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Tattoos are everywhere these days. What are we expressing with this new vision of beauty, that calls for the tattoo to complete it? Until a few decades ago in the West, tattoos were associated mostly with sailors, prisoners, gang members, soldiers and carnival performers.

When I was a child, the only tattoos I saw were those that decorated men of my father’s age who had been sailors. Their eagles and pinups evoked a shadowy, faraway male world of combat, danger, foreign ports and drunken brawls in red-light districts. In the 1940s, tattoos were sometimes called travel marks, and many of them did seem like exotically tawdry souvenirs.

In Japan, the ancient art of irezumi has had a similarly unsavory underworld connotation, and although the Japanese style of tattooing has strongly influenced the contemporary tattoos being done in the West, here there is still a stigma associated with the old-fashioned style. Interestingly, the trendy tattoos now in Japan are stylistic imports, similar to those seen in the U.S. and Europe.

Along with body piercing, tattoos have become an initiatory symbol among the younger generation and in the alternative culture. Tats are seen on film celebrities, athletes and supermodels. It is no longer surprising to see a woman with a rose, a butterfly or some other little ink picture adorning her ankle, hip or shoulder. While men as well as women are getting tattooed these days, it is the woman’s tattoo that is the more groundbreaking. The tattoo has always been more masculine than feminine, but this is changing.

“I wanted a tattoo because I wanted something special and unique and all my own,” says a friend with a stylized sun-face tattoo on her shoulder. “It’s my little secret.”

Scratch the surface, though, and her tattoo reveals more ritualistic, multilayered references and motivations.

“I chose the sun because it means happiness, and it reminded me of summer and childhood and how I want to live my life.”

And the location for the tattoo?

“I put it on my back because I like knowing it’s there without seeing it. And it’s sexy.”

When was it done?

“I did it when I got my degree, as a celebration.” In addition, she tells me, she and her boyfriend got their tattoos at the same time. Her parents don’t approve. In one little design, then, she has decoration, individuality, a personal happiness charm, a mark of love, an erotic secret, a sign of accomplishment and initiation, and a symbol of separation from the world of her parents.

And the pain, I asked? She didn’t really mind it; it made it feel like an achievement she could be proud of. “The result was worth it,” she said. “I really love my tattoo.”

For the contemporary woman, the transgressive tattoo expresses the power to determine her own identity. She armors herself with her decorated skin, draws upon the talismanic, emblematic power of the butterfly, or the sun-face, or the rose in which she sees her secret self. A sun-face is the picture of achievement and an invocation of happiness for my young friend.

Another friend, a woman in her 50s, leaves an unhappy marriage and has a butterfly tattooed upon her lower back. It is the picture of her liberation. Getting the tattoo is as painful an initiation as her emergence into her new self, and the butterfly is as beautiful as her freedom.