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Let’s Talk Tattoos: An International Perspective

Like many countries, body art was taboo for a large part of history in America until recently. Starting in the 1960’s, professional tattoo artists began to pop up all across the country and the number has been climbing ever since. As of 2016, it has been found that three in ten Americans have a tattoo, 47% of them being millennials. A further look shows that about half of the inked community has between two and five. A piece from The Atlantic dives into the meaning of tattoos to millennials, suggesting that this form of body art serves as a self-seeking soul tool for the generation. Near the start of the tattoo timeline in America, they typically seemed to be symbols of various subcultures. This trend continued through the 1990’s, and as the years went on the body art expression became more and more common and symbolic.

Though tattoos began as a socially frowned upon practice in modern America, many cultures around the world have held this form of body art a sacred practice among their cultures for millenium.

Take Buddhist monks in Thailand and their Sak Yant tattoos, for example. This sacred practice, existing for over 2,000 years, consists of hand-etched tattoos of ancient geometric shapes and Buddhist prayers that are engraved into the skin either with sharpened bamboo or a long metal spike. The meaning of the practice is to gift the receiver of the art with magical healing powers that offer strength and protection against evil forces. Each and every tattoo is very sacred, and monks will choose the design and location based on your aura, or ones overall ambiance.

A familiar, less painful and semi-permanent form of body art that has been a part of women’s lives across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa for more than 5,000 years is henna. In this practice, a plant containing a staining pigment replaces the needle of a traditional tattoo, making it perfect for hair and skin dying. The origin of this body art practice began in India over 5,000 years ago, where the indigenous population discovered that covering their skin with this colored paste from the henna plant would help them cool down from the blistering heat. Before long, smears turned into intricate designs used on special occasions such as childbirth and wedding rituals to offer good luck and blessings.

Me practicing my breathing techniques as I get my first tattoo on my eighteenth birthday.

You may very well be familiar with henna already, and that’s because today you can see the art anywhere from a small village in India to the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. While henna has become more widely used in the modern world, the sacredness of the traditional practice will never be lost.

Like I said, studies show that Americans in the 18-25 age bracket are not afraid to get inked! For example, I have four! A Sanskrit quote on my forearm, a sun on my rib, a heart on my hip and Beatles’ lyrics on my right arm muscle. Each of my tattoos has a specific meaning for me,  so I would identify with the part of my generation who has used tattooing as a self discovery tool throughout life. For many people, though, tattoos have become less ritualistic and simply more artistic and creative.

Whether or not you have them, want to have them, or never want a teeny needle that permanently inks your skin anywhere near you — the international history and culture around this sacred form of body art has given Western society, young people specifically, a foundation to build upon in our own lives, in our own way.