Lydia, oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia?

Lydia the tattooed lady

She has eyes that folks adore so

And her torso even more so. …

[Groucho Marx, At the circus, 1939]

All adolescents believe they will live forever, even while engaging in activities that almost guarantee they will not. I advise adolescents or children about to enter adolescence to avoid three things: getting pregnant (or getting a girl pregnant), getting hooked on hard drugs or getting tattooed. Those things have life-long effects, whereas most adolescent rebellions like body piercings and untidy bedrooms are remediable. Adolescents always have and always will rebel, so parents need to pick the important fights: physical and emotional safety (of the adolescent and of other people) is paramount. Of course you should feign outrage when one of your children dyes their hair pink or has their tongue pierced, for fear of inviting greater excesses if you seem unimpressed.

The history of tattooing is fascinating. Body art in Europe dates at least from Neolithic times, 6000 or 7000 years ago. ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ was named after the Ötz valley in the Alps where his remains were found with over 50 simple carbon tattoos of dots and lines on his body and leg, which were thought to be a form of acupuncture. Egyptian Mummies from the end of the second millennium BC have been discovered with tattoos.

The Picts were a group of late Iron Age and early Mediaeval Celtic people living in ancient Scotland who used black or dark blue woad to tattoo complex war designs. The word Picts means ‘the painted people’, while Britons means ‘people of the designs’. Julius Caesar described these tattoos in his book Gallic Wars (54 BC).

The first written reference to the word tattoo, derived from the Samoan word tatau, is in the journal of Joseph Banks, botanist and naturalist with Captain Cook on the HMS Endeavour. In many indigenous cultures, tattoos were traditionally and often still are a rite of passage, a badge of belonging and a form of decoration. Facial tattoos are traditional in indigenous peoples from all over the world: West Africa, North Africa, Japan, New Zealand, Turkey and Taiwan.

Tattooing has been described as a religion, although religion seems a bit confused about tattoos. There is no consistent Christian view: some are for and some against the practice. In the 8th century, Northumberland Catholics were praised for receiving religious tattoos such as a cross or the name or image of a saint. Catholic Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina tattooed children to protect against forced conversion to Islam during Turkish occupation from the 15th to the 19th century, and this form of tattooing is still practiced during special religious celebrations. Tattoos are forbidden in Judaism and in Sunni Islam but permissible in Shia Islam. Hindus tattoo their foreheads and around their eyes to enhance their beauty and to distinguish between clans. One Hindu goddess has tattooed arms and legs.

The European fascination with tattooing originates from 16th to 18th century maritime exploratory expeditions to Polynesia and the Americas, popularised by European sailors. Although modern adolescent tattooing is often an act of rebellion, European gentry were fascinated with body art in Victorian times. It is rumoured that Queen Victoria and Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill, had tattoos, although presumably more discreetly situated than many modern tattoos.

For children under 16, there is the important issue of consent. It is common to see infants and toddlers with pierced ears and ear-rings. Piercing and tattooing are surgical procedures with significant rates of complications, and it could be argued that informed parental consent would be an absolute requirement for any comparable surgical procedure. In some jurisdictions, parental consent is required for minors to receive piercings or tattoos, but such regulations are difficult to enforce. Tattoo parlours are not renowned for checking the age of youths with the money to pay for tattoos and authorities rarely check on tattoo parlours.

When the ex-Australian rugby captain John Eales was asked why he never got a tattoo as a teenager like many fellow players, he replied, ‘The idea that you could be stuck with an 18-year-old's whim on a 60-year-old's body is frightening’. I am only too conscious of how ridiculous a 60-year-old body can look without extraneous, sagging embellishment. Thinking of the future is not a characteristic attribute of adolescence.

Why do adolescents get tattoos, which are painful (is that the point?) and permanent and, if done on the spur of the moment in some foreign land, carry major risks such as local infection, endocarditis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV? Is it for artistic reasons? Tattoos have been described as ‘the poor man's investment in art’ and, while the artistic value of many tattoos is debatable, some can be works of art (Figs 1 and 2). One adolescent, when asked why she had so many tattoos, said ‘one is born with a certain body and the only way to change it is to tattoo it’, so for her at least tattoos were a form of cosmetic surgery. Is it a defiant statement of opposition? The major social implication of tattoos was often antisocial, as for example in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’: a tattoo was cultural shorthand for rebellion. Ironically, tattoos, popularised by celebrities from the worlds of sport and entertainment, are now so commonplace on any beach or sports field that they are symbols of conventionality. Tattoos are now a symbol of belonging, or even a new Western rite of passage, rather than of rebellion.

Figure 1.

Wim Delvoye, Belgian body artist.

Figure 2.

A trompe-l'œil spider tattoo (from