Like many New Yorkers, I had seen an occasional tattoo while growing up and wondered about the origin of the art, but not until performing medical service in the military did I see tattoos through a professional eye. When servicemen came into the Dermatology Clinic for examinations, I’d ask them about their tattoos. Mother, God and Country dominated the imagery for GI’s at that time. Their tattoos were a subject of conversation rather than the reason for an office visit. Then, when patients from tropical stations began presenting a variety of uncomfortable reactions in their tattoos — which various treatments did not help — I began searching to find the cause and cure for the 27 soldiers, sailors and marines who were affected.
This study took three years of research. Simply stated, commercial yellow pigment, when mixed with red, triggers allergic reactions in some tattoos exposed to sunlight. One solution for the servicemen’s troublesome tattoos was to use a physical sun block. The late, great comedian Henny Youngman might have joked: If your tattoo itches in the sunshine when your shirt’s off —don’t take your shirt off! But wearing a shirt at the beach defeats the purpose of showing off tattoos, just like using the thick white sun barrier, that life guards apply to their noses, would if you covered tattoos with it.
The optimal solution would be an absorbent lotion to protect skin, with or without tattoos, from damage due to solar radiation exposure. During the following two years I formulated the original sunscreen PreSun to fill this need.
Through years of group practice, an increasing percentage of tattooed women visited the office. One wore a bandana that prompted my interest in tattoo removal. The tattoo she hid was large and deep. It covered her forehead completely. Excision, grafting, acids, cautery, salts, cryotherapy and dermabrasion were removal techniques available then. Of these, deep dermabrasion was the preferable option. The procedure healed very well enabling her to fulfill career goals without a bandana. Progressive photos of the surgery are among 12,000 tattoo images in my library. With the array of lasers available today, past removal techniques are rarely used, as are most primitive tattooing methods.
“Modern” tattooing began in the 1880s with the advent of the electric tattoo needle which sped up the process for full body tattoos. Tattooed ladies joined tattooed men as circus oddities. One of the few tattooed women in high society was born in Brooklyn and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill. Moving back through history, Capt. Cook’s final voyage to the Sandwich Islands in 1769 was documented in his Journal noting that both sexes “mark their bodies.”
The tattoo implement in use was a humerus bone of an albatross laced to a stick. In the year 325, Eskimo women had facial tattoos made by pulling blackened sinew between their layers of skin. Contemporaneously, Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, and forbade facial tattooing.
The “painted men” of Iberia were tattooed, and called Picts by Roman Legionnaires. For a thousand years before Christ, the Aztecs, Chinese and Japanese were tattooing. In archaic Greece, men were tattooed as a sign of nobility or bravery. Later Grecian tattoos were limited to slaves and criminals. There is no evidence of tattoos among Hebrews even before the Mosaic Law prohibited it. Libyan males from the same period were found with tattooed symbols of sun worship. Egyptian mummies from 2000 BC showed tattoos on women but not men. It is postulated that the earliest tattoos date to the Ice Age.
Throughout the world and over 10,000 years, the form of body decoration called tattoo has been termed “permanent.” It is our generation of scientists who have removed the term “permanently” from the history defining tattoos. Laser technology developed by Leon Goldman, M.D. in the 1960s continues to advance rapidly. Lasers have adapted for tattoo removal. Those able to tolerate tattooing should manage the sensation of laser treatment well. The Q-switched Alexandrite and Nd:YAG, chosen for tattoo removals in the Dermatology Department of the Mount Sinai Medical Center, are considered the gold standard of today.
Norman Goldstein M.D., FAAD
Laureate Fellow ACP
Senior Faculty, Dermatology
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Mount Sinai Medical Center
5 East 98th Street, 5th floor
New York, NY 10029-6189
Tel: (212) 241-9728