Please consider contributing supporting the Inking of Immunity 2018 field season at Experiment.com/InkingImmunity.
Full sleeve by Joe at Off Da Rock Tattoo.[/caption]
Michaela and I were despondent from cancellations and because we were collecting data on day two of multiple sleeves (a full arm tattoo) at one studio. Meaning, we were collecting additional saliva samples from individuals we’d already got them from because they were getting big tats that took multiple sessions, so we were collecting pre- and post-tattoo data from day two and didn’t have anyone else we could collect new data from. We hadn’t really worked out what to do with additional data like that. In my previous study, I’d averaged additional samples in and found the additional data didn’t make much difference. We were likely wasting our time, in other words. So I volunteered to drive to the village of Ottoville, out past the Cost U Less, and pick up a family in town for a family reunion who wanted to get their afakasi son (half-Samoan—a distinction I make because Samoans make it, though it both does and does not seem to matter) tattooed and that needed a ride to get there. On the way, I stopped at the Family Mart to find this supposed Tongan.Cargo boxes at shipping yard of Fagatago, American Samoa.[/caption]
He supposedly worked in the cargo boxes, which are the shipping boxes that goods come in. Every Chinese and Korean grocer has them lined up in front of their stores. I’m not really sure why. Do they simply have stuff dropped off in them and trade them out, keeping them there for additional storage? I’ve never thought to ask. I also didn’t know people worked in them. But I stopped at Family Mart, didn’t see anyone around the boxes or any doors to knock on, walked around inside first, didn’t see any likely candidates, then went back outside to the car and saw a guy who could have been my Tongan coming out of the box. He had hair clipped short, looked Polynesian possibly but not necessarily Samoan (wasn’t big enough), and his arms were covered with tattoos (though not Samoan tattoos). He was coming out of one of the boxes carrying goods to restock shelves inside.
He had a dour appearance when I approached him. I asked if he was Tomesi or Ollie (names changed for confidentiality) and he said no. I asked him if he knew Tomesi or Ollie, and he shook his head no. I told him I am a researcher studying tattooing and referenced an article in the Samoa News and radio and TV interviews we had just done about our research to give my story credibility. So far, everyone we had encountered had heard or read one of these, because there are limited media outlets on island. Puzzled, I asked him if he was a tattoo artist, and he said yes. So I gave him my phone number, got his name and phone number, and asked if I could call him to talk to him about our study. He said yes, we arranged a time, and I left to finish my errand, elated by my success in the face of our flagging sampling. I had found the Tongan tattoo artist Niko had told me about, but his name was Chilo, not Ollie or Tomesi, and he had no Polynesian tattoos that I could see. However, even the tattoo experts often have tattoos they’ve collected elsewhere in their youths. I saw so many eagles, for instance. Granted, an eagle is on the American Samoa flag carrying a Samoan war club and fly-whisk, but there are no eagles in American Samoa. It represents the U.S. And Pago Pago. Though this is no different than U.S. teams being represented by Tigers. Fagaitua are the Vikings, for instance.
I had promised to call Chilo at a time that evening. The idea that one show up on time to a meeting is a Euroamerican convention or what you do for work and church, not necessarily other situations. So I had the best of intentions of calling him later, but we were spent after our day of resampling the same person and decided to treat ourselves and our foul moods to a movie and dinner out with our friend David to cheer ourselves up. I didn’t notice until the next day that I’d received a phone call during dinner from an unknown number. Now in the mainland, I’m so phone phobic, I’d never call someone back who called me that I didn’t know and who didn’t leave a message, but people can’t leave messages on my cheap American Samoa Telecommunications Authority flip-phone, and who would be calling me? Only someone interested in or related to the research. So I called back, and it was this guy I met in the cargo box. That never happens. Chilo actually called me. We couldn’t believe it. So I arranged for us to meet with him in Pago after he got off work Monday, where he would take us to his house to talk and so we could find it for collecting tattoo data later.David Herdrich is more than just a friend; he is Director of American Samoa Historic Preservation Office and one of the most important people on our American Samoa research team.
And here we were, sitting anxiously in our car, wondering if Chilo were some type of Tongan criminal, a killer preying on stupid palagi scientists who’d taken no safeguards. Since this is a true story that I am writing for an anthropology class and to describe fieldwork—and lest I reify any stereotypes, I’ll hazard a few spoilers—he was neither Tongan, I don’t think, nor, to my knowledge, had he any malevolent intent. This was all our imaginations, but stay tuned, because it was still weird.
