Essay / Decoded
An anthropological study in the Samoan Islands explores the cultural purpose and biological effects oftatau.
ByChristopher D. Lynn
31 Oct 2019
This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.
I lay on the mat of the open-air bungalow in Apia, Samoa, looking up at a gecko. As its tail quivered, I felt a sympathetic twitch in my leg. Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo III, the sixth-generation Samoan hand-tap tattoo master leaning over me, paused to see if my movement was due to pain.
I’d been in Samoa for a month, studying Samoan tattooing culture and the impact of the big traditional pieces called pe’a and malu—tatau in general—on the immune system. Now I was getting my own hand-tapped leg tattoo, albeit considerably smaller.
This field season was the fourth of my research on the relationship between tattooing and immune response. My first study had focused on a small sample, mostly women, in Alabama. What I’d observed among that group suggested that tattooing could help beef up one’s immune response.
But one small study in the United States wasn’t proof of anything—despite headlines blaring that tattoos could cure the common cold. Good science means finding the same results multiple times and then interpreting them to understand something about the world.
That’s why I traveled in 2018 with fellow anthropologist Michaela Howells to the Samoan Islands. Samoans have a long, continuous history of extensive tattooing. Working with contemporary machine and hand-tap tattooists in American Samoa, we wanted to see if we’d find the same link to enhanced immune response.
Immune defenders rush to tattoo’s tiny wounds
Tattooing creates a permanent image by inserting ink into tiny punctures under the topmost layer of skin. Your body interprets a new tattoo as a wound andresponds accordingly, in two general ways.
Innate immune responses involve general reactions to foreign material. So getting a new tattoo triggers your immune system to send white blood cells called macrophages toeat invadersand sacrifice themselves to protect against infection.
Your body also launches what immunologists call adaptive responses. Proteins in the blood will try to fight and disable specific invaders that they recognize as problems. There are several classes of these proteins—called antibodies or immunoglobulins—and they continue tocirculate in the bloodstream, on the lookout lest that same invader is encountered again. They’re at the ready to quickly launch an immune response the next time around.
This immune boost may be beneficial in the case of other skin injuries and for health in general.
This adaptive capacity of the immune system means that we could measure immunoglobulins in saliva as approximations of previous stress caused by tattooing.
In American Samoa, Howells and I worked at theHistoric Preservation Officeto recruit study participants with help from tattoo artists Joe Ioane ofOff Da Rock Tattoos, Duffy Hudson ofTatau Manaia, and traditional hand-tap tattooist Su’a Tupuola Uilisone Fitiao. Our sample of 25 tattoo recipients included both Samoans and tourists to the island.
We collected saliva at the start and end of each tattoo session, controlling for the tattoo duration. We also measured recipients’ weight, height, and fat density to account for health. From the saliva samples, we extracted the antibody immunoglobulin A, as well as the stress hormone cortisol and inflammatory marker C-reactive protein.Immunoglobulin Ais considered a frontline immune defense and provides important protections against frequent pathogens like those of the common cold.
By comparing the levels of these biological markers,we determinedthat immunoglobulin A remains higher in the bloodstream, even after tattoos heal. Furthermore, people with more time under the tattoo needle produced more salivary immunoglobulin A, suggesting an enhanced immune response to receiving a new tattoo compared to those with less or no tattoo experience. This effect appears to be dependent on receiving multiple tattoos, not just time passed since receiving one. This immune boost may be beneficial in the case ofother skin injuriesand forhealth in general.
Tattooing seems to exert a priming effect: That’swhat biologists call itwhen naive immune cells are exposed to their specific antigen and differentiate into antibodies that remain in the bloodstream for many years. Each tattoo prepares the body to respond to the next.
Other studies find thatshort-term stress benefitsthe immune system. Stress’ bad rap comes from chronic forms thatreally do undermineimmune response and health. But a little bit is actually good for you and prepares your body to fight off germs. Regular exercise provides immune functionbenefits through repetition, not necessarily single visits to the gym. We think this is similar to how each tattoo seems to prepare the body for vigilance.
Our Samoan findings supported the results of my first study in Alabama. But of course correlation does not imply causation. Enhanced immune response is correlated with more tattoo experience, but maybe healthier people heal easily from tattooing and like to get them more. How could we find out if getting tattoos could actually make a person healthier?
“Tatau belongs to Samoa”
Samoans have theoldest continuous tattoo culturein the Pacific Islands. Though many Samoans complain that young people are getting tatau for fashion, most get them to honor their heritage, saying their tattoo belongs not to them but to Samoan culture.
Samoans usually obtain permission from family to receive pe’a and malu. Getting and wearing these tattoos involve many responsibilities and indicate a willingness to serve one’s community.
Several of the Samoans in our sample had little interest in getting other tattoos, and one even reported being afraid of needles. They get pe’a and malu for the importance of these tattoos to their cultural identity, not because they are fashionable ways to show off. The social expectations for Samoans mean that getting pe’a or malu is less about self-motivated fashion choices than getting a tattoo is in the U.S. This is why Samoa is a great place to investigate whether the immune bump we see after tattooing is due to healthier people going under the needle in the first place—in Samoa, people of all body types and walks of life get them, fromprieststopoliticians.
In July 2019, I focused on collecting multiple biological samples from people getting intensive tattoos in Apia, where they are administered daily in the center of town. I collected around 50 saliva samples from a dozen participants that will be analyzed in the coming year byanthropological immunologistMichael Muehlenbein.
An evolutionary take on tattoos
Tattoos may providevisual evidence that others home in on toidentify healthy matesor hardy friends. Such signals of fitness have been compared to peacock tail feathers, which would be too much of a burden if the peacock were not hale enough to escape predators.
Even in the modern environment with improved health care, tattoos may “up the ante” by artificially injuring the body to demonstrate health. In a study I conducted amongnearly 7,000 undergraduates, male intercollegiate athletes in general and football players in particular were more likely to be tattooed than nonathletes and less likely to suffer tattoo-related medical problems than those nonathletes who were tattooed.
It’s not clear that the benefits tattooing provides are big enough to make a clinical difference on health, so don’t expect a new tattoo to cancel out a diet of cheeseburgers and fries. But there is no doubt that tattooing is associated with toughness and that we humans influence one another through impressions as much as reality.
Christopher D. Lynn
Christopher D. Lynn is a biocultural medical anthropologist who studies cultural impacts on health and human cognitive evolution. He received his Ph.D. from the University at Albany, SUNY, and is currently an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama. He is a co-editor of the volume Evolution Education in the American South: Culture, Politics, and Resources In and Around Alabama and is working on a book about dissociation and consciousness. He is currently conducting research on tattooing and immune response among Pacific Islanders, developing an anthropology outreach program for elementary students, and co-hosting the Sausage of Science podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Ly.
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Tattoos reduce stress
It was tested in the study because cortisol is an immune response suppressant. Multiple tattoos were found to reduce cortisol levels, improving the immune system benefits of tattoos, but also helping with stress reduction.
According to new research from the University of Alabama (UA), receiving multiple tattoos can actively strengthen immunological responses and increase the body's ability to fight off generic infections such as the common cold.What do tattoos do to your blood? ›
Though uncommon, an unclean tattoo needle can carry a number of bloodborne viruses, such as: hepatitis B. hepatitis C. HIV.Can we donate blood after tattoo? ›
If you have recently had a tattoo or body piercing you cannot donate for 6 months from the date of the procedure. If the body piercing was performed by a registered health professional and any inflammation has settled completely, you can donate blood after 12 hours.Do white blood cells fight tattoos? ›
Innate immune responses involve general reactions to foreign material. So getting a new tattoo triggers your immune system to send white blood cells called macrophages to eat invaders and sacrifice themselves to protect against infection.What does the Bible say about tattoos? ›
Today they're common everywhere from Maori communities in New Zealand to office parks in Ohio. But in the ancient Middle East, the writers of the Hebrew Bible forbade tattooing. Per Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.”What are the long term effects of tattoos? ›
One long-term effect of getting inked: microscopic ink particles can seep past your skin and get into other parts of your body. A new study sounds the alarm. When you think about the health risks of getting a tattoo, problems that reveal themselves right away come to mind—like infections and allergic reactions.Can tattoo ink affect your brain? ›
Tattoo Inks Carry Carcinogenic Nanoparticles
These nanoparticles can be carcinogenic, causing damage to the brain or the nervous system.
“Tattoo inks and permanent make up (PMU) may contain hazardous substances -- for example, substances that cause cancer, genetic mutations, toxic effects on reproduction, allergies or other adverse effects on health,” an ECHA statement reads.Can a tattoo hit a vein? ›
“Tattoos involve applying pressure on your skin with a needle, which can rupture the vein, making it bleed into the surrounding tissue and cause an infection,” she says. If you have varicose veins, Chimento goes on to explain, this could make things worse and result in veins that protrude even further.
Health-issue: Tattoo can cause hazardous skin diseases, serious blood-borne diseases, and increases the risk of HIV, Hepatitis A & B, tetanus, allergies, etc. All these medical tests are very costly and the Army cannot afford to test all the candidates with body tattoo.What are the disadvantages of getting a tattoo? ›
- Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes — especially red, green, yellow and blue dyes — can cause allergic skin reactions, such as an itchy rash at the tattoo site. ...
- Skin infections. A skin infection is possible after tattooing.
- Other skin problems. ...
- Bloodborne diseases. ...
- MRI complications.
How bad do tattoos hurt? There's no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to how much pain you'll feel when getting tattooed. But if you're wondering what type of pain to expect, Caranfa says the experience is comparable to the feeling of a cat scratch or a sunburn.Can I get an MRI with a tattoo? ›
The researchers found that the risk of experiencing tattoo-related side effects from MRI is very small. This means people with tattoos can safely undergo MRI without worry.What tattoo poisoning feels like? ›
Headaches. Nausea. Vomiting. Consuming significant amounts of ink, especially printing ink, can result in severe symptoms affecting the central nervous system.Does getting a tattoo make you tired? ›
Symptoms Of a Tattoo Flu
Well, just like the regular sickness of flu, the tattoo flu manifests through the following symptoms; Fever. Cold chills. Fatigue and tiredness.
Peer pressure, media influence, and personal expression are some of the common reasons for wearing tattoos today. The desire to be part of a group, to be accepted by one's friends or peers, can have a great influence on what a person does. Sometimes, wearing a tattoo can be a sign that you belong to a certain group.Are tattoos unbiblical? ›
While there's no speculation that Christianity forbids tattoos, there's also no permission saying that it's permitted. A lot of people like to make an analysis of the Biblical verses and draw their conclusions, so finally, tattooing is an individual choice.Is body art a sin? ›
There is no mention of body modifications or tattoos written in the New Testament at all. Since there is not an explicit command against the modern-day concept of tattoos, it would mean that it is not a sin to get one.What happens to tattoos as you age? ›
Lyle Tuttle, a big-name tattoo artist, told the San Jose Mercury News that as your skin changes as you age, so too will your tattoos. They can stretch and sag as your skin does, wrinkle, of course, as your skin does, and sometimes even become a less clear, blurrier image.
