Body modification has been around long enough for stigmas to come and go.
What remains is the meaning and story behind each person’s love for it.
Tattoos and piercings have been a part of the body art landscape for thousands of years. And just like today, some were plain, others were elaborate, but what archaeologists have found over the years is that they were always personal.
In ancient Egypt, tattooing was seen as an exclusively female practice, and while it was originally assumed by early researchers that tattooed women were prostitutes, an article in Smithsonian Magazine reported that based on the placement of the tattoos, they were probably therapeutic and provided psychological relief for women during difficult pregnancies and deliveries.
Men with tattoos were also part of many cultures. Geometrical tattoos have been found on the male mummies of Egyptian leaders; mythical creatures and animals have been found on males of various cultures; and the practice has been confirmed by writings that indicate that tattoos were marks of nobility.
At one time, even extensive facial and body tattooing among Native Americans was the norm. For many cultures, tattooing has served as protection against evil, danger and disease, status symbols, signs of religious belief and love, even forms of punishment.
Body piercing has existed across time and cultures as well. The oldest known ear piercing dates to 3,300 B.C., so it is evident that piercing has been an important part of many cultures almost since the beginning of time.
Earrings started out as a largely male accessory, with Julius Caesar bringing them into fashion during his reign. And during the Elizabethan era, any British man of nobility had at least one ear pierced to show off his wealth.
But it wasn’t just wealthy and powerful men who had their ears pierced. Primitive tribesmen wore decorations in their ears to ward off evil spirits and created tattoos as an early form of acupuncture to help with body aches.
Nose piercings date back to at least Biblical times, with the size of the nose ring indicating the wealth of the family. And in ancient Egypt, navel piercings were the sign of royalty.
As one can imagine, the history of tattooing and piercing is vast and involved, and it wasn’t too long ago that many in today’s society thought of tattooing and piercing as the marks of rebels, outlaws and social outcasts. These perceptions began about 70 years ago, when motorcycle gangs, circus people and other fringe groups began to embrace ink and have different areas on their bodies pierced.
The idea of using piercings as decorations instead of for healing purposes happened at different times throughout history. While some piercings are solely aesthetic, some longstanding trends that are still around today, such as nipple and male genital piercings, are believed to have started in England and France.
Some still associate tattoos with deviant behavior, but younger generations have embraced this method of self-expression and made it their own. A recent Pew Research Center study reported that about 38 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo, clearly showing that the stigma surrounding body art has lessened.
But those with tattoos and piercings still have to worry about how it might effect their chances of getting a job. Blake Sergesketter, a December 2017 graduate, has a variety of tattoos and works for a downtown Evansville coffee shop. He said he interacts with many professionals who admit they have tattoos but cover them when working.
“At some point, it probably won’t be viewed as taboo anymore,” he said. “You can’t knock someone because they have tattoos, if they’re qualified. That’s more of an old-school thought. Everyone’s got their own personal and professional sides.”
Many people still operate under “out of sight, out of mind.” Senior Spike Yusuf, who has a variety of tattoos, including series of green circles down his spine, wants to work in the medical field after graduation and is holding back on getting more art because of the field’s standards.
“I like expressing myself and my body is a canvas,” he said. “But in a professional setting, [employers] prefer not to see it. When I wear a suit, it covers everything pretty well. Once I get a job in my field, I plan on getting a sleeve done.”
The same can be said about piercings. Freshman Kaylee Wagler started getting piercings in her ears as a teen and increased the number as the years went by. Now, she has her nose and 10 ear piercings along with two tattoos.
“I was 15 and got my first cartilage piercing,” she said. “I look on Pinterest for new piercings and find new ones I love. That’s how I found the Daith piercing. I’m slowly working my way until I have seven piercings on the left ear too.”
She also hopes her multiple piercings do not pose a job-related problem down the road.
“A lot of professions are changing and don’t care as much as they used to,” she said. “But it seems like there are still stereotypes about it, especially facial piercings.”
Like Yusef, Sergesketter plans to get more ink. His first tattoo came in 2011 after having art recreated from a cross he received from his grandmother. Some of his more elaborate tattoos came when he was stationed in Asia, where some of the best artists reside.
“I’m particular about who does my art,” he said. “I want to know what they’re good at and know they’ll do a good job before I go.”
Tattooing and piercing frequently go together, with the belly button, ears and nose popular spots to have pierced. In addition to her piercings, senior Katie Gilmore has five tattoos. Her first was an infinity symbol with the quote “Always together, never apart,” which shows loyalty for her family. The bow with five arrows on her shoulder represents each family member.
“You draw back on the past to reflect on the future,” she said. “I kind of see my body as a canvas. You have an idea of who you are in life and I wanted to represent that outwardly.”
Since Gilmore studied at Harlaxton, she also decided to get a lion portrait across her back to commemorate the experience.
“It represents bravery and a lot of other things I aspire to be more of,” she said. “I got it to be a constant reminder of where I want to end up.”
Gilmore has also had a variety of piercings, including her nose and nipples, but for various reasons only kept her belly button piercing.
Senior Nico Quinn also likes both tattoos and piercings. He has her ears, belly button and nose pierced, in addition to eight intricate tattoos scattered around her body.
“It’s an easy way to express yourself to others and let them know something about you they normally wouldn’t,” he said. “They help remind me who I am and where I’m going.”
Like others today, Quinn believes people become more accepting of body art every day.
“When my dad was a kid, my grandfather always told him that the only people who had tattoos were criminals or in a gang,” he said. “My dad grew up with that mindset and still is against them, but the younger generation is definitely more OK with it. There are worse things and I think people are starting to realize that.”
Body art started getting positive attention in 2005 when TLC introduced the reality TV show “Miami Ink,” starring Kat Von D. Now there is enough worldwide support for such things as a professional organization called Support Tattoos And Piercings At Work and tattoo festivals, which showcase local artists and those with international reputations.
Quinn has attended several tattoo conventions and said they offer everything from entertainment to artisans making ink to vendors selling different types of merchandise.
There are also tattoo challenges, where tattoo artists display their work on willing volunteers. Quinn’s detailed black arrow on his left forearm was tattooed at a convention.
“I knew it was going to be a great tattoo,” Quinn said. “[The artist] did this whip shading technique to show texture in the feathers. In the arrowhead, he added cracks and so many other little details.”
While tattoo festivals and different types of media have been positive influences on body art, technology has also advanced so it now lessens people’s fear. Whether it is a spur of the moment decision because you found a design you think looks good or the meaning of a design is more than skin-deep, tattoos are a great way to chart someone’s life and to express who you are. And the more personal they are, the more the person will be pleased with the decision.
“I love it when someone asks me about my tattoos because I love them and love talking about them,” Gilmore said. “It makes me happy that people compliment the art I want to put on my body.”
Every design can signify some special memory, life-changing experience or a period in someone’s life that they might otherwise forget. Individuality is key and the design only has to make sense to the one who wears it.
“It means something so specifically important to that person,” Quinn said. “It’s a part of their identity, who they are and what they’ve lived through.”
Some people also use piercings to show who they are on the inside and what they want the world to know about them.
“It’s to be different,” Wagler said, “that’s why I did it. Some people like them, some don’t.”
Body art has become one of the most popular ways for people to express themselves. Whether it’s by modifying the body with one or a series of piercings decorated with jewelry or having intricate, color-filled designs or minimalistic black patterns inked into the skin, the history of body modification continues.
“To me, it has become more acceptable and the norm,” Sergesketter said. “It’s up to you, whatever you’re comfortable with. But make sure it has meaning because you’re the one who’s going to have to always look at it.”