We finally voiced our mutual discomfort at sitting in an isolated parking lot behind a building in the dark in Pago and moved the car to a spot in front on the main road. There we sat a while longer. We called Chilo to check on his progress, and he told us he was on the way, almost there. Half an hour later, we called him again, and he was just leaving work...I finally gave him 15 minutes before I was going to leave. When 15 minutes was up, Michaela told me I should call him to tell we were leaving, but I just wanted to bail. Reluctantly, I did call him, and he asked where we were, saying he was in the parking lot and couldn’t find us. This freaked me out. How did he get by? I didn’t want him coming to get in the car or to come to the car window, so I got out to find him. He had come through from the back, and I met him back at the gate, out of Michaela’s sight. But he was nowhere as threatening in person as he had become in my mind’s eye, so I brought him over to the car to introduce to her. Fortunately, he also no longer wanted us to go to his house. Their pastor and his family were there, he said. It might seem odd that a church event was going on at his house, and he was in a dark parking lot with us talking tattoo, but it makes perfect sense in Samoa. We sat at a picnic table in the back of the plaza to talk. This was in a well-lighted area, and as we sat there, some Coast Guard palagis we knew happened by in their uniforms and chatted with us, which gave us additional relief.
The story Chilo told us was exciting and incredible. He wasn’t Tongan at all, as I mentioned, but from Western Samoa. He had his own tattoo studio and business on the side, doing tattoos with electric gun and hand tap. He said he had been trained by a Sulu’ape. We explained our project in the slow manner that we do, because English is not the first language of many Samoans, using simple words, repeating certain things, focusing on the cultural elements, ensuring him that we were looking for partners in this study, not simply participants. We shared a copy of the informed consent, which outlined the study in simple terms, in English and Samoan. At one point, Chilo started crying, which was both surprising and touching. He said God had sent us to help him and his business, and he was grateful and happy to participate.
The Samoan Islands are 99% Christian. The missionaries did their work well there. Though sometimes being Christian is a means to a social end, the structure of Christianity mapped well onto the village-based authoritarian structure that included top-down morality, and it flourished there. American Samoa is emblematic of anthropologist Rich Sosis’ “3Bs” model of religious commitment signaling. You can observe religious commitment via behavior, badges, and bans. People go to church all the time, wear elaborate clothing, and observe a hefty load of religious taboos. But conspicuously missing among these Bs, Sosis notes, is belief. It’s not necessary to demonstrate commitment, though it often develops simply by following through other three signs, as a way to minimize cognitive dissonance. Many Samoans are cynical about religion, but they are still Christian. I don’t know Chilo's religious values, but his statement that God had sent us to him came as no surprise.
What did surprise us is that he said he would be doing a malu this week. It was like we’d bought the Willy Wonka chocolate bar with the golden ticket. A malu is the female counterpart to the pe’a. These are the special midriff and thigh tattoos that only Samoans are supposed to get and symbolize one’s commitment to village, matai (chief), and aiga (family). Malu means to hold together, and the symbols that characterize the malu include crosshatches, like the ties that bind the house together. They represent the importance of the Samoan woman in binding the family and village together. But tattooing is primarily a male domain, so, though we had seen several men getting pe’a, which has similar significance, we had yet to see a woman getting a malu. And Chilo wanted us to part of this tattoo experience. He would have us wear gloves and a gown and be in the inner circle of the tattooing with his stretchers. And he wanted us to take photos. The family would be OK with it, he assured us, and we would not be in the way because the family would be in the room outside.
All of this was very exciting but also quite odd. First, all the tattoo artists on Tutuila know each other, as it is a small place. For that matter, most of the tattoo artists in the entire South Pacific seem to know each other, and no one knew this guy. Second, when we asked about hand tap artists, all the same names came up, regardless of who we talked to. Becoming a hand tap artist is no small thing, as it requires an intensive apprenticeship, and there are a limited number of people with whom one can apprentice, especially in the Samoas. If one is a Su’a and/or a Sulu’ape, one is known because one has started as a stretcher for years and been conferred a title with the tools and permission to tattoo. Sulu’ape is the family name and title granted by that family of master tattooists for completing a certain degree of apprenticeship, and Su’a is a higher title.
