most interesting and important aspects of the whole process. Nevertheless, it is an aspect that receives curiously little attention over and above its mention. That light treatment may be due to the fact that much of what we understand when we see a tattoo is communicated through symbolism. By its very nature, symbolism eludes capture in so many words, while the words that we do have to offer are sometimes imprecise. Tattoo symbolism is many times, not a direct expression but instead an appeal to the subconscious and intuition. It may call upon ancient forms and graphic representations that, if not ingrained in the human psyche, are at the very least everywhere present and shared across miles and millennia.
When viewed in the context of different countries and cultures across the earth, it becomes apparent that the practice of tattooing and body modification encompasses enormous variety.
Designs, colours, tools, circumstances, and meanings often change from country to country and even from individual to individual. A close inspection of and a thorough delving into the details of the practice reveal a sometimes overwhelming diversity. At the same time, however, there is another way to look at tattoo-from the more distant vantage point made possible by the passage of time and the accumulation of tattoo history and ethnography. When viewed from afar, quite striking similarities and patterns through both time and space become evident, which speak to a common, even fundamental, experience. Certainly, not everything in the universe of tattoo warrants deep analysis or is imbued with significance. In fact, we may never understand what it meant, or means, for certain people and their cultures to be tattooed. Even today, some designs are so idiosyncratic or personal that they defy interpretation. In addition, some people simply do not ascribe symbolic content to their tattoo, nor is there any reason why they should. However, most people and most cultures, for various reasons, do associate tattoos with some deeper meaning. They can be the outward sign of inner transformation, an appeal to the forces of luck, or a declaration of loyalty, love, or sometimes even hatred. They can be whimsical and ironic or reminders of events both grim and uplifting, but as containers of meaning, they are often rich in symbolism, providing a glimpse into our collective and varied past and the range of emotions and experiences that motivate us.