Tattoos have never been cemented as an artform with a single purpose: they have existed throughout history as a therapeutic tool, a charm for luck or protection, an identifier, a stigma, and a symbol. Tattoos hold whatever meaning is attributed to them, and there’s a long list of meanings attributed to tattoos. But when we discuss the importance of a tattoo, it’s the personal value that matters the most. What is your tattoo to you? Is it a symbol of emancipation? A representation of your faith? A dedicated memorial to a loved one?

Does it matter if a tattoo is important or not important? Many argue that the permanence of an indelible ink marking would naturally represent something crucial and important. But many others would argue that tattoos are ephemeral rather than permanent – they fade and distort and are only meant to look the way they look in the first few years after they’re inked. Some people get tattoos almost on a whim, and some really do just get one without much forethought (or afterthought, for that matter), and that’s fine too. It drives home the point that the importance of a tattoo is entirely subjective, and impossible to narrow down into a single definition. So, I will ask again:

What does a tattoo mean to you?

As I so often do in these little articles, I’ll refer to history to provide useful context for the topic of the day. Importance has shifted greatly when it comes to tattoos, with definitions and meanings shifting over time and between cultures. The oldest tattoos we have archeological evidence for were found on a Tyrolean mummy, Ötzi the Iceman, who bore 61 primitive and simple markings, usually dots and lines, on different points on his body.

It’s theorized that these tattoos were largely therapeutic in nature, as the tissue underneath revealed issues that might’ve led to chronic pain, digestive problems, and a host of other health woes. So, we can assume that, at some point, the prehistoric European culture Ötzi belonged to practiced some form of inked acupuncture to deal with pain and various ailments, perhaps to some degree of success.

The next notable example comes from the Chinchorro man of Chile, who had a very thin dotted mustachio tattooed onto his lip. We can assume that these markings were mostly aesthetic rather than therapeutic and perhaps they were part of a traditional facial style for men at the time.

It only gets more complex from hereon out. Different cultures used tattoos for many different purposes, each distinct and with its own set of rules and meanings. Tattoos in China, Russia, and Japan were used to brand and exile criminals. The Romans tattooed their slaves to catch and identify runaways, and tattooed soldiers.

What does all this have to do with you, dear reader? It is to say that little has fundamentally changed in the human urge to get inked – there’s plenty of reasons to do it, and it’s up to you to determine which reason suits you best, or which first drew you to tattoos to begin with.

Tattoos as a social calling card.

One of the most common reasons to get inked is to display one’s status. The Japanese merchants in the post-crisis Edo period chose the tattoo as a way to imprint the art and talent of the woodblock artists popular at the time on their own skin, in places where the ruling class (the samurai) could not see nor confiscate their new fortune. At the time, merchants were at the bottom of the social ladder, yet a stagnant tax rate and growing unrest allowed them to accumulate wealth, while edicts forbade them from flaunting it. Today, after the modern tattoo renaissance, many of the greatest and most prolific artists in the world command prices that only few could afford to pay.

Tattoos can also signify one’s position on the very opposite of the class system. For decades, tattoos were (and continue to be) largely associated with criminality and thuggish behavior, because they were more common among society’s outcasts. A tattoo could more specifically be used to weave the story of one’s life in pretty pictures – from prison tattoos to the complex tattoo tradition of the yakuza, specific tattoos have specific meaning to those who ‘earned’ them through their actions and experiences. Among many warrior cultures, like the Kalinga of the Philippines, tattoos denote a warrior’s skill and prowess, or their status as chief. For the sailors who popularized the Navy culture of tattooing, one’s tattoos were a series of nautical achievements inked on skin.

Tattoos as veneration.

Many choose to use a tattoo to dedicate a part of themselves – both physically and spiritually – to something greater, be it a loved one, a mentor, an idol, or a religious figure. This practice is ancient as well, with tangible evidence of religious tattooing dating back to the days of ancient Egypt.

If you’re after a display of faith, it probably doesn’t get more hardcore than a tattoo. You’re stabbing your skin several thousand times over while injecting ink deep into the layers of your dermis, leaving behind an image that remains visible for years and decades. Whether for protection, dedication, or to remind yourself of where your principles lie and what you truly believe, tattoos have for millennia served as a way to link oneself to a greater purpose or higher being.

Tattoos “just because”.

For many people, it’s really not that deep. You don’t have to study for a decade and ponder countless nights over a single design before truly committing to it. Many don’t really know what they’re going to get until they walk into their first tattoo parlor and pick something out of a book or off the wall. And that’s fine too. Sometimes, it’s not about what the tattoo depicts, but the act of tattooing itself.

Should you get a tattoo?

If you’ve always been interested in getting a tattoo, and just want to figure out whether it’s something you really want, then get a t-shirt first. See if that satisfies your urge. If it doesn’t, then maybe it’s something that deserves to be on your skin. While you can have your own philosophy around the significance or importance of a tattoo, nothing changes the fact that they are largely permanent – getting one removed can be very expensive, even nowadays, and it’ll likely stay that way for some time yet.