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, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as 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 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. 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.
Tattooing has been practiced for centuries in many cultures and spread throughout the world. The Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan, traditionally had facial tattoos, as did the Austroasians. Today, one can find Atayal, Seediq, Truku, and Saisiyat of Taiwan, Berbers of Tamazgha (North Africa), Yoruba, Fulani and Hausa people of Nigeria, and Māori of New Zealand with facial tattoos.
Tattooing was popular among certain ethnic groups in southern China, Polynesia, Africa, Borneo, Cambodia, Europe, Japan, the Mentawai Islands, MesoAmerica, New Zealand, North America and South America, the Philippines, Iron Age Britain, and Taiwan. The modern revival in tattooing stems from the voyage of Captain James Cook in the late 1700s. Cook's Science Officer and Expedition Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, returned to England with a tattoo. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy and had acquired his position with Cook by putting up what was at the time the princely sum of some ten thousand pounds in the expedition. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Raiatean man, Omai, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. Many of Cook's men, ordinary seamen and sailors, came back with tattoos, a tradition that would soon become associated with men of the sea in the public's mind and the press of the day. In the process sailors and seamen re-introduced the practice of tattooing in Europe and it spread rapidly to seaports around the globe.
As many tattoos were stimulated by Polynesian and Japanese examples, amateur tattoo artists were in great demand in port cities all over the world, especially by European and American sailors. The first documented professional tattoo artist in the US was Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant who arrived in Boston in 1846. Between 1861 and 1865, he tattooed soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War.The first documented professional tattooist in Britain was established in the port of Liverpool in the 1870s. In Britain tattooing was still largely associated with sailors and the lower or even criminal class, but by the 1870s had become fashionable among some members of the upper classes, including royalty, and in its upmarket form it could be an expensive and sometimes painful process. A marked class division on the acceptability of the practice continued for some time in Britain.
Since the 1970s, tattoos have become a mainstream part of Western fashion, common among both sexes, to all economic classes, and to age groups from the later teen years to middle age. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. The tattoo has "undergone dramatic redefinition" and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression. In 2010, 25% of Australians under age 30 had tattoos.