The Art of Self

Tattoos as Personal Canvases of Self-Expression

by Kaylen Pritchard / Garnet & Black

Picture the tattooed arms of a sailor, adorned with anchors and mermaids, echoing the tales of sea voyages and maritime adventures. Envision the delicate flowers etched on a woman's collarbone, an ode to her love for nature and beauty. See the tribal patterns that bridge the gap between ancient cultures and the modern world, connecting generations through ink. In a world where self-expression is the ultimate currency, where the uniqueness of each individual is celebrated, tattoos have emerged as a powerful and compelling medium for conveying one's innermost thoughts, emotions and identity. Once confined to the fringes of society, tattoos have stepped into the spotlight, becoming a vibrant and respected art form that transcends boundaries, cultures and generations.

Archaeological evidence of tattoos dates back to 3300 BCE on the preserved skin of Otzi the Iceman whose body was discovered in the Alps between Austria and Italy, but the art of tattooing originated long before then. Tattooing is thought to go as far back to the Paleolithic era in Japan and Egypt, where tattoos were used to symbolize social status and religious protection from harm. Early Polynesian and Maori groups used tattoos to broadcast ancestry, and Native American groups used tattoos to showcase their achievements and spiritual connections. However, during the rise of Christianity and the marginalization of non-European peoples, tattoos became associated with Paganism and criminals, and animosity toward tattoos as an art form was born.

This did not stop some Europeans from getting tattoos, though. Military men and sailors started flaunting tattoos in the 18th and 19th centuries as a form of self-expression and a catalog of significant events and places they had been during their journeys. In the 20th century, tattoos began to be associated with counterculture. Punks, musicians, artists, hippies and marginal political groups began getting tattoos as a symbol of their beliefs and a way to identify each other.

Today, tattoos have moved from the sidelines to mainstream culture. In spite of many people in older generations considering tattoos to be unprofessional and a sign of immature and deviant behavior, tattoos are a fairly common form of self-expression. A lot of the mainstreaming of tattoos is thanks to celebrities, athletes and other public figures that have popularized and normalized tattoos over the past few decades. 

Self-expression through tattoos is a deeply personal and artistic form of communication, allowing individuals to convey their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences through permanent art. 

Kaylen Pritchard / Garnet & Black

“I think that tattoos are a way for people to put things that are meaningful to them on their own body,” USC student Alyssa Griffith said. “It is a way for people to own something special to them.”

One of the defining characteristics of tattoos is their permanence. Tattoos are a commitment, and once they are inked into the skin, they become a physical part of that person. This permanence is unique to tattoos that other forms of self-expression like clothing and hair color lack. 

“I think the self-expression is affected by their permanence because many people thoroughly think these things through before getting them,” another USC student, Bonnie Dawson, said. “Because of this, every piece of art that someone chooses to put on their body usually tells some type of story about them.”

Biological sciences student Katie Walter brought up how the permanence of tattoos allows them to act as a sort of collage of one’s life: “I like the ability to track my life and past and present phases through the tattoos I received during that time period,” she said. “My tattoos are an excellent reflection of my mental health and maturity at the time I received them.”

There is no doubt that getting a tattoo is a big decision, and what to get is just as difficult a decision to make. Many people spend a lot of time thinking about the design and the meaning behind their tattoos. Some people even design and draw their own. 

“I got the three tattoos on my ankle because I’m a triplet and I wanted to represent the bond between my siblings even when we are separated,” Walter said. 

Geological sciences and political science double major Laura Doughton shared her tattoo's meaning as well: “My tattoo represents an important part of my childhood that I would never want to forget," she said. “Having an ever-present reminder of it brings me joy and makes me feel more connected to it. “

“My mother has tattoos representing where she’s from and where she is now. She also has tattoos that represent each of her children, telling the stories of each of our births,” Griffith said. “I have a moon tattoo to signify my relationship with my mother. I plan on getting a matching sun tattoo on my other arm, showing my mom as the un and me as the Moon. My mother is such a light in my life, aka the Sun, and I am a piece of her, the Moon.”

However, not all tattoos have a deeper meaning. Many people get tattoos of symbols from their favorite book, song or movie. Others just get a design they like and think would be a wonderful addition to their skin. Nevertheless, these tattoos are still an integral form of self-expression. 

“Even if the significance goes no deeper than, ‘I think this thing is cool’, it still tells you something about the person,” Dawson said. 

No matter the style or meaning of the tattoo, tattoos have a major impact on a person after they get them. Tattoos can have a large impact on people’s social lives and self-perception. 

“I have made so many friends from connecting over zodiac signs from them simply noticing my tattoo,” Griffith said. 

“I love getting to tell the story behind it and having conversations with people about what their tattoos mean,” Doughton said. 

Getting a tattoo that expresses one’s connection to a group or belief system can often be seen as a commitment to those entities. This can make it easier for passionate people to identify each other, which can enhance personal encounters and even create social circles that surround that identity. 

Tattoos can also impact a person’s self-image. 

“I love looking in the mirror and having my tattoo being shown back to me. They make me feel more like myself,” Griffith said. “I have found so much confidence in myself since getting my tattoos and I feel like I am truly who I am now that I have them.”

The responsibility of getting a tattoo can also be rewarding.

“I think I became more confident more so from the process of getting a tattoo and claiming that decision making than from the actual act of getting the tattoo,” Doughton said. “But having it reminds me how much I’ve grown since I got it.”

In a world where change is constant, tattoos remain steadfast. They celebrate individuality, promote self-acceptance and serve as a bridge between the inner self and the external world. Tattoos, as a unique form of self-expression, continue to evolve alongside the people who wear them, telling stories that are as diverse and vibrant as the individuals who bear them.

In the end, the art of tattooing is a testament to the resilience of human expression, showcasing the enduring need to leave one's mark on the world, both literally and metaphorically. As tattoos adorn bodies, they also become mirrors reflecting the tapestry of human experience, proving that self-expression knows no bounds, and its inked manifestations remain etched in the heart and soul.