The word tattoo, or tattow in the 18th century, is from the Polynesian word tatau, meaning "to write".The gives the etymology of tattoo as "In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu." Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring, or staining.A tattoo is a form of body modification where a design is made by inserting ink, dyes and pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment. Tattoos fall into three broad categories: purely decorative (with no specific meaning); symbolic (with a specific meaning pertinent to the wearer); pictorial (a depiction of a specific person or item). Brought to Europe from Polynesia in the early 19th century through naval routes, it was originally largely restricted to naval use, and was a male-only domain. By the later 20th century its use was more widespread and extended to female users. By the end of the 20th many stigmas of the tattoo culture had gone and it moved into the realm of being a fashion accessory for both men and women.Many tattoos serve as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, amulets and talismans, protection, and as punishment, like the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. Tattoos may show how a person feels about a relative (commonly mother/father or daughter/son) or about an unrelated person.Today, people choose to be tattooed for artistic, cosmetic, sentimental/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) or a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Some Māori still choose to wear intricate moko on their faces. In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the yantra tattoo is used for protection against evil and to increase luck.Text-based tattoos including quotes, lyrics, personal mottos or scripture are popular in western culture. As an example some Christians might have a Psalm or verse from the Bible tattooed on their body. Popular verses include John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Psalms 23.
In the Philippines certain tribal groups believe tattoos have magical qualities, and help to protect their bearers. Most traditional tattooing in the Philippines is related to the bearer's accomplishments in life or rank in the tribe.
Extensive decorative tattooing is common among members of traditional freak shows and by performance artists who follow in their tradition