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Tattoos and Body Piercing

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

In addition to temporarily altering their physical appearance through the use of cosmetics and hair coloring, some adolescents choose to enhance their physical appearance in more permanent manner through the use of body piercings and tattoos. Naturally, decisions of such a permanent nature can alarm, frighten, or even disgust some parents. However, if parents can put their feelings aside they will be in a better position to talk calmly to their children about these options. When parents speak to their adolescent children in a calm and respectful manner, their children are more likely to listen to, and benefit from, their parents' wisdom. As parents become more knowledgeable and informed about these topics they are better able to assist youth to evaluate the risks and benefits of these procedures. This increases the likelihood their youth will make wise and healthy decisions that they will not later regret.

Tattoos

Tattoos (also called "tatts" or "ink") are words or images that are temporarily or permanently imprinted on the skin. The use of tattoos has a long history dating back to 2000 B.C. or even earlier. Throughout history, tattoos have served many different purposes including religious symbols, amulets for protection, status symbols, group membership identification, declarations of love, and simply body adornments. As body adornments, tattoos can be primarily decorative but they may also serve a specific cosmetic purpose (such as tattooed eyeliner).

Tattoos can be multicolored or they can be monochromatic shades of black and gray. Tattoos can be either temporary or permanent. Temporary tattoos use pigments rubbed onto the skin that can be washed off or removed with finger nail polish remover. Some types of temporary pigments, such as henna (commonly used in religious and cultural celebrations), are longer lasting. However, in this article we focus on permanent tattoos as these are the type of tattoos that are of the greatest concern to many parents. Permanent tattoos are created by using a needle to repeatedly inject pigmented ink into the skin. Human skin has many layers that serve different functions. The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin, and the dermis lies just underneath it. Tattoo ink settles between the epidermis and dermis layers of the skin. The only way these tattoos can be removed is through expensive, time-consuming, and painful laser treatments and other abrasive techniques that burn away the images. These costly procedures cannot restore the skin to its original condition, and will leave behind permanent scars.

The federal government's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates what kind of inks may be used in tattooing; however, it does not govern the practices of tattoo artists, nor does the FDA provide any oversight of the tattoo industry. Instead, most tattoo businesses and tattooing practices are governed by state and local jurisdictions. Therefore, the laws regarding teens and tattoos can differ state to state, and from one community to the next. However, many states require youth to be at least 18 years old to obtain a tattoo, and/or require a parent or guardian's presence during tattoo procedures performed on minor aged youth. As well, state and local agencies may develop their own laws and regulations regarding the minimum health standards and safety practices for tattoo artists and tattoo salons. In most areas, tattoo artists are required to obtain a license to practice, and this creates a mechanism to monitor and police this industry to enforce the minimum hygienic standards. Regardless of these rules and regulations governing tattoo practices in a particular community, youth need to be aware of the risks of permanent tattoos and weigh those risks against the anticipated benefits of having a tattoo. Parents can be an important source of factual information about tattoos and can help their youth to make a wise and healthy decision.

When teens express a desire to get a tattoo, many parents initially have a strong negative reaction (even parents who themselves have tattoos). The best course of action is for parents to put aside these negative feelings and strive to open a dialog with their youth about their reasons for wanting a tattoo. It is best to approach such a discussion with genuine curiosity, remaining calm and objective, while listening to children discuss their interest in obtaining a tattoo. Teens may want tattoos for many different reasons. Some youth want a tattoo because it permanently commemorates a special time or achievement in their life. Others want to commemorate a beloved family member, friend, or pet. Some teens want to get a tattoo for its social significance, perhaps one that shows their membership in a group, such as a fraternity, gang, or club; or one that shows their mutual commitment to a friendship or romantic relationship. Many of these reasons are often associated with some rather intense emotions, so adolescents can feel very passionate about getting the tattoo they want. Other teens are less passionate and simply want a tattoo because they think tattoos are visually appealing or "cool."

After parents listen to their teens' reasons for wanting a tattoo, parents should help teens to consider some of the risks of getting "tatted" or "inked." These risks falls into two basic categories: 1) dissatisfaction with the appearance, size, or placement of the tattoo, and 2) physical complications such as allergic reactions and infections, including acquiring some very dangerous viruses such as Hepatitis and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) through improper, unsterile tattoo procedures. Moreover, tattoos can be very expensive.