In 1991, scientists discovered the oldest tattoo known to man on the remains of an Iceman discovered on the Italian-Austrian border. At approximately 5,200 years old, the find confirmed the history of tattoos as an ancient form of expression of feelings—from love to religion to anger.
“Tattoos have been around for thousands of years and in many cultures were once a rite of passage signifying you had passed into manhood or womanhood,” says Linda Lebelle, director of Focus Adolescent Services. “In the United States, historically, it was usually the sailors on leave who would get tattoos, or bikers and gang members to signify they were part of a group.” Throughout time, body art has remained a form of self-expression and/or group identification. Though tattoos and piercings have sometimes been seen as indicating a rebellious personality or the marking of an outcast, in recent years they have become increasingly popular among the mainstream adolescent crowd.
Moving into the mainstream
While tattoos historically indicated a group affiliation or belief in a specific set of philosophies, today they are often considered a decoration. They are quickly on their way to becoming as traditional as a simple set of pierced ears, Lebelle says. Studies show tattooing moving into the mainstream.
"Teens really want to be liked and loved,” Lebelle says. “At this age, the way to feel that is to go along with the crowd.” When teens aren’t getting tattoos to fit in, they are using body art to stand out, Lebelle says. As you enter your teen years and seek to develop a personal identity, it’s easy to feel like all eyes are on you. This feeling may motivate you to find ways you can make yourself unique to feel like you’re living up to expectations.
Tat artist tells minors to wait
Time and experience is something most teens don’t have, which is likely the reason behind most states’ laws against tattooing anyone under age 18 without parental permission; in many other states it is illegal altogether until age 18.
Carlos, a tattoo artist at Body Marks Tattoo in San Diego, Calif., where it is illegal to get a tattoo before 18 with or without parental permission, says he more than supports the law. Even if the state allowed teens to get tattoos with their parents’ sign-off, he wouldn’t tattoo anyone under 18, he says. “Why can’t you wait until you’re 18 if it’s something that’s going to be on you for the rest of your life?” Carlos said. Lebelle echoed this idea, cautioning young people, “Tattoos may be the fad of the day, but ... you may not like it as much when you are 50 or 60 years old.”
Health and safety concerns, long-term consequences
Laws against adolescent tattooing exist to keep teens from making rash decisions they may regret later in life. They also help teens avoid the health risks that can be associated with unsafe tattooing or improper care of body art.
As teens may not have the money to go to a great tattoo artist, Lebelle says, they may end up at a shop that costs less but will ink them with something they’ll one day want removed. There are also health risks such as viral infections if a parlor doesn’t sterilize equipment properly. Such conditions even put tattoo customers at a risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis.
Most tattoo parlors take precautions to avoid such complications, and the largest concern teens should consider is the permanence of their decision. Laser removal, while available, is painful and expensive. Getting inked may seem fun at 18, but embarrassing just a few years later. Carlos recommends that if you do decide to get a tattoo, choose a discreet place.
Even so, he says, some tattoos just shouldn’t be done. “If an 18-year-old comes into my parlor and wants something like ‘Thug Life’ tattooed across his arm, I’ll tell him to sleep on it and then blow him off,” Carlos says. Take it from Carlos, someone who makes his living inking others’ skin: When it comes to tattoos, it’s best to think hard and consider the long-term consequences—every last one.