The Tattoo Tragedy

It is a truism of the human experience that the more insecure somebody is about any particular aspect of their lives, the more likely they are to get offended by honest and frank discussions on that topic. I realised this at a relatively young age, which is probably why I have spent so little time in my life being offended by people: even when I was insecure about something, the last thing I would want to do is signal that to others, and so even on topics which threatened to strike a raw nerve with my inner psyche, I have always done my best to approach any conversation in a calm and rational manner. Perhaps this is one key reason why my deprogramming journey has been comparatively swift: the Pavlovian conditioning which trains us into egotistic defensiveness (among other things) was one of the fundamental stages of programming which I began undoing while still a child, and long before I ever set foot in this online scene.

In our world today it takes much honesty and even courage to admit to ourselves, and especially to others, when we have made foolish mistakes with lasting consequences. The bad habit we ought to have given away much younger, when we knew it was bad for us, but persisted anyway, to the detriment of our health and wellbeing. The poor financial decision which cost us untold amounts of money, and possibly even friends or family with whom we still don’t speak. Compared to these examples, some misguided ‘body art’ seems trivial, and yet it is my experience that people will sooner and with less shame admit to the former examples than to the latter. This may be changing as more and more people reach their thirties wondering, ‘what in the fuck was I thinking?’.

The sudden proliferation of ‘body art’ in the western world has been witnessed by all and yet, apparently, given serious contemplation by only a small few. In Australia alone it is reported that one million people have been tattooed in the past fifteen years. Entire books and blogs could be dedicated to the various aspects of this phenomenon and I would imagine that if I were to look hard enough, I might find some. Instead, as is my custom, I would rather build the case myself, chiefly from primary source evidence but also from other sources where pertinent, and what you are about to read is what I have come up with so far. As is often the case, a deeper look into the available facts reveals that things are even worse than they seem.

Before we go further, it is worth noting that the best part of one year ago I released a reflection piece on the broader topic of tattoos. At only fifteen minutes, it is short enough for you to listen to right now before coming back to the rest of this post, which is precisely what I recommend you do. Now. Having listened back to it myself just before writing this piece, I was amused by the fact that one year ago I noted the importance of telling subjective stories in order to appeal to a wider audience base. Only recently, in writing my first blog for this website, did I begin properly acting upon my own insight, and with my second blog post I return to the same topic as took my interest some 10 months ago.

The image of the tattooed body seen in the thumbnail of this post is from an article published in The Conversation. It may have been that image which ultimately motivated me to put the research I had been doing on the topic this morning into use, by writing this post. Why, of a Saturday morning, had I been researching tattoos in the first place? I had seen this article linked to at reddit/r/australia, a subreddit I peruse regularly to keep my finger on the pulse of Australian youth and mainstream programming. As you will have noted from the reflection piece mentioned earlier, I have long held other reservations about the proliferation of ‘body art’, but the potential long-term physical health effects of tattoo ink was one I hadn’t put much thought into – until today. Naturally I sought out the scientific literature and here is what I found:

Example 1:

…the increasing popularity of tattooing has led to the development of many new colours, allowing tattoos to be more spectacular than ever before. However, little is known about the toxicological risks of the ingredients used.

Example 2:

Tattooing with black inks entails an injection of substantial amounts of phenol and PAHs into skin. Most of these PAHs are carcinogenic and may additionally generate deleterious singlet oxygen inside the dermis when skin is exposed to UVA (e.g. solar radiation).

My emphasis. In other words, the near-sudden explosion of ‘body art’ has seen a similar increase in the chemicals used for the purpose, and little is known about the long-term effects of these chemicals… except that they may be carcinogenic – especially the black inks, which just happen to be the most widely-used. It doesn’t make for pretty reading, does it? However, these are only two scientific studies, and if the situation were really as bad as those quotes make it out to be, wouldn’t the governments of the world be doing something about it? Let’s ask Uncle Sam:

US FDA (1):

There have been no systematic studies of the safety of tattoo inks,” says Howard, “so we are trying to ask—and answer—some fundamental questions.” For example, some tattoos fade over time or fade when they are exposed to sunlight. And laser light is used to remove tattoos. “We want to know what happens to the ink,” says Howard. “Where does the pigment go?”

US FDA (2):

While state and local authorities oversee the practice of tattooing, ink and ink colorings (pigments) used in tattoos are subject to FDA regulation as cosmetics and color additives. However, because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA has not traditionally regulated tattoo inks or the pigments used in them.

My emphasis. So in other words, the FDA don’t pretend to have any long-term studies proving the safety (or otherwise) of the ink used in tattoos, and their simple reason is that they have better things to do ‘other public health priorities’ to focus on.

