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the imprinting of designs on the body through the introduction of pigment under the skin. Some peoples of Oceania and Southeast Asia, as well as some Indians in North and South America, practice tattooing by pricking the skin with a needle made of wood, bone, or metal, which they tap with a small mallet. Some peoples in the northeastern part of Asia stitch the skin with a needle and dyed thread and subsequently remove the thread. Tattooing was part of the primordial rites testing the endurance of a youth being initiated into manhood. Tattoos also served as symbols of magical protection against evil spirits.
The practice of tattooing dates from the age of primitive communities and early class societies, when a tattoo served not only as a decoration but also as a mark of a person’s tribe, family, totem, or social status. It was prevalent among peoples with light skin, particularly in Polynesia, where tattooing was done by masters; the entire body, even the tongue, was covered with designs. (Among dark-skinned peoples cicatrization was common.) The custom of tattooing was brought to Europe from Southeast Asia by sailors; tattoos continue to be used by Europeans as decorations and memorial symbols.
Tattoos are removed mainly through surgery. The tattooed sections of the skin are excised, and the remaining skin is then either simply sutured or grafted with new skin. Tattoos may also be removed by a laser beam or through electrocoagulation of the pockets of pigmentation with chemical substances, such as concentrated solutions of zinc chloride, tannic acid, and trichloroacetic acid. These cause necrosis of the tissue where they are applied, resulting in the formation of a scar. Abrasion of the skin with emery paper or sodium chloride crystals is yet another way of removing tattoos.