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Objectives

A costly signaling model suggests tattooing inoculates the immune system to heightened vigilance against stressors associated with soft tissue damage. We sought to investigate this “inoculation hypothesis” of tattooing as a costly honest signal of fitness. We hypothesized that the immune system habituates to the tattooing stressor in repeatedly tattooed individuals and that immune response to the stress of the tattooing process would correlate with lifetime tattoo experience.

Methods

Participants were 24 women and 5 men (aged 18–47). We measured immune function using secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA) and cortisol (sCORT) in saliva collected before and after tattoo sessions. We measured tattoo experience as a sum of number of tattoos, lifetime hours tattooed, years since first tattoo, percent of body covered, and number of tattoo sessions. We predicted an inverse relationship between SIgA and sCORT and less SIgA immunosuppression among those with more tattoo experience. We used hierarchical multiple regression to test for a main effect of tattoo experience on post-tattoo SIgA, controlling for pretest SIgA, tattoo session duration, body mass, and the interaction between tattoo experience and test session duration.

Results

The regression model was significant (P = 0.006) with a large effect size (r2 = 0.711) and significant and positive main (P = 0.03) and interaction effects (P = 0.014).

Conclusions

Our data suggest that the body habituates over time to the tattooing stressor. It is possible that individuals with healthy immune systems heal faster, making them more likely to get multiple tattoos. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 2016. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.