According to historian Telei’ai Fanaea Christian Ausage, author of Laei a Samoa, a book about Samoan tattooing, Sasu’a is one of the ancient tattooing guilds and once associated with a specific family. The title is now roughly passed down by or within families, with whom the Sulu’ape family are associated. There is some tension and controversy now about the legitimacy of Sulu’ape as a family name versus a title and what it means and the linkage of the Sulu’ape to the Su’a guild, but as outsiders, these appear to be largely political and economic distinctions. The Sulu’apes have clearly cornered the market on hand tapping, and someone in their family has trained absolutely everyone else conducting hand tapping who is working today. We met Peter Sulu’ape in Honolulu and Paul Sulu’ape in Samoa and interviewed Chris Ausage about the hand tap artists working today. No one mentioned Chilo, we couldn’t find his Facebook page, even though he wrote down the title of it for us, and he didn’t seem connected to any of these tattoo networks.
Furthermore, the idea that Chilo would be a trained Su’a and have his studio set up to keep family out seemed anathema to our experiences of the tap tap tatau experience in the open air fale (or house). At Soul Signature Tattoo in Honolulu, the Polynesian tattoo shop where we met Su’a Peter Sulu’ape, there were several Samoans who had come from Georgia, North Carolina, and Alaska to get pe’a, malu, and other tattoos. Su’a Peter and Sulu’ape Aisea Toetu’u conducted hand tapping in a back room, away from their standard U.S. tattoo parlor set up; but whereas families and friends sat at a distance in the waiting area while tattooing occurred up front, consistent with parlors around the country, family and friends were welcome and encouraged to gather round the person getting tattooed in the back, provided they wore an ie lavalava (the Samoan version of a sarong, worn regularly by females and males and expected in ritual and formal settings). And despite the distance, there were a few family members who seemed to have traveled just to be there while their family members received the pe’a and malu.
In Samoa and American Samoa, family participates as skin stretchers at the tattooing in the fale of the Samoa Cultural Center, where we met Paul Sulu’ape and saw him working. Su’a Wilson Fitaou’s sons worked as stretchers in his fale or when he travels to the homes of others for the hand tapping we saw in American Samoa. Family and friends gather around, hold the hands of the person being tattooing, console and fan them, and massage their muscles to prevent stiffness or break up the bruising caused by the hammering of the tap tap. In no case were family kept separate from those being tattooed in our experiences to that point.
To be continued...
This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.
Please consider contributing supporting the Inking of Immunity 2018 field season at Experiment.com/InkingImmunity.
Instead of syllabus day, I read this story on the first day of my Fall 2017 Neuroanthropology class then launched right into the class. I’d never done this before, but I like to think of the course as interdisciplinary and experimental and that different ways of experiencing materials is important. I was inspired to do this by anthropologist Katie Hinde, who wrote a story to start her human evolution course at Arizona State and blogged about it. Katie is a friend and colleague of mine. She is a contemporary but probably a few years younger than me. Nonetheless, she is trailblazer and someone I admire and look to for inspiration in how to conduct an anthropological career-life. You can find her work at MammalsSuck...Milk, a clever play on words, as her research focus is about mammal milk.
This piece is about the fieldwork I’ve conducted the past two summers. I just wrote it the weekend before the first day of class, so, for better or worse, students heard an early draft of this story that may get published on its own somewhere or in a book some day in some form that will probably ultimately be very different than this. I wrote it because I think our work this summer epitomizes the nature of neuroanthropology as essentially biocultural, and because I think this story encapsulates much of our experience of fieldwork this summer. There may be less neuro than you’d expect here, given the course I read it to, but it’s the ethnographic prelude before we’ve finished collecting and analyzing the neuro data.
We were sitting in a parking lot behind Pago Pago Plaza as the sun went down. The parking lot is between the plaza and the water of the harbor, and a man came by to close the gates. He said the parking lot was open 24 hours, but this one gate would be closed. We sat chatting, both of us getting spooked. It’s not that Pago Pago is the bad part of town like some places in the world where you definitely don’t want to be after dark. I was recently in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where every tour book, every hotel clerk, every driver, every friend says, ‘don’t walk around at night. Take taxis.’I was in Antananarivo to meet with our partners at Eagles Wings Montessori School for our Anthropology is Elemental project.
A good rule of thumb for anthropologists in the field is that when the people who live there don’t go out at night, we shouldn’t either.
