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Unexpected Inking

You are showering one morning when you notice a tattoo on your body that you're quite sure you don't remember getting. What is it, how did you get it, and what does it mean?

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 Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, December 1944

Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, December 1944

Last week I looked up the etymology of the word "tattoo" and learned that it comes from the Polynesian word tatu or tatau, meaning "to write," and later "puncture" or "mark made on skin." The word came to English in the mid-to-late 1700s via the writings of the British explorer Captain James Cook, who made some of the first detailed maps of the Pacific and the islands therein.

Aesthetic scarring and pigmentation was already common among Maori people in New Zealand, as well as in cultures indigenous to Tahiti and Samoa, when Western explorers first encountered them. Sailors would get tattoos as "souvenirs," often with specific shapes symbolizing the different locations they had visited, ranks, memberships, and other significant life events. For example, an anchor tattoo first symbolized a sailor who had crossed the Atlantic, while a dragon represented service in Asia.

This Week's Writing Prompt: You are showering one morning when you notice a tattoo on your body that you're quite sure you don't remember getting. What is it, how did you get it, and what does it mean?

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