Tattoos: forensic considerations


Tattooing refers to marking of the skin by puncturing and introducing pigmented material. Although it derives from a Polynesian word, tautau, decorative tattooing has been found in most societies over many centuries. The purpose of tattooing has varied from simple decoration, to a marker of social rank, criminal and noncriminal group membership, or a particular rite of passage in tribal communities. Tattooing may be used in medicine to mark areas for radiotherapy, and may occur inadvertently associated with certain occupations such as coal mining. Forensically, tattoos may be very useful in assisting with body identification if facial features or fingers have been damaged or removed. Aspects of a decedent’s history may also be deduced from certain tattoos such as military tattoos in service personnel, rudimentary line tattoos with antisocial and anti-police messages in ex-prisoners, and syringes, marihuana leaves or mushrooms in illicit drug users. Tattoos have become more common in recent years in younger individuals in the West and so should be expected to be found with increasing incidence at the time of forensic autopsy examinations. Increasing population movements also mean that less common tattoos may be encountered during forensic evaluations.

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Correspondence to Roger W. Byard.

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Byard, R.W. Tattoos: forensic considerations. Forensic Sci Med Pathol 9, 534–542 (2013).

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  • Tattoos
  • Disaster victim identification
  • Gangs
  • Yakuza
  • Tribal marking