But the village of Pago Pago is a dicier area of American Samoa, especially down by the waterfront. It is adjacent to where the tuna canneries are, the ships coming into the freight yards, and the Chinese and Korean and other prostitutes work the bars there.
Author and former American Samoa Historic Preservation Director John Enright paints an appropriately noir picture in his American Samoa detective series that in all others ways feels spot-on. In Pago Pago Tango, this is the area where the bodies of undocumented sex workers from neighboring Samoa, of all places, are found in the water.
American Samoa is not one of those places in the world where people are “disappeared”—government spooks aren’t showing up at people's houses and whisking them away in the night—but it is a place where disenchanted palagis (non-Samoan, generally white people —pronounced puh-LONG-eez—Samoan ‘g’ always gets an ‘ng’ sound) often go to not be found. While running away from it all to a South Pacific island has an air of romance about it, anyone familiar with such stories beyond the first few pages—think of French post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin in Tahiti for instance—knows such stories never end well.
Palagis never blend seamlessly with natives. They are always outsiders. These islands are small. There is not much to do. People there to get away from it all seem sad, are often alcoholics or mentally ill. Enright nails this in his second book Fire Knife Dancing, when he mentions one palagi who locals don’t really know except that he is seen walking the main road every day, not talking to anyone, not looking anyone in the eye. He walks from his house to Pago and back. It’s not clear what he does. This guy is real, and you can see him daily. I walked past him once, and he glanced up from an averted gaze but was careful not to exchange pleasantries.
But as Michaela and I sat in the parking lot, frankly, my mind was on the serial murders that had just taken place in Pennsylvania, where two antisocial, psychopathic 20-somethings had lured others they knew into their cars or to their farm and butchered them. No one knew my research partner and I were there or that we were scheduled to meet a “Tongan” guy covered in jailhouse tattoos who was supposed to be taking us back to his house, a guy who I had met in a cargo box outside Family Mart. So both of us were getting paranoid as hell.
The week before, Michaela and I were on the downward swing of our cycle of elation and despondency in the field. Field research is like that. It doesn’t matter where you are. You have deadlines. You have limited money. You have a project you proposed doing within a timeframe you knew was impossible when you proposed it, but in the current age of funding, you can’t get funding without purporting to be able to accomplish some deliverable in an unreasonable period of time. Our deliverable was to sample saliva from 100 people getting tattooed in American Samoa within a year. Michaela and I study cultural impacts on health, and this study is a follow-up to one we conducted in Alabama a few years earlier. Mind you, when I say we, I designed the study, all data were collected by students, salivary data were analyzed by my colleague Jason DeCaro, and I analyzed, wrote the paper, and reaped the glory of the media coverage.
So, while Michaela and I have independently collected biocultural data like this before, we hadn’t run this actual protocol, and we hadn’t run it together. That didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. We had days of success and pride in our mastery of our craft. But the inexperience with this protocol in this setting---it’s a thing, a source of anxiety. As teachers and researchers, we need to stop ignoring the significance of anxiety and emotional disturbance engendered by and within our research. We need to stop pretending we’ll just get used to the structural impediments that affect psychological stability and the capacity to finish a project like this, such as having some kind of emotional support, either in the field itself or back home.
Not to mention, American Samoa is small and has a small population. There are only 65,000 people who live in American Samoa. There is only one tattoo studio with a visible storefront on the entire island group, which includes the island of Tutuila, where most of the population lives and where we were, as well as the Manu’a Islands, Rose Atoll, and Swain's Island. Aside from that tattoo studio, there is only one other tattooist with an actual studio. There are two Su’a or master hand tap artists in American Samoa. And then there are a handful of tattooists who work out of their homes or travel to other people’s homes, by word of mouth.
This so-called Tongan guy was one such artist who worked out of a home studio or his kitchen or something. We weren’t quite sure. As we went from artist to artist, we asked who else tattoos on the island.
My friend Niko rattled off a list and was calling people for us. I met Niko through Duffy, who we met through Tish. Niko tattooed by going to other people's houses, and I hung out with him for a few days. He rode around with me one day while I was running errands and gave me a rundown on the tattoo community and his part in it, but he never actually did any tattooing while we were there. He told me a schedule going into two weeks that gave me a lot of hope for data collection, then he had family issues and caught the flu and session after session would be cancelled for one reason or another. So when he told me this Tongan tattoo artist worked at Family Mart, I thought, I know where that is. How hard can he be to find? And we were really curious about the Tongan tattoo artists working in American Samoa. Samoans and Tongans don’t generally speak highly of each other. Neither do Hawaiians and Samoans for that matter. There is a lot of ethnic tension within Polynesia, despite sharing a heritage.
