Let’s explore the deep meaning and millennia-old roots of the practice of tattooing. From ancient cultures to modern individual expression, we’ll discover the motivations that drive people to modify their bodies with tattoos.

The Stigmatization of Tattoos

Many human activities have accompanied us for centuries, evolving and changing, while others went into decline, such as human sacrifices or witch hunts. Some superstitions, although having lost their gruesome aspect, still carry social biases that lead to the marginalization of certain individuals or social groups.

Tattoos have often found themselves in this “ghetto”, considered, at different stages of Western history, as a barbaric practice. Initially, it was part of a cultural struggle between the Greco-Roman Empire and the populations it sought to assimilate.

What better way to undermine a population’s culture from its roots?

Vendita di schiavi nell'antica Roma

This phenomenon also occurred here in Italy, the cradle of civilization, art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy… Yet, since the post-war period, a reshaping of civil and social consciousness began, turning us into a population inclined towards foreign cultures. Perhaps the younger generation is rediscovering its roots, but my generation knows all too well what this infatuation with foreign cultures is, bordering on self-racism.

So, the struggle between the Empire and the extra-Empire also passed through the stigmatization of tattoos.

An attitude that, centuries later, still persists, denying its importance. Consider, for example, the opening pages of Fulvio Tassi’s book “The Renaissance of Tattoos“, which frames tattoos as symptoms of the crisis in the Western world, as a form of barbarism! Although, looking at the excess of horrendous tattoos in circulation, it’s easy to understand the author’s perspective.

As if there were no continuity between the earliest cave paintings and the masterpieces of the Renaissance, extending to contemporary art. We can argue about the peaks and abysses produced in art, but art and the desire to tattoo oneself have been documented since the Paleolithic era, accompanying us for millennia in all populations, with different connotations: religious, affiliative, social status, up to the present day, where in the West, tattoos seem to have lost their sacredness, probably because the sense of sacredness of one’s body has been lost, a result of the consumerism where everything is perceived as disposable, even things that are not.

Not surprisingly, there are millions of people who regret their tattoos (in Italy, it’s estimated to be 60%, and statistics in the rest of the West are not that different), a result of decisions taken lightly. This is also related to the last 1000 years, when tattooing, in the Western world but not only, was relegated to the most marginal layers of society. However, this is a topic we will address in another article.

So, to answer the title: why do we get tattooed?

Why have we been modifying our bodies since the beginning of recorded history?

The topic is obviously complex and cannot have a single answer.

cucuteni tattoos
(Courtesy Marius Amarie)

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Tattoos in Cultural Context

In some tribes, tattoos are tied to magical-religious rituals, in others to a declaration of belonging to specific social classes, in others, it’s linked to acquired maturity or certain stages of individual growth, in others, it’s a form of protection, in some cases, it serves a military purpose, to intimidate the enemy or declare one’s status, up to one’s religious affiliation.

tatuaggio maori facciale
(Moko – Maori facial tattoo)

From their origins, tattoos carry a sort of sacredness and were not a free practice like today. It was reserved to specific individuals, with specific symbols and/or stages of life. Not to mention mourning-related tattoos, a tradition so ancient that it’s even mentioned in the Bible, and considering that the Bible derives from even older Sumerian tablets, it speaks volumes about the ancientness of tattooing.

But even though today we are free to tattoo ourselves however and as much as we want, tattooing hasn’t completely lost that sort of sacredness. Just ask anyone with a tattoo, even the most horrible and badly done one, and you’ll hear hours of explanations about its meanings, not necessarily intelligent or fascinating, but they make us perceive the desire to fill it with meaning and therefore with sacredness.

Modifying one’s body impacts how people define themselves and how they present or are perceived by others. It expresses the will to affirm that we are or can be something more than our body: “I am not just what mother nature made me, but I can be something else, and I can decide.”

These modifications can be done in an isoformic way, enhancing the body, or disformic, introducing lines and shapes that don’t naturally belong to it.

tatuaggio biomeccanico a colori a tutta manica eseguito magistralmente dal miglior tatuatore italiano Jerry Magni. Bergamo, Milano, Brescia, Como, Lecco, Varese, Novara, Vicenza, Crema, Cremona
(Tattoo by ©Jerry Magni – 2022)

Tattoo as a Declaration of Identity

Today, with tattoos, it seems like people want to proclaim ownership of their bodies and individuality against the dictates that society imposes from childhood.

In this desire to assert ownership of our bodies, it’s not strange that at the beginning of what we could call the Western tattoo renaissance, it was fashionable to tattoo one’s name or initials, a somewhat childish way of asserting ownership, like when we went to kindergarten and our moms embroidered our initials or names on our belongings so that we could recognize them and simultaneously decree ownership. Or tattooing one’s date of birth as if to declare, “I was born, therefore I exist”.

It goes to the extent of allowing co-ownership, sharing one’s body with someone else, tattooing the names, initials, or birthdates of parents, lovers, fiancé(e)s, spouses, etc. A kind of surrender, an admission of total subordination to someone else and therefore strongly discouraged.

tatuaggio nome su schiena

These aspects recall an interesting speech by philosopher Alan Watts, pointing out the perception of self as a separate entity from the body: When referring to oneself, the body is defined as “this is my body” and not “I am this body.” The body is part of the self, but not the self; I am not necessarily my body, or rather, I am something more.

