Tattoo artists were invented in 1798, when Jean-Baptiste St-Michel decided to paint himself with black and white designs so that they would resemble the stripes worn by the French troops, who fought a bloody war against Napoleon. Invented by William Smith Phillips, the black-and-white drawings are the product of an intense interest in “primitive” artwork, and the technique’s popularity spread rapidly in Europe and the United States until the mid-20th century.
Why aren’t tattoos like this still legal?
Most tattoos, including body art, are prohibited at the federal level in the U.S. because of a federal law that bans “any and all obscene or indecent representations, descriptions, or slogans of the human form.” Though the tattoos, whether applied to the body, in some cases on objects, or digitally inked onto one’s hand, look very much like the human form, this prohibition has prevented a lot of people with body dysmorphia from getting tattoos. Because the government may find a tattoo to be “indecent,” it’s unclear if tattooed individuals can be prosecuted.
Is the U.S. the only country with such strict laws against body art?
Yes—including in South Korea. In 2003, the South Korean Supreme Court banned body art, including tattoos, because the country was suffering from a large number of deaths caused by an eating disorder.
Doesn’t this thing look like a penis?
You bet your ass! Body art that mimics the body, like the ones above, are called “male penile tattoos” and are illegal in South Korea, which doesn’t classify gender as immutable. However, male-male body art isn’t banned in the U.K. or Australia, either: The male-to-male body art law there is specifically limited to “non-sexualized images” and is often used for legal purposes, like when someone accidentally runs into someone’s yard.
But if I can go to Australia and get a female body art, why won’t I?
Because the Australian government considers penis-themed body art to be “highly offensive” and also to be in danger of “potentially damaging children and/or women.” But even when a person is just trying to get away with wearing a penis tattoo, some people might find it upsetting. But if it is too upsetting, then the government can’t even prosecute it, so
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