Most Samoans place their origins and the ancestral home of the Polynesian god Tagaloa (pronounced TONGA-low-uh) in the Manu’a Islands, which are the easternmost of the populated Samoan Islands. For much of Samoan prehistory, the Manu’a Islands have been somewhat distant and independent from Tutuila, Upolu, and Savai’i, which are closer to each other. However, archaeological and genetic evidence suggest that movement across the Pacific from Near Oceania—New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and other islands associated with the former Sahul landmass—began around 3500 years ago and is associated with the Lapita culture. Within 500 years, they spread to Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. It was roughly another 1000 years before migration moved on—possibly spreading from the Manu’a islands as the easternmost point—to the Cook Islands, Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Throughout prehistory and history, there was continuous movement among the islands, especially those relatively close to each other, like Tonga and Samoa, and opportunity for fierce rivalry and warfare to occur. Tonga and Samoa experienced a period of extreme tension and warfare during a Tongan occupation from 950-1250 AD, where there was cruelty between the two sides that resulted in centuries of bitterness.
Lest you underestimate my point, and adding insult to this longstanding injury, in the 1970s the King of Tonga entered a boat fiberglass boat made in New Zealand in the annual Samoan fautasi race. Fautasi are the traditional Samoan longboats that made such an impression upon early European explorers that the Samoan Islands were first called the Navigator Islands for the speed and distance Samoans were able to travel in these boats. However, by the 20th century, these skills were all but lost and, in fact, banned for all but racing. Villages sponsor boats and race against each other, and the pride of villages is tied up in these races. So for a Tongan boat to win is a crushing blow. And, while it was initially blamed on the novel fiberglass construction, the Tongans switched boats with a Samoan crew to prove their worth and won again, handily. Despite this, fautasi boat-craft shifted precipitously from a native investment in culture to an economic investment in a New Zealand industry, another example of a globalizing process that results in loss of native skill and economic viability.
Thus, Tongans, Fijians, and other Polynesians are treated like second-class citizens in American Samoa, and I imagine the same is true of Samoans on other Polynesian Islands. Tongans supposedly eat dog, according to Samoans. And Tongan tattoo artists supposedly think nothing of tattooing kids, according to Samoan tattoo artists. And they all live in that area behind the elementary school in the village of Pavai’i. This was akin to living in a trailer park outside of town in the areas of the U.S. where I’ve grown up and lived. But, as it happened, Pavai’i was right down the mountain from Tafeta, where we were staying. We could walk through the trees to get there if we were inclined, which gave it an even more intrigue and appeal.
...To be continued
This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.
Last year I published a book chapter synthesizing an evolutionary perspective on tattooing for our Evolution Education in the American South volume and concluded by wondering whether athletes, specifically football players, get tattoos more than the average person (Lynn & Medeiros 2017). Earlier research by Koziel and colleagues (2010) indicated that tattooing (but not piercing) is positively associated with bilateral symmetryâmeaning more fit people may be getting tattooed to show off their fitness. In between these two papers, my colleagues and I found that tattooing may prime the immune system (Lynn et al. 2016). The idea was that the body gets used to tattooing, like it gets used to exercise or an inoculation effect, and that the immunosuppressant effects of stress (and cortisol) become lessened with time somehow, so the body does not become susceptible to infection every time it undergoes purposeful moderate stress.Does this guy really need tattoos to show off how fit he is? (Photo by Taco Fleur [CC0])
In our book chapter, we pondered whether elite athletes would be more heavily tattooed to draw attention to their fitness or if they are merely over represented in the media (the media love to show us athlete ink). After all, why would an elite athlete need to do anything additional to look better? They are already clearly fit as elite athletes. But why not test it to be sure? So we rolled out a simple prevalence survey, following Mayers et al. (2002) and Mayers and Chiffriller (2008), using Facebook, email, etc. and collected over 600 usable responses from undergrads nationwide. Our proxy for âeliteâ athletes was to target varsity. Weâre at the University of Alabama, which has a huge varsity program, and of course the winningest football program is the modern era. I only mention that because the tattoos of the football players sometimes get as much press as they do on their own. Current Seattle Seahawk Jesse Williams is a Pacific Islander was in the press for his tats all the time. They werenât Pacific Island style, but still it was a spectacle, especially when he got âYOLOâ on the side of his face. I used to see him in the grocery all the time and embarrass him by approaching him âfor research.â A.J. McCarron, who I think was just picked up by the Buffalo Bills from the Bengals, had a garnish mess of Jesus and crosses on his chest. And Reuben Foster (now with the 49ers) thought he was going to Auburn and had their logo tattooed on his shoulder throughout his high profile tenure at Bama.Pacific Islander Jesse Williams was a spectacle while at Alabama for his tattoos (Photo: Mike Morris, CC By-SA 2.0)