Fortunately, the relevant Australian government agencies have spent a little bit more time on the matter. Over 2014-2015, the Department of Health’s ‘National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme’ conducted a study into the contents of inks used for tattooing in Australia. I can only recommend you read their reports for yourself, because there is far too much information contained within to do it justice with a brief summation here. That said, for your benefit, and to encourage you to take a deeper look at the findings of that study, here are two tables from the report which put into clear focus the magnitude of the problem:

Table 7 from NicNasdotgov

3.2.2.5
A number of countries regulate tattoo inks based upon the European Union Resolution ResAP(2008)1 on requirements and criteria for the safety of tattoos and permanent make-up. Of the 471 tattoo inks identified as likely to be used in Australia, 193 or 41% were not compliant with ResAP(2008)1.  There were 37 chemicals or concentrations of chemicals that were not compliant with ResAP(2008)1. This indicates a poor understanding of (or indifference to) ResAP(2008)1 by manufacturers.

Table 8 from NicNasdotgov

I shouldn’t need to put these tables into my own words. They speak for themselves. Tattoo inks containing heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals are not mere aberrations or exceptions. For each chemical, between one-quarter and one-third of samples tested came back positive, and are non-compliant with the relevant European regulations. The study authors explain that they intentionally analysed the most popular tattoo ink brands used in Australia, following consultation with 22 professional tattoo artists at a ‘body art’ expo in Sydney. Put simply, the stuff being inserted into peoples skin, around the country and as you read this, is liable to contain chemicals which are known to be deleterious to human health, regardless of delivery method. This is on top of the admissions by the scientific establishment and the FDA that no systematic studies have yet been done on the long-term health consequences related to any tattoo ink, let alone the recently-popularised, exotic ink types.

For any sane person, the information presented so far should be enough to make them reconsider, if they hadn’t already, any preconceived notions that tattoos are harmless or ‘relatively safe’. I would urge anybody currently considering a new tattoo to follow the links provided, and read all of the accompanying literature for themselves, in full, before arriving at any conclusions, and certainly before booking in for any ‘body art’.

That said, some people reading this post may have already been tattooed and, if this information is new to them, they might begin to worry about the long-term effects of the markings presently on their bodies. I would urge those people not to worry. It is critical to note that there is a significant and proven link between our mind and body when it comes to our health. This topic deserves its own post and will be given one in due season. Suffice to say, when we worry about an aspect of our lifestyle or physical state, the worry can do more harm than whatever it is we are worrying about in the first place. Your tattoo may theoretically be comprised of non-toxic, non-harmful ink, and yet if you begin to stress yourself about the tattoo, these thoughts in and of themselves may do you physiological harm.

At the same time, while we cannot change the past, we most certainly are the authors of our own future, and it is my hope that this post will spur others on to do their own research before having themselves tattooed, or in any way condoning the practice at large. Putting aside aesthetics, culture, and similar issues related to the topic of tattoos, there is a fundamental aspect of the practice – namely, its potential impact on health – which deserves to be acknowledged and discussed more widely, on the micro scale by anybody considering a tattoo for themselves (or responsible for somebody who might be), and on the macro scale by anybody concerned with the health of the society in which they live. I have presented the information which leads me to the conclusion that the tattooing industry is, at best, flawed and prone to error as any other; and at worst, yet another institution involved in the degradation of western society and the health of its constituent humans. This is looking at things purely from the perspective of physiological health, without getting into tangential (and largely subjective) arguments about things like aesthetics.

There is another aspect to the proliferation of tattoos which bears inquiry: the types of people who get tattoos, and what it might reveal about them. An Australian study conducted across 2004-2005, involving a sample size of more than 8,000 people, yielded fascinating results:

After adjusting for all other variables, women who currently used tobacco and those who had used cannabis in the last 12 months were more likely to have been tattooed than women who did not use tobacco or cannabis. Increasing number of lifetime sex partners was also associated with a greater likelihood of being tattooed: 3% of women who reported one sex partner or none reported being tattooed compared to 30% of women with 11 or more life-time sex partners (AOR, 6.41; 95% CI 4.13–9.96).

If you check towards the bottom of Table 2 of that study, you’ll note that the likelihood of having been tattooed does increase in line with number of reported sexual partners: only 3% of women who reported having had 0-1 partners were tattooed; 11% of those with 2-5 partners; 20% of those with 6-10 partners; and 30% with 11+ partners. The apparent relationship between tattoos and promiscuity in women will come as no surprise to promiscuous men, but when put in black and white, it makes for blunt reading. This study was conducted a decade ago and so things would likely be somewhat different today, due to remarkable increase in tattoos among young people during that period. That said, I am not presently aware of any other study which comes close to this one in terms of sample size. I did find this joke of an article form PsychologyToday, which employed a one-hour, eleven-person ‘study’ to prove that men are more likely to hit on women with tattoos than women without tattoos, before arriving at the conclusion:

So, are tattooed women more promiscuous? No.

Back to the real study, also noteworthy were the findings related to the type of men who get tattoos:

Men who reported ever being told by a doctor they have depression had 1.3 times the odds of having a tattoo after adjusting for all other variables.

The ‘adjusting for all other variables’ aspect is significant, because in raw numbers, 22% of men with tattoos reported having been told by a doctor they had depression, compared to 14% of men without tattoos. That there are so many people in Australia being diagnosed with depression is a topic worthy of its own post, but I digress. What is clear here is that there is a significant correlation between men being tattooed and their likelihood of having been told by a doctor they have depression. Correlation does not imply causation, and the study does not reveal or even speculate as to what underlying factors might contribute to the correlations in question, for either the male depression/tattoo relationship, or female promiscuity/tattoo relationship. In any event, would tattoos be so popular if the results of this study were widely-known?

