Black Teens, Tattoos & Piercings

A woman with a tattooIf you have teens, odds are they’re thinking about getting a tattoo, piercing, or some other permanent body art. Just like relationships, jobs, and college; tattoos and piercings have become a modern rite of passage for African American teens across the country. Many don’t know that body art also comes with the increased risk for infections, unemployment, self-deprecation, and more.

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A recent study by the Harris Polls found that 22% of African Americans age 18 to 24 have a tattoo, and that number grows to 30% by the time they turn 29. High school teachers and nurses are noticing a growing number of tattoos and piercings on progressively younger students with many suggesting that 20% of existing students already have tattoos, and the number is higher in urban, predominantly African American, schools. Many teens, and some parents, fail to fully appreciate the health and social consequences of tattoos and piercings, and most deny having had a meaningful conversation with their teens about the topic. Taking the time to discuss the possible consequences of tattoos and piercings before your teen dives into that form of self expression is an essential part of parenting.

Piercings are also growing in popularity with a large number of teens having additional ear, nose, lip, nipple, and navel piercings. They are also piercing other unconventional locations like their cheek, forehead, arms, and more. What many amateur teen piercers lack is the adequate education regarding human anatomy, healing, and infection control. The human body does not readily allow jewelry under the skin, and depending on the location, will actively try to reject the metal. This means a much longer healing time (sometimes a year or more), chronic irritation or itching, scarring, or even a life threatening infection.

If the piercers hit a nerve, there could be permanent damage done at the location and wherever that nerve was traveling.

Ear lobes have been safely pierced for centuries because they are uniquely suited for quick and trouble-free piercings, whereas other parts of the body do not ‘take’ piercings as well. These unconventional locations frequently serve other vital functions, and have nerves, lymphatics, and blood vessels that ‘interfere’ with the healing process. Unfortunately, African American teens are piercing themselves without knowing that they may be setting themselves up for a long and frustrating process.

When it comes to permanent body art, the essential key is education and discussion. First learn about the possible consequences of permanent body art. Examine the social issues ranging from family dynamics, marriage, and aging. Look at your teen’s career options and seriously consider what employment choices they could lose.

The key is educating black teens about the burdens, as well as the benefits, of getting permanent body art as an adult, and doing it in a safe, thoughtful, and healthy way.

By Dr. Greg L. Hall

Gregory L. Hall, MD is a primary care physician practicing in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the middle school health education supplement, “Teens, Tattoos, & Piercings: The health and social impact of permanent body art.”

After graduation from Williams College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he attended the Medical College of Ohio, and completed residency in internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Hall serves on the teaching faculty at Case Western Reserve University’s College of Medicine and is the Chairman of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health. He also sits on the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, and is Medical Director of Community Outreach at Saint Vincent Charity Medical Center.

Please find a  link to his book here: