If you’re one of those folks who doesn’t like to see a tat sleeve, keep this in mind: The more tattoos you get, the more your body gets used to the painful process, effectively bolstering your immune system. At least that’s the idea behind a new research from University of Alabama researchers.
In the study, recently publicized in the American Journal of Human Biology, 29 subjects aged 18 to 47 were examined before and after tattoo sessions. Specifically, their saliva was analyzed for the levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol levels it contained; this antibody and hormone both indicate stress. (Many studies have shown that stress weakens a body’s immune system and makes it more susceptible to sickness.) The researchers hypothesized that tattoo veterans, whose bodies were repeatedly exposed to the stress of being tattooed, would be less affected by the process than tattoo virgins. Indeed, the findings showed that the tat vets’ immune systems had less signs of stress and reduced activity during the tattoo session than those of the newbies.
These results aren’t necessarily surprising. Think about the first few times you lifted weights or went for a run. Your body was likely sore and stiff afterward, but the more you performed these activities, the more your body acclimated to them, and the less pain and discomfort you felt. That’s basically what’s happening during repeated tattoo sessions. What is novel about the study is that it focused on the body’s immune system and stress as it relates to tattooing, something not previously studied.
The experiment also implied that people with hearty immune systems are more likely to get multiple tats, as their bodies heal quickly from the process. In other words, people sporting a wealth of tattoos on their bodies are likely to be folks with strong immune systems. So perhaps frequent tattooing doesn’t so much provide an immunity boost as serve as a marker for those who are healthier than most.
“My hope is that people with poor immune systems aren’t subjecting themselves to a lot of tattoos, and no, I don’t think it would give them as good a boost,” emails Christopher Lynn, one of the study’s authors and a University of Alabama associate professor of anthropology. “We think that that the boost from tattooing highlights what is already a good immune system. The ‘boost’ is less a boost than a priming effect, turning on the immune system and draws more attention to what is already good.”
Lynn says the researchers also collected information on the location of people’s tattoos to see if that had any effect on the immune systems. Would, say, an extra-sensitive body part react differently to the tattooing process? Unfortunately, the study sample was too small to provide useful results. “But tattoo location might be important for a variety of reasons,” he notes. “Is sensitivity and pain even related to [tattooing’s] priming effect on the immune system? We don’t know yet.”
Lynn cautions not to put too much emphasis on the study’s results. At least not yet. The sample was small and pretty homogeneous; subjects were largely young, middle-class, white, educated and in committed relationships. The tattoo facilities were also clean. But Lynn plans to build on his work by studying Samoan tattoos, which are created with objects such as sharp sticks, and often in less-sanitary conditions than that found in many American tattoo parlors.
“I don’t really expect there to be much difference in the biological implications among Pacific tattooing traditions,” he writes, “but one of the great things about a provocative study like this is it opens up a whole new world of questions. So who knows?”
Did You Know
Male Maori of New Zealand were long famed for their full-face tattoos, called mokos. These tattoos, created by carving the skin with a chisel, indicated a man’s status and heritage. Long before mokos became popular, the Maori were master carvers; they simply transferred their woodcarving skills from wood to skin.
THE MEANING OF TA MOKO – MAORI TATTOOING
Ta Moko was like a history of a person’s achievements and represented their status in their tribe.
It was like a resumé. It also served as a reminder to people about their responsibility in life. It was a huge honour for people to have Ta Moko.
Ta Moko was worn by both men and women. It was applied to the face and buttocks of men, and to the chin, lips and shoulders of women. Depending on their ranking, they may also have Ta Moko on their face. Occasionally women would put small markings over their faces or shoulders as a sign that someone close to them had died.
There were no set patterns to the Ta Moko and the meaning of the Ta Moko was dependent on its placement on the face. The left side of the face related to the father’s history and the right side to the mother’s history.
Originally, Ta Moko was chiselled into the skin using an albatross bone. The pigmentations used were Carui gum and dye from other vegetation that was rendered to a soot and then mixed with oil. Each tribal area used different pigments.
One story of how Ta Moko came to The Maori
One day a Maori chief, Mataora, was visited by young people from Rarohenga (the underworld). With them was the daughter of the underworld ruler Uetonga. Her name was Niwareka and Mataora fell in love with her. They got married and were happy together until one day Mataora became jealous of Niwareka and was angry enough to hit her. So she returned home to the underworld. Mataora, grieving over his actions, followed her to Uetonga’s house. Uetonga was practising tattooing and agreed to tattoo Mataora, whose face was only painted. During the tattooing, Mataora sung of his sorrow and his search for Niwareka in the underworld. Niwareka heard the news and returned to him. Then permission was granted for Mataora’s return to the upper world. His tattooing served as a reminder to avoid the evil actions of the upper world. He brought tattooing to the upper world and Niwareka brought a woven girdle from the underworld and so introduced the art of weaving.