Closer Look

Let’s Talk Tattoos: Symbolism, Cost And Health

Tattoos have been around for centuries, dating back more than 5,000 years to Ötzi, Europe’s oldest preserved mummy found in 1991 with 61 tattoos. But the tattoo taboo of recent history is decreasing. More than 33 percent of Americans aged 18 to 25 have tattoos, according to Pew Research Center.

Fifty years ago, tattoos were the indicator of rebels and outcasts such as bikers, sailors and inmates. Tattoos still remain a distinguishing mark, but for many students, the meaning behind their tats goes much deeper than the ink on their skin.

Krista Watson// The Phoenix
Krista Watson// The Phoenix

SO, WHAT IS A TATTOO?

Contrary to popular belief, tattoos are more than just marks left by a needle on the skin. While needles in tattoo guns are used, there is a complex science behind the ink leaving a permanent mark.

Modern tattoo guns pierce the skin at a frequency of 50 to 3,000 times per minute, according to a TED-Ed video (Ouch!). The needle in the gun punctures the dermis, the tissue just below the epidermis, which is the outer layer of the skin. The body reacts to these penetrations as wounds and sends immune system cells to eliminate the foreign substance (ink) from the body.

This process is what causes tattoos to fade over time but is also what makes tattoos permanent. Cells called macrophages eat the ink particles and are sent to the lymph nodes to be expelled from the body. But some of these cells remain in the dermis and instead of being removed from the body, the ink particles remain visible through the skin.

WHY DO PEOPLE GET THEM?

So if our bodies are constantly fighting against our ink, why get a tattoo in the first place?

Frances Simmons had the word “hope” tattooed across her upper back as a high school graduation gift from her brother.

“I have a history of breast cancer in my family,” said the 20-year-old junior chemistry major from Cleveland, Ohio. “This particular tattoo is for my aunt, who — at the time of my graduation — was going through her second set of chemotherapy treatments,” said Simmons.

For students such as Amy Shaike, 20, tattoos are a form of artistic self-expression.

The junior psychology major from Rockton, Illinois, got a tattoo of the Kaniza Triangle on her upper left arm, which is an image used in Gestalt Psychology to symbolize that humans perceive a whole with incomplete parts. To Shaike, the triangle represents that the whole is greater than its parts and that there is more to people than initially meets the eye.

While many students were happy to discuss their ink, it wasn’t so easy for others.

Grace Glan, a sophomore ad/PR major from Bloomington, Illinois, said she has a difficult time explaining her tattoo because not many people know about it.

“I was nervous to tell people about it, and still haven’t, because it means so many different things to me,” said Glan. “It’s hard to sum it up in a five-minute conversation and people have the tendency to think of tattoos as basic, no matter what you get and how important it is to you.”

Glan tattooed an outline of the world map on the left side of her torso this past summer. Glan said she hasn’t told her parents about the tattoo because they might not understand her reasoning behind it, but the tattoo represents her passion for travel and global citizenship. Despite not telling her parents, Glan said she is happy with her ink.

“[The tattoo] is something that is never going to lose meaning to me and is only going to gain meaning with my experiences,” Glan said.

Despite tattoos being painful and permanent, more young people are adding ink to their skin. An NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll shows that 40 percent of Americans had tattoos in 2014 compared to the 21 percent in 1999.

However, there is more to tattoos than meets the eye. Tattoos are expensive. Some shops charge by the hour — anywhere from $50 to $200 — while others charge by the piece. Small, single-colored pieces are cheaper than large, multi-colored pieces. Tattoo size, its location on your body, ink color, shop location and the amount of time it takes to complete the tattoo are all factored into the final cost.

In addition to financial costs, there are other factors to consider before getting a tattoo.

Krista Watson// The Phoenix
Krista Watson// The Phoenix

THE REAL COST OF INK

While your skin might have a series of tattoos from your younger years, your résumé shows that you’re the perfect candidate for the job. Since tattoos are becoming increasingly common, having tattoos shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Not exactly.

Even with increasing popularity, some students are concerned about getting jobs in the future because of their visible tattoos. Several factors contribute to the likelihood of an exposed tattoo preventing people from landing jobs, such as the industry in which you are applying, the position, the tattoo’s location on your body and what the tattoo displays. More than 30 percent of human resource managers said having visible tattoos could have a negative impact on hiring decisions, according to a 2011 study by CareerBuilder.

This has impacted where some people chose to place their tattoos.

Junior Sam Garrison tattooed the chemical formula of an amino acid, methionine, on his left bicep so it could easily be covered.

“It is true that some jobs will not hire you if you have visible tattoos,” said the 20-year-old biology major from Indianapolis. “That’s why I’m very conscious about getting them in places that can be concealed in business attire if need be.”

People with ink are viewed as 27 percent less intelligent by those without ink, according to a Harris Interactive poll, this could be problematic if you’re looking for a job. It is legal for an employer to reject a job candidate for having a tattoo, under laws outlined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which protects against workplace discrimination.

There are several online petitions working to make tattoo discrimination illegal in the workplace, including one by Support Tattoos and Piercings at Work, encouraging people to sign the petition by insisting “my body is not my résumé.”

Tattoos will not likely prevent you from getting a job in the corporate, educational or medical fields, but in these fields there are strict rules in place regarding visible ink. Many companies require individuals to cover tattoos with clothing, band-aids or makeup during work hours, while other jobs in creative industries such as advertising and design have more liberal tattoo policies.

In addition to costing you a job, tattoos can affect your health.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that infection, allergies, scarring, granulomas, small knots or bumps on the tattoo and MRI complications are all risks of getting a tattoo that can be caused by unsterilized needles or your body rejecting the tattoo. The FDA regulates safety standards such as sterile needles, clean shops and the ink used in tattoo parlors to prevent these reactions.

Krista Watson// The Phoenix
Krista Watson// The Phoenix

AGING WITH INK

So how’s it going to look when you’re old and wrinkly? The students who spoke to The Phoenix said they put thought into their tattoos and believe they’ll be happy with them in the future.

“I’ve been thinking about this tattoo since I was 16,” said Angelo Canta, a 20-year-old junior. “I wanted something that would mean something [to me], as most people do when they get a tattoo. I got a cross because it’s the symbol of my faith. [The cross] serves as a reminder to keep my faith simple and that faith can be simple.”

Canta said he believes his tattoo will mean as much to him in the future as it does now.

“Looking long-term, I might not be in Chicago and I won’t always be a student, but I’ll remember being a student in Chicago because of this tattoo, and that’s important to me,” said the theology major from River Vale, New Jersey.

Although most students are content with their tattoos, not everyone is satisfied with the outcome of their permanent ink.

Sophomore Jennifer Locke had a skull tattooed on her left forearm the day after she turned 18. The design was originally a skull on flower petals, but she had it covered with a new design that incorporates whole roses and a larger, more detailed skull.

“I just didn’t like how it looked anymore,” said the 19-year-old environmental studies major. “It wasn’t an original design, and I wanted one that was more artistic.”

A cover-up such as the one Locke got is one solution to an unfavorable tattoo, but many people choose to have their tattoos removed.

Tattoo removal is increasing among middle-aged Americans (age 35 to 50), according to a data report by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. The FDA regulates the removal of tattoos by laser, but the process is painful and can cost hundreds of dollars, so think before you ink.

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Krista Watson is a Closer Look reporter. She is from Warren, Ohio and a sophomore studying AD/PR. She is a member of Public Relations Student Society of America and a contributor to Go Global Blogger.

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