Therefore, as it’s part of human nature to desire to change the world around us, it’s natural to want to do so starting from what is closest to us, the body, the shell of the self. Intervening with the means we culturally and economically have.

In the modern Western tattoo culture, there are various reasons that drive this practice. Some want to express their identity publicly, while others prefer to keep it private. Today, the trend is more towards the public display of self through tattoos. Tattoos often tend not to be an artwork expressing something in itself, but rather become an excuse to talk about oneself, a connection between the tattooed person and the questions that may arise about the tattoo. Sometimes, the person talks about their tattoo even before being asked any questions.


Tatuaggio di passerotto dal petto azzurro su sfondo verde con papaveri rossi alla base. Eseguito magistralmente da Jerry Magni, miglior tatuatore, Bergamo, Milano, Brescia, Como, Lecco, Lugano, Varese, provincia
(Tattoo by ©Jerry Magni – 2018)

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A Link with the Past

Yet, it can’t be denied that both stylistic and unconscious reasons for getting tattooed have not completely lost their connection with the past. Even today, as decades, if not centuries or perhaps millennia ago, there are amulet tattoos, indelible talismans tattooed in the hope or belief that they can protect us against misfortune; sacred symbols declaring one’s religious faith; eagles, lions, dragons, or other majestic animals, with the belief of acquiring their power. Or even cuter animals, floral themes, or typically feminine graphics to make one’s body more elegant and delicate or to express one’s sensitivity. Not to exclude a sort of masochism, a demonstration of strength and resistance.

Tatuaggio biomeccanico in bianco e nero e azzurro con teschio alieno al centro. Realizzato da Jerry Magni, miglior tatuatore italiano, Lobardia, Bergamo, Como, Lecco, Crema, Cremona, Varese, Milano
(Tattoo by © Jerry Magni – 2022)

Not to mention the invasion of old-school or traditional tattoos, which evidently imitate old styles mainly associated with convicts or sailors, as if tattoos were precisely what distinguished the most marginal or vile classes of society for a thousand years.

A sort of revenge that, unfortunately, neglects the artistic and technical possibilities achieved by the art of tattooing in recent decades. Often, the choice of this style is related to ignorance of the potential offered by this art or pure and simple homologation.

In the Western context, many aspects are linked to social validation. It’s undeniable that the openness to tattoos by the masses is linked to the acceptance of the phenomenon. Thirty or forty years ago, no one, except for a rebel, soldier, or convict, would have thought of getting a tattoo, while today many people choose to do so because it’s considered acceptable. On the quality of what they tattoo, a whole other chapter opens, on which it’s perhaps better to gloss over 😅

tatuaggio orrendo
(tattoo from the web)

There is undoubtedly a certain degree of conformity, to feel part of an increasingly vast group of tattooed people. In these cases, the quality of the tattoo doesn’t matter much; what matters is having a tattoo to show, not to feel excluded from a society where the non-tattooed seem rarer than the tattooed.

After all, tattoo culture and its renaissance are a story we are writing and living right now. Only in recent years are there individuals who decide to tattoo something big, beautiful, and challenging right away. Until just over or under a decade ago, people approached tattoos gradually, starting with small tattoos, enlarging and amplifying their expectations gradually, making many mistakes in the process. Not surprisingly, the laser removal business is booming.

rimozione laser tatuaggio
(Tattoo laser removal)

And even though we are now experiencing a true renaissance of tattoos, with increasingly attractive and elaborate artistic styles, with meanings that are also very complex, the desires that drive people to decorate their bodies do not deviate much from the deep underlying motivations of tattoos from a few decades or a few centuries ago, probably not that different from the motivations that drove humans to draw on their bodies since the dawn of time, at least until some tribes decided to institutionalize such practice.

schiena tatuata in bianco e nero in stile surreale, realistico. Due anime definite da un panneggio sono sospese nello spazio, tra di loro una clessidra, nella parte superiore un teschio e nella parte inferiore il viso di una donna attorno a loro delle saette ruotano come elettroni, il tutto sospeso nello spazio, l'immagine è incorniciata da esagoni 3D. Il tutto realizzato in modo magistrale dal miglior tatuatore italiano Jerry Magni. Como, Lecco, Milano, Bergamo, Brescia, Mantova, Firenze, Varese, Vicenza.
(Tattoo by ©Jerry Magni – 2022)


So, why do we get tattooed? The answers are multiple and varied, just like the human race. At its core, there is almost certainly the all-too-human need to permanently impact what surrounds it, a desire for immortality, to create something that outlives it, and in this desire, it starts with what is closest, one’s body.

There is something immutable in the tattoo, the will to stop time, to leave an indelible mark.

An ancient and modern way of expressing one’s identity, of leaving a lasting mark in the flow of life. Motivations can vary widely.

Regardless of the different perspectives and opinions on the practice of tattoos, it remains an intriguing social and cultural phenomenon that continues to evolve. Whether it is a form of art, a statement, or a manifestation of individuality, tattoos persist over time as a unique and indelible testimony to the many facets of the human experience.

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