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Personal identity is a huge facet of every culture. Sometimes you're supposed to suppress it, and other times it is extolled as the greatest of virtues. One way of marking this externally has, for centuries, been tattooing. While nowadays tattoos are almost singularly designed to express personal identity, in its beginnings it was also a way to mark cultural identity. Polynesians and other cultures have been practicing a signature style of tattoos since the first sharp piece of wood was tipped with ink and jabbed into someone's skin. As the wound healed the color stayed, and this became a way of marking people not only as themselves, but also as part of a larger community; someone privileged to be a part of their unique peoples. For whatever reason, the United States seem to think that it is immune to this phenomenon; that tattoos over here are only an expression of personal identity and are in no way used to separate people out. Tattoos still have a stigma in United States culture as a sign of a hoodlum or miscreant, or if not this powerful, someone who at the very least is a member of the counterculture. To be fair, the United States is not alone in this; Japanese people still have great fear of tattoos because of the dreaded Yakuza, an organized crime syndicate that covers themselves, often head to toe, in intricately designed tattoos. Many Japanese bath-houses will still not permit people sporting tattoos, for fear that they may be connected with the notorious criminals. While the United States may be slightly more tempered to the usage of tattoos than Japan, we still show a great deal of anxiety over the issue. A visible tattoo can easily bar someone from a high paying job, even if there is nothing obscene or suggestive about it; even if, as many people contend, it is a work of art. This is ironic in that our country prides itself so heavily on being independent, owing to our rebellious roots back in 1776. However, for whatever reason, we see tattoos as people trying to escape our society, eschew our social norms. What America needs to realize is that people with tattoos are not looking to escape society, simply to carve their own niche in it. Tattoos are a way to identify with other people of your same interests and beliefs, which may not be as un-American and rebellious for rebellion's sake as some people may think. For example, one time-honored tradition of tattooing can be found in America's military. Popeye the Sailor did not sport anchor tattoos because cartoonists were secretly trying to convince kids to go out and rebel, it was a choice of historical accuracy. Every division of the armed forces is inundated with symbols and phrases that portray their beliefs, and thus having them tattooed on you shows your own dedication to this cause. Are they trying to escape everyone else by doing this? Of course not, they are merely showing solidarity within their own social group, while also trying to show that they are individuals. Tattoos have been around for centuries, and aren't going to be leaving any time soon. Perhaps it's time for American businesses and the ilk to get used to the idea and just call a tattoo for what it is: art.

Written by John Throop, a writer for a tattoo company in Chicago, IL.

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