However, at first we found almost nothing useful. Getting varsity athletes to participate in the survey turned out to be really difficult. Of the 600 usable responses, only about 40 are varsity athletes, and there is no statistical differences in tattooing rates between varsity athletes and anyone else. The only thing that predicts tattooing is BMI, which is interestingâhigher BMI is associated with being tatted. With piercing, the only predictor is gender. Females are more likely to get piercedâperiod. So it would seem like a wash until we examine tattoo- and piercing-related complications. Mind you, the rates of tattoo-related complications is really low. Tattoos are simply not that dangers to get. By contrast, the factor most predictive of getting a piercing-related complication is being pierced. Piercing is more risky than tattooing. The only factor predictive of tattooing-related complications is, again, BMI.
Take home: Larger BMI is predictive of more tattooing, but itâs also predictive of more tattoo-related complications. Whatâs that mean? People may enhance or emphasize their phenotypes with tattoos, but thereâs an ultimate costliness if oneâs health is poor (i.e., maybe they are overweight?). You canât cover up poor health with a tattooâyouâre more likely to draw additional attention to it, like the peacock whose tail feathers are TOO big.Poor Gertrude McFuzz crossed the tail feather rubicon that garnered her attention until it and she became a burden. (http://seuss.wikia.com/wiki/File:Gertrude014.jpg)
To retest this model, we surveyed all 30,000 undergrads at the University of Alabama and got over 6000 responses! But I will save those juicy insights for next time. They are even more cool, I promise you!
I was heartened this week by conversations with visiting ALLELE lecturer Nina Jablonski, one of the world's foremost experts on skin biology and evolution. I was glad to see that she discussed tattooing in her 2006 book Skin: A Natural History, though she did not go deep on the biology of tattooing. One reason is that there is not much out there about the biology of tattooing that is not essentially alarmist and negative. What heartened me is that she said she gets a lot of queries about tattooing that are beyond her expertise and interest and that she will start referring the (non-quack) queries to me. Which made me realize I'm something of a expert, having conducted one study on the biology of tattooing, read a lot about it, and currently conducting another in the South Pacific with my main collaborator Michaela Howells.Interviewing Nina Jablonski for "Sausage of Science" and "Science of Race" podcasts with Jim Bindon, Erik Peterson, & Jo Weaver (taking the picture).
That recognition obliges me to speak up about the study just out in Scientific Reports (a Nature journal) that I have been sent press links about in the last several days. I heard one of the researchers speak about the study on a podcast I listen to regularly (I think BBC World Serivce but can't relocate at moment) and was not impressed. The gist of the study is that tattooing has become extremely popular, but the inks are understudied as toxicants. I beg to differ. The potential dangers of tattoo inks is in fact among the most reported on and studied aspects of tattooing addressed in the biomedical literature, alongside the correlations between tattooing and risk behavior (which is a cultural phenomenon, with little to do with the biology of tattooing aside from the signaling function it serves).< href="http://evostudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/1-2.jpg"> Translocation of tattoo particles from skin to lymph nodes. Upon injection of tattoo inks, particles can be either passively transported via blood and lymph fluids or phagocytized by immune cells and subsequently deposited in regional lymph nodes. After healing, particles are present in the dermis and in the sinusoids of the draining lymph nodes. The picture was drawn by the authors (i.e., C.S.).1SCIentIFIC REPORTS | 7: 11395 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-11721-z[/caption]
The fetishism of tattooing in Euroamerican culture over the past few decades is reflected in the alarmist focus of the dermatological literature. Mind you, I don't dispute the findings of the researchers this this Scientific Reports study at all. They find that nanoparticles from tattoo inks migrate to lymph nodes over time. OK. However, one has to dig to the end of the article to the methods section that comes AFTER the Discussion to discover that these findings are based on a sample of 4 corpses with tattoos and 2 corpses without tattoos. There is no indication of the age of the deceased or how long they had their tattoos. There is no indication of where on the body these tattoos are relative to the lymph nodes. And the word "toxic" is used throughout, which has strong cultural bias. The authors conclude:
The piece that finally got me to sit down and write this is titled "Nanoparticle Scientists Warned Tattooed Folks." The fact is that, because of hygiene and sanitation practices around professional tattooing in much of the world, infection is exceedingly rare. The exceptions get all the press. This title alone feeds into the mysticism of nanoscientists and people with doctoral degrees, huge biomedical grants, and big expensive toys as having access to a deeper insights on the human condition. Furthermore, the warning to "tattooed folks" plays into the cultural narrative that tattooed people are a monolithic group that need protection. I may be overreacting in the this latter evaluation somewhat, but the implication is there, at least in part.
