The practice of tattooing means different things in different cultures. In early practice, decoration appears to have been the most common motive for tattooing, and that still holds true today. In some cultures, tattoos served as identification of the wearers rank or status in a group. For example, the early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals. Tahitian tattoos served as rites of passage, telling the history of the wearers life. Boys reaching manhood received one tattoo to mark the occasion, while men had another style done when they married. Sailors traveling to exotic foreign lands began to collect tattoos as souvenirs of their journeys (a dragon showed that the seaman had served on a China station), and tattoo parlors sprang up in port cities around the globe.

This Tahitian tattoo tells about rights of passage in the wearer's life.

Thousands of tattoo designs, or "flash," are available.

Custom tattooing (like freehand drawing without a stencil) is increasingly popular with customers, especially those with multiple tattoos.

Tattoo artists enjoy creating custom designs like this one.

Tattoo artists say they like the custom work -- that its more challenging and artistically satisfying to create something new rather than using a stencil to reproduce a time-worn image such as a rose or an eagle.