If you are at risk of endocarditis , you should avoid piercing and be very careful if you get a tattoo. During the tattooing and piercing process you risk bacteria entering your blood stream, which will then continue to your heart.Do tattoos affect your liver? ›
Are tattoos bad for your liver? Tattoo ink may get accumulated in the liver and kidneys over a prolonged period of time but as such does not directly affect the liver. Indirectly, tattoos may cause severe liver damage due to hepatitis infection.What are the pros and cons of having a tattoo? ›
|Tattoos Pros||Tattoos Cons|
|Tattoos can make you more attractive||Tattoos can be expensive|
|Can cover up your skin||Getting tattoos can be painful|
|Getting tattoos may increase your confidence||Tattoos will fade over time|
|Tattoos can help you remember loved ones||You may choose the wrong design|
- May Limit Your Career Path. While society is getting increasingly open to tattoos every day, there is as yet a taboo with body art that might influence the sort of occupation you get in life. ...
- People May Keep on Asking. ...
- Health Risk. ...
- It's Permanent. ...
- It can be Painful. ...
Some mental health experts say getting a tattoo can be a helpful part of a person's healing process, allowing them to view parts of themselves or their mental health history in a different light.Does getting a tattoo release endorphins? ›
Tattoos cause at least some pain, even if you tolerate it well. The endorphins your body releases during tattooing can make you feel good and cause a euphoric feeling. This feeling may linger for a little while, and it's not unusual to want to experience it again.Why tattoos are not allowed in govt jobs? ›
Health-issue: Tattoo can cause hazardous skin diseases, serious blood-borne diseases, and increases the risk of HIV, Hepatitis A & B, tetanus, allergies, etc. All these medical tests are very costly and the Army cannot afford to test all the candidates with body tattoo.What are the long term effects of tattoos? ›
One long-term effect of getting inked: microscopic ink particles can seep past your skin and get into other parts of your body. A new study sounds the alarm. When you think about the health risks of getting a tattoo, problems that reveal themselves right away come to mind—like infections and allergic reactions.What does the Bible say about tattoos? ›
Today they're common everywhere from Maori communities in New Zealand to office parks in Ohio. But in the ancient Middle East, the writers of the Hebrew Bible forbade tattooing. Per Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.”Why can't you have an MRI after a tattoo? ›
Tattoo Ink and MRIs
MRI machines use powerful magnets and radio waves to create detailed pictures of the soft tissues of the body, such as joints and organs. Tattoos sometimes have metal particles( like iron) in the ink, which can interact with the magnetic and radio waves of an MRI, and become irritated.
- It helps improve the immune system. ...
- It reduces cortisol levels in the body. ...
- Multiple tattoos help weightlifters and bodybuilders. ...
- Apparent tattoos can get you hired too. ...
- Tattoos can improve vaccination methods. ...
- Tattoos increase self-confidence. ...
- Tattoos make people feel good.
Peer pressure, media influence, and personal expression are some of the common reasons for wearing tattoos today. The desire to be part of a group, to be accepted by one's friends or peers, can have a great influence on what a person does. Sometimes, wearing a tattoo can be a sign that you belong to a certain group.Why are tattoos important? ›
The history of tattooing goes back for thousands of years, and the reasons for getting tattooed are many. These permanent markings are always personal, they can be plain or elaborate, and they serve as amulets, healing and status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religion, adornments and even forms of punishment.Are tattooed people happier? ›
One study of 82 people with tattoos conducted by Swami and published in the journal Body Image found that people have “significantly” less anxiety and dissatisfaction with their appearance immediately after getting a tattoo.Why do tattoos relax me? ›
When you get a tattoo, your body releases endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring chemicals that are produced by your body to relieve stress and pain.Do tattoos affect the brain? ›
Tattoo Inks Carry Carcinogenic Nanoparticles
It has been proven that black tattoo ink carries these particles in the smallest size, and white ink carries them in the largest size. These nanoparticles can be carcinogenic, causing damage to the brain or the nervous system.
Don't panic. This “tattoo flu” is pretty common and should fade into memory in a few days (unlike your new tattoo). Your body's immune system is making you feel wiped out while it attacks potential threats to your bod. Be on the lookout for a mild fever, chills, fatigue, and some tummy discomfort.Where does the Bible say tattoos are a sin? ›
The Bible warns against tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 (Amplified) which says, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”