I appreciated the podcast interviewer's question to lead author Ines Schreiver, asking her if she actually has any tattoos (I will keep looking for this and provide a link). Whether or not she has them is immaterial, but the way she deflected the question and gave the impression that she does not have any was telling. It suggests to me that she is dismissing the cultural context and meaning tattoos have to make a case for an objective scientific study. There is no complete objectivity in science and even less when we try to disconnect it from context and avoid hidden but potential meaningful variables, like who these corpses were, where on their bodies their tattoos are, and how long they've had them---frankly, these are basic and shamefully overlooked demographic factors. So, I am more concerned with what is not discussed about the corpses than the researchers, but scientific agendas matter.
This study doesn't yet tell us much, as this CBCNews piece points out. I'm glad that we are applying neuroscience approaches to cultural practices, but a neuroanthropological approach is warranted in studying tattooing. There is no link between tattooing and disease, disorder, or death in any of these corpses. There is limited evidence that tattoos can cause some reactions in some people. My lab has an as yet unpublished epidemiological study of tattooing, piercing, and adverse reactions in athletes, following up on two studies (2002 and 2008) at Pace University by the late Lester Mayers and colleagues. The rates of adverse reactions reported by respondents in all of these studies is extremely low, and our study sampled over 1000 people from around the US. Sometimes my tattoos raise up on my skin and itch. This experience is common among tattooed people I have talked to. But is it adverse? I have injuries from playing sports going back to when I was a child that act up. I am frequently sore from going to the gym, but I just need to be careful.
Skin response to pigments is worth investigating, but the framing of this scientific article and some of the media coverage leave much to be desired. I have some experience with this. On the other end of the spectrum, my colleagues and I conducted a small study of the health benefits of tattooing a few years ago. We found that the stress of tattooing MAY prime the immune system. We framed our interpretation in evolutionary signaling and allostasis theory in that article and in a book chapter that makes hypotheses about the signaling functions of tattoos for athletes and fans. The press ate it up and widely reported that, essentially, tattoos are good for you. Except for Jezebel. Caroline Weinberg interviewed me about our study and wrote a measured piece titled "How One Study Produced a Bunch of Untrue Headlines About Tattoos Strengthening Your Immune System."
It is no wonder the public does not know what to believe when it comes to scientific recommendations and health. It is hard to go into the weeds on these studies if one is not an expert. The devil is in the details, and they are exceedingly hard to discern. The public needs to trust us, but it is obvious why they don't. I am saying tattoos can be beneficial. These scientists are saying tattoos can be toxic. Who is right? The truth is in the middle and linked to context. Let's be honest and say that the benefits are probably negligible for the everyday and so are the detriments. These factoids are interesting for scientists but have few implications for everyday people the way they are reported. They are most likely additive benefits and detriments that may even cancel each other out within a contingent biocultural context that is a diverse as are humans.
That is not to say these studies are not important and should not be reported. I think that understanding the biology of tattooing can have implications for understanding the immune system better. I think there's a link between the priming effect we think we see, autoimmune disease, and the hygiene hypothesis. But I don't think this is related to tattooing alone. Tattooing is one cultural practice that may stimulate immune function, but there are others. We can examine these biocultural interactions to better understand human health in context. But without context, we are just in spin city.
Christopher D. Lynn
I am a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama with expertise in biocultural medical anthropology.