“I can read lips. Especially if they have words tattooed on them.”
― Jarod Kintz
The word tattoo, or tattow in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Polynesian word tatau, meaning “correct, workmanlike”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as “In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Tahitian, Samoan, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu.” Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as pricking, painting, or staining. Sailors on the voyage later introduced both the word and reintroduced the concept of tattooing to Europe.
Many tattoos serve as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. Tattoos may show how a person feels about a relative (commonly mother/father or daughter/son) or about an unrelated person. Today, people choose to be tattooed for artistic, cosmetic, sentimental/memorial,religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) or a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is used for protection against evil and to increase luck. Biblical tattoos in western culture are still very popular. Many people mainly Christians will have a Psalm or verse from the Bible tattooed on their body although some people will still have tattoos from the Bible despite not being Christian. Popular verses include, John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Psalms 23.
In the Philippines certain tribal groups believe tattoos have magical qualities, and help to protect their bearers. Most traditional tattooing in the Philippines is related to the bearer’s accomplishments in life or rank in the tribe.
Extensive decorative tattooing is common among members of traditional freak shows and by performance artists who follow in their tradition.
Insofar as this cultural or subcultural use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity of tattoos in the general population, tattoos are still associated with criminality. Tattoos on the face in the shape of teardrops are usually associated with how many people a person has murdered. Although the general acceptance of tattoos is on the rise in Western society, they still carry a heavy stigma among certain social groups. Tattoos are generally considered an important part of the culture of the Russian mafia. A study conducted in 2004 among 500 adults between ages 18 and 50 found an explicit link between tattooing and criminality. 72 percent of respondents with face, neck, hands, or fingers tattoos have spent more than three days in jail, compared to 6 percent of the non-tattooed population.