CULTURE & ARTS
08/20/2015 09:13 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2015

15 Deep Thoughts On Why Tattoos Are The Most Eloquent Way To Speak Without Words

Sorry Mom and Dad.
Yale University Press P.256 – image 4, Horimono in a late 19th century lithograph by Wilhelm Joest, credit: Anna Felicity Friedman

So you want a tattoo. Or you have a tattoo. Or you have many tattoos. Or you just don't understand why anyone would ever want a tattoo. Or you love tattoos, but your parents just don't understand why anyone would ever want a tattoo. Or you hate tattoos and you just don't know why your parents love them so much. 

Whatever your relationship is to the art of ink, Anna Felicity Friedman's The World Atlas of Tattoo, available from Yale University Press, provides a poetic, informative and vibrant written and visual history of the ancient tradition and its contemporary explosion into mainstream culture. From a tattooed sculpture of a warrior mummy dating back to 500 B.C.E. to a contemporary homage to Rene Magritte by artist Henrique Mattos, the compendium captures the extraordinary complexity of the tattoo tradition. 

Beyond the images worth of endless tattoo inspiration, World Atlas is jam-packed with historical tidbits and deep thoughts that could almost convince any prudish critic of a tattoo's more profound ramifications. On that note, here are 15 deep thoughts from writer James Elkins on tattoos, as excerpted from the book, combined with some of our favorite tattoos of all time.

Sorry Mom and Dad. 

  • "Your skin tells people if you're healthy, how old you are, whether you're embarrassed, nervous or sick. That's the language of skin."
    P. 312 – image 3, Marquesan tattoos illustrated by Karl von den Steinen, 1925, credit: photo Anna Felicity Friedman
  • P. 254 – Neolithic Japanese dogu figurine from the Jomon period, credit: The Art Archive/Alamy
  • "When a tattoo artist makes marks on skin, he or she joins a conversation in progress. When you choose a tattoo, you reveal something about yourself that is already there, even if it's only a hope."
    P.104 – image 5, Tupinambá warrior from Claude d’Abbeville, 1614, credit: Anna Felicity Friedman
  • P. 102 – image 3, Nazca anthropomorphic vessel with tattooed arms, 180 BCE-500 CE, credit: Art Institute of Chicago, photo Anna Felicity Friedman
  • "Like tattoos, sky charts respond to faint clues on a silent surface, finding figures and patterns where nature has not spelled things out."
    Horimono in a late 19th Century Lithograph by Wilhelm Joest, credit: Anna Felicity Friedman
  • P. 135 – image 8, Tattooed inmate from Cesare Lombroso, 1876, credit: Anna Felicity Friedman
  • "Writing on a sheet of paper is different than writing on the skin because the skin is also writing its own story."
    P. 132 – image 6, Pilgrimage tattoos on German diplomat Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf in an anonymous early 18th-century portrait, credit: akg-images
  • P.107 – image 10, Contemporary El Salvador gang tattoos, credit: Jan Sochor/Alamy
  • "Another difference between writing and tattoing is that the tattoo speaks in two different directions: it speaks to the people who see it, as well as to the person who wears it."
    P.214 – image 2, Egyptian 'Bride of the Dead' figurine from the Middle Kingdom, c. 2033-1710 BCE, credit: The Art Archive/Alamy
  • P. 313 – image 4, Samoan pe’a as illustrated in the Wilkes expedition narrative, 1845, credit: Anna Felicity Friedman
  • "A tattoo signals to people who see it, telling them about you, but it also writes back, telling you about yourself."
    P. 316 – image 7, Tattoo patterns from Borneo recorded by Charles Hose and R. Shelford, 1906, credit: photo Anna Felicity Friedman
  • P. 138 – image 12, Tattoos by Sutherland Macdonald, 1890s, credit: Anna Felicity Friedman
  • "A full tattoo is like a deep conversation: your tattoo tells me about you and it tells you about yourself."
    P.130 – image 2, Prehistoric Cucuteni-Tripolye figurine with possible tattoos, 4th-5th century BCE, credit: The Art Archive/Alamy
  • P. 215 – image 3, Libyan men with tattoos from the Tomb of Seti I, as drawn by Carl Richard Lepsius, 1842-45, credit: Razzouk Family
  • "Most importantly, tattoos connect you to your family, town and culture."
    P. 150 – image 3, Murder of Thomas Becket, 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, credit: Mikael De Poissy
  • P. 168 – image 3, Geisha with tiger-patterned kimono, credit: Claudia de Sabe
  • "Even the most personal tattoo, which seems only to be about your own dreams and ideals, is also about your place in the world. "
    P. 150 – image 3, Murder of Thomas Becket, 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, credit: Mikael De Poissy P. 168 – image 3, Geisha with tiger-patterned kimono, credit: Claudia de Sabe P. 151 – image 5, De Poissy working amid examples of his inspiration, credit: Mikael De Poissy
  • P. 247 – image 4, Classic 'arms of Jerusalem' after William Lithgow, credit: Razzouk
  • "Nothing we do is wholly private. Even with an art as personal as tattooing, we live, always, in the public world, in culture and in history."
    P. 271 – image 2, Hindu deity, credit: Tang Ping
  • P. 150 – image 4, Charles Martel, 8th-century Duke and Prince of the Franks, credit: Mikael De Poissy
  • "Tattooing is intimate, heartfelt, and all the things people say, but it is also astonishingly complex: a tattoo is one of the most eloquent and intricate ways to speak without words."
    P. 290 – image 1, Blackwork turtles, credit: Genko
  • P. 287 – image 3, Marquesan bodysuit, credit: Taku Oshima
  • "The word 'tattoo' itself -- which has come to globally represent the art form and cultural practice that inserts pigment under the skin to leave a permanent image -- has a global history."
    P.166 – image 1, Geisha vignette with cherry blossoms, credit: Claudia de Sabe
  • P.121 – image 3, Montage of René Magritte images, credit: Henrique Mattos
  • "Its roots can be traced to mid-18th century interactions between Polynesians who used the term tatau and explorers, such as Louis Antoine de Bougainbille and James Cook. 'Tattoo' and its equivalents in other languages, such as tatouage, tatuaggi and tätowierung have largely replaced myriad turns, such as the 17-century French piquage, the early modern English 'pricking,' the Kurdish deq, the Baka tele, the Thai sak yant, and the Japanese horimono."
    Sleeve composed of elements from Polynesian tattooing with added shading, credit: Steve Ma Ching
  • P. 161 – image 6 – Shark consuming spider-like creature, credit: Deno
  • "One can browse these pages as one would a book of maps -- imagining the places behind the images and planning voyages to go and see them. Channel the narrator in Ray Bradbury's 'Illustrated Man' and use these tattoos as windows to global experience."
    P. 326 – image 1, Rainbow serpent with Aboriginal food animals and handprints representing ancestors, credit: Tatu Lu
  • P. 153 – image 5, Pirate looking through a spyglass and sailing in a paper boat, credit: Nuno Costah
  • "Sit back and (armchair) travel through the astonishingly varied designs inscribed by talented and dedicated tattoo artists on the skins of a colossal range of the world's citizens."
    P. 85 – image 2, Symmetrical forearm tattoos evoking Pacific Islander tattooing, sacred mandalas, and architectural ornament, credit: Roxx
  • P. 189 – image 5, Portrait of a human-like poodle in Victorian garb, credit: Susanne Susa Konig

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