Body Art (Complications and Care)

Body art is an individual's attempt to alter his or her body in decorative, sometimes permanent way and can include tattoos, body piercings, and scarification.

The Ötztal Mummy

In 1991 the body of a mummified man was found in a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps, located near the border of Austria and Italy. Through a scientific process called carbon dating, the body was determined to be 5,300 years old. Because the body had been encased in the icy glacier, it was well preserved. Scientists could see the markings of 61 tattoos that were made by rubbing charcoal into small incisions cut into the skin. All but one of the tattoos were located close to joints and on the body's lower back and legs. Some researchers believed the markings were a form of acupuncture as they were consistent with the Chinese acupuncture sites used to treat joint pain, but the discovery of the final tattoo, located on the chest, cast some doubt on this theory. Nevertheless, it is still likely the tattoos were intended to serve as a treatment for health problems.

What Is Body Art?

There are several different forms of body art. Tattoos and body piercings are probably the most well known, but other types include scarification, permanent makeup, and dental modifications such as filing the teeth or adding metallic caps.

Tattoos can be permanent or temporary. To produce a permanent tattoo, ink is injected into the skin's top layer, typically by using a machine, but sometimes manually. Permanent tattoos can only be removed by laser treatments. Temporary tattoos, such as henna tattoos, will wash off over time. Henna is a plant-based dye or stain that is applied to the skin as a paste, somewhat like a colored marker. Henna markings last one to three weeks.

Scarification is the process of purposefully scarring the skin to create a design. This can be done through various methods, such as branding (altering the skin using hot metal or lasers), cutting a pattern into the skin, or peeling skin away to form a design. Body piercings are the creation of holes in body parts (e.g., earlobes, eyebrows, lips, tongue, nasal septum, navel, nipples, vaginal labia, and penis) to insert jewelry.

What Is the History of Body Art?

People have been tattooing or piercing parts of their body since ancient times. Until the discovery of the Ötztal mummy, the earliest evidence of tattoos was found in Egypt. Figurines of Egyptian women dated from about 4000 to 3500 BCE showed tattoos on the limbs, and tattoos were found on three female Egyptian mummies dated about 2000 BCE. Tattoos were used by a number of other ancient cultures as well, including the Romans, the Britons, and the Japanese. Early tattoos served many purposes, such as signifying membership in a group, clan, or tribe; marking someone as a criminal or a member of a lower social caste; beautification; to signify sexual maturity; and as treatment for medical issues. In the 11th and 12th centuries, warriors during the Crusades marked themselves with a cross so if they were killed they would be given a Christian burial.

Tattoos found their way to America in the 1800s but for many decades were primarily only seen on soldiers and sailors. Youth culture movements in the 1950s and 1960s moved tattooing away from its typically masculine affiliation to one of more personal expression and sometimes rebellion.

Body piercing has also been around for thousands of years. The earlobe was probably the first site selected for piercing. In early societies, ear piercings were often done for magical purposes to prevent demons from entering the body through the ear because of the belief that metal from the ear jewelry would ward them off. Ear piercing, like tattoos, was also part of passage ceremonies in some cultures. The piercing was done to indicate the child's passage to puberty. Sailors would get piercings believing that if they were shipwrecked and their body was found, the ear jewelry would help identify them and the value of the jewelry would pay for the cost of their burial.

Who Gets Body Art and Why?

Tattoos and piercings are the most common forms of body art. According to an October 2015 poll, about 29 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo. Younger people are more likely to have tattoos; nearly half of millennials (those born in 1980 and later) reported having at least one tattoo. As for body piercing, in a March 2015 poll, 14 percent of respondents reported they had a piercing somewhere other than the earlobes. The majority of these were women.

There are many reasons why people get tattoos, body piercings, and other forms of body art. Some of these include:

Common healing times for body piercings

Common healing times for body piercings
SOURCE: Akron Children's Hospital. Table by PreMediaGlobal. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

What Are the Health Implications of Tattoos and Body Piercing?

Body art is not always simple and safe. Even temporary tattoos can cause allergic reactions and skin damage. During or following the application of a tattoo or body piercing, various complications can occur:

Over time, individuals may decide they no longer like their tattoos or body piercings. Body piercings can easily be remedied by removing the pierced jewelry. Eventually, most smaller pierced holes will close; however, there may still be scar tissue. Tattoos are more difficult and more expensive to remove and often require several treatments for complete removal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that tattoos be removed by a qualified dermatologist with laser surgery. Even when tattoos are removed by laser, there may be scars that remain in the area of the tattoo.

Infected wound by the belly button (navel) due to improper care of a piercing site.

Infected wound by the belly button (navel) due to improper care of a piercing site.
Dr. P. Marazzi/Science Source.

What Is Necessary to Know before Getting a Tattoo or Body Piercing?

There are several things one can do to prevent complications from a tattoo or body piercing.




See also Infection • Skin and Soft Tissue Infections


Books and Articles

Ferguson, Henry, ed. “Body Piercing.” British Journal of Medicine (1999). Available at: (accessed March 23, 2016).

Krutak, Lars. Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification. Aschaffenburg, Germany: Editions Reuss, 2012.

Thomas, Nicholas, Anna Cole, and Bronwen Douglas, eds. Tattoo: Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West. London: Reaktion Books, 2015.

Weller, Chris. “The Identity Crisis under the Ink.” Atlantic, November 25, 2014. (accessed March 23, 2016).


American Academy of Dermatology. “Caring for Tattooed Skin.” (accessed March 23, 2016).

Healthline. “Getting Tattooed or Pierced.” . (accessed March 23, 2016).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Think before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?” . (accessed March 23, 2016).


American Academy of Dermatology. 930 E Woodfield Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173, and 1445 New York Ave. NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20005. Toll-free: (866) 503-SKIN (7546). (accessed March 23, 2016).

Association of Professional Piercers. PO Box 1287, Lawrence, KS 66044. Toll-free: 888-888-1277. (accessed March 23, 2016).

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)