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Thinking Twice is Good Advice Before Tattooing or Piercing

Thinking Twice is Good Advice Before Tattooing or Piercing

Having a butterfly tattooed above the buttocks or "I love Serena" on the upper arm may be just perfect now, but is it something you want 20 or 30 years from now? This was among many questions raised on August 2 by Anne E. Laumann, MBChB, MRCP(UK), associate professor of dermatology, who spoke about modern body art as part of a public lecture series sponsored by the Feinberg School of Medicine's Department of Dermatology.

Dr. Laumann and colleague Amy Derick, MD, conducted a study in 2004 to determine the extent of tattooing and body piercing in the United States. They also gathered related medical and social consequence data. Their study is timely. Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich signed a law in July putting health and safety requirements in place for tattooing and body piercing facilities. It will take effect next July.

The researchers used random digit dialing to obtain a national probability sample of 253 women and 247 men ranging in age from 18–50 years. Their respondents represented the nation according to race, Hispanic ancestry, marital status, household size, median household income, educational status, and religious affiliation. Of the respondents, 24 percent wore tattoos and 14 percent had body piercings.

The name tattoo, originally from the Tahitian word "tatau," translates to "results of tapping" or "to mark or strike." Tattoos are permanent or semi-permanent images in which black and/or colored inks have been injected, usually by needles, into or on top of the skin.

Types of tattoos include those to indicate gang affiliations; images to enhance and/or reveal a personal trait; those for medical purposes, as used for radiotherapy guides in cancer treatment; permanent makeup such as eyeliner or lipstick; and images for celebrating a special event, such as henna tattoos (mehndi) drawn on women's hands for Indian weddings.

Traits that correlate with tattoo wearing include less education, less religious affiliation, drinking, and risk-taking behaviors. Younger respondents (18–29) were more likely to have multiple tattoos. This practice occurs among all ethnicities; however, it is twice as common among Hispanics than all other ethnic groups combined.

Complications of tattooing, although rare, said Dr. Laumann, may include bacterial and viral infections, scarring, keloid formation, sun sensitivity, and allergic reactions. Removal by laser is more effective on black tattoos than colored ones. The process is painful, expensive, and typically leaves a shadow. Another option, called covering, is to create a tattoo over the unwanted image.

In this country during the 1920s and 1930s, tattoos were often worn by sailors and circus people; in the 1940s many servicemen wore them. Later, tattoos were used to proclaim affiliations with groups society considered marginal—such as bikers and prisoners. Tattoos started to become mainstream in the early 1990s.

The implantation of rings, studs, and pins that occurs typically in the ears, mouth, and nose, called "piercing" has also become more mainstream in the United States. Soft ear lobe piercing for securing earrings has been common for more than 20 years.

Twenty-three percent of those with body piercings reported local medical problems, including discomfort, pain, swelling, itching, and bleeding. Navel piercings were the most problematic. In addition, 23 percent of those with mouth or tongue piercings had had chipped or broken teeth, and 31 percent of those with any piercing reported they were allergic to jewelry made from certain metals compared with only 12 percent of those without piercings. Sixteen (22 percent) of those with body piercings reported being treated differently at work, while 10 (14 percent) reported being treated differently in social settings.

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