One more thing I noted during my research was related to the levels of regret among people who have been tattooed. According to the McCrindle research group, a study involving more than 1,000 Australians found:

More than 1 in 4 (27%) Australians with tattoos say that they regret, to some extent, getting a tattoo. 15% have commenced or looked into tattoo removal.

I don’t think many people would be surprised by these findings. I would be curious to know how many of these same people surveyed would admit their regrets, not merely to a phone-polling agency, but to the peers whose admiration was originally sought when the tattoos were originally performed. Speaking entirely from anecdotal experience, it seems to me that most people who get tattoos claim to have done so ‘for themselves’, in order to ‘commemorate’ a moment or person in their lives, past or present. Does any sane person believe that young people today have more moments or people in their lives who warrant such ‘commemoration’? Clearly there are other motivations involved, and to ascribe it all to ‘fashion’ is, I think, a superficial evaluation of the situation.

In a future post, I may go into more detail about my own theories as to why so many young people today are having themselves tattooed. Suffice for now to say that it seems obvious to me that our outward representations of ourselves are, to one degree or another, influenced by our inward representations of ourselves; and that our willingness to, and the methods by which we diverge from what is natural in appearance, says something about our willingness to and the methods by which we diverge from what is natural in other realms of behaviour and thought. As a man who has spent most of his twenties with long hair and, oftentimes, a bushy beard, I am well aware of the affect one’s appearance can and does have on the perceptions of those one deals with. The long-haired man can – at any time – cut his hair, and needs do nothing at all in order for the hair to grow to length in the first place. In both aspects, the act and experience of being tattooed is the complete opposite: it requires effort in the first place, and is very difficult to undo. This may be some explanation as to why I find the topic worthy enough to be the focus of my second post on this site, and likely future follow-ups as well.

In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to check out the podcast by Charles Giuliani which inspired my original reflection piece. You can find it linked to on the JLBE1555 post, which is where you will also find the reflection piece mentioned earlier. There are other elements involved in the broader topic of tattoo proliferation and promotion, some of which I have not even touched upon in this post. The Giuliani podcast in question spends considerable time elucidating and analysing some of those issues. If you are genuinely interested in anything to do with this topic, it will be well worth your time, I can assure you.

Finally, with all of the important things said, the objective data presented, and the obvious conclusions laid out, I would like to make one point regarding aesthetics and the female form. The thumbnail for this post includes an image of what appears to me to be a young, physically healthy woman, whose figure features a well-rounded backside and what seems like a well-contoured waist. No matter how human beings originally came to be on this earth, there is something essentially and fundamentally beautiful about the healthy female form. With or without a g-string, even genetically-mediocre women possess in their bodies a true gift from the cosmos, not merely ‘to the world’ or ‘to men’, but to themselves. That any person alive today, in our society, could be so psychologically damaged as to want to do that to their own beautiful body (and yes, at the risk of giving away the crux of my follow-up piece on this topic, I do largely put this kind of self-abuse down to psychological damage) is, to me, a tragedy.

These women are desecrating themselves in a manner which is analogous to the woman who cuts off her nose to spite her face, with the proverbial ‘nose’ being her own natural beauty, and the ‘face’ being the heavens above which put her here. There is something very, very wrong with a society in which so few can truly understand, appreciate, and speak out against this self-abuse. It says something about the mental, and even spiritual, routine torture being experienced by so many of us on a personal and on a collective level. My efforts with this website will not be enough to stop the system, as I am only one man, but if my words here serve as nothing other than proof to my future self that I said something in opposition to this sickness and those who encourage it, then that will be enough to make the effort worthwhile. If anybody else gains something from taking the time to read my words, and understand my point of view, that will be a bonus.

tl:dr

People tend to get most offended when dealing with topics about which they are insecure. It takes courage to admit to ourselves, let alone to others, when we have made long-lasting mistakes. I have previously reflected on the topic of ‘body art’. Upon doing some research recently, I learned that the scientific literature suggests that the long-term health effects of tattoo ink are largely unknown, although there appears to be some carcinogenic properties associated with them. The US FDA openly admits that they have no evidence tattoo ink is safe; the relevant Australian agency has conducted an analysis of popular tattoo ink brands and found numerous cases of heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals in the ink. All people concerned about the health of themselves, or of a society in which tattoos are popular, ought to study the relevant literature for themselves. In terms of behavioural aspects, there is a correlation between depression diagnoses and tattoos among men, and promiscuity and tattoos among women. One Australian study suggests that one-quarter of people with tattoos regret getting them. On a personal note, the female form is a wonderful thing, and I lament that it is being desecrated by women who don’t appear to appreciate their own natural beauty. These women may be acting out against the cosmos which put them here, in self-destruction tantamount to cutting off their own nose to spite their face.

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