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Leshner Fellow Goes to Samoa to Probe Whether Tattooing is a Sign of Immunological Vigor

Christopher Lynn
Christopher Lynn.
Credit: Kat Beidler.

Christopher Lynn has carved a career out of studying an addiction he’s been fascinated with since his teenage years — tattoos.

“We know people say things like ‘Tattooing is addictive,’” says Lynn, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama and AAAS Member. “Is it addictive for people who are healing well (from the tattoos), or for people whose immune response is stimulated by it?”

Lynn just returned from a trip to Upolu, an island in Samoa, where he spent most of July following up on his previous research about tattoos. While there, he also shot 100 hours of footage for a related documentary he’s producing as part of his year-long Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Specifically, Lynn’s research looks into whether people with multiple tattoos have healthier immune systems, or if tattooing stimulates immune system responsiveness. The biological responses to tattoos could be what encourages people to secure additional tattoos, Lynn says.

In Samoa, people have been getting tattoos for more than 2,000 years, which is why Lynn studied Samoans with traditional hand-tap tattoos — these kinds are performed using handmade tools and a specialized ink. The traditional tattoos for men are called pe’a and usually take between 30 and 40 hours to complete, while the tattoos for women are called malu and take four hours to finish. Tattoos are given for cultural reasons and generally not for fashion. These particular tattoos are done outside and have been designed in the same styles for thousands of years, he says.

“What’s surprising to me is how that this is an uninterrupted practice (despite colonization and missionaries),” Lynn says. “It has been maintained and … they are so Christian. That’s contradicting.”

To examine whether people were getting tattoos because they healed better from the experience and enjoyed a better immune response, Lynn collected saliva samples from those with multiple tattoos. He then compared their samples to saliva from people had fewer to no tattoos. Most tattooed people he talked to didn’t have an infection, he says.

“The idea is you’re doing this thing to your body, and while it may exhaust you in the short term, your body habituates to it and is sort of prepared for other similar encounters,” Lynn says, adding that he’s noticed his own body reacting this way whenever he gets a tattoo.

Christopher Lynn in Samoa
Christopher Lynn and Samoans.
Credit: Kat Beidler.

The trip follows up on a 2016 study Lynn coauthored on a possible correlation between tattoos and stronger immune systems, which was published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

As part of his research, Lynn conducted a survey study about tattooing and piercing and found that the rates of infection for tattoos are quite low, while the ones associated with piercing are much higher. Lynn says he surveyed 31,000 college students around the United States — 6,500 undergraduates responded from the University of Alabama while 500 undergraduates responded from other institutions.

In the years since, this work has also taken him to American Samoa, a U.S. territory southeast of Samoa, and a Polynesian tattoo festival in Seattle.

Tattoos have been a critical part of Lynn’s life for decades.

Lynn’s interest and passion stem from his very first tattoo, inked in 1987 when he was 16 — of the Grateful Dead running eyeball on his shoulder blade. He lived in Indiana at the time and drove all the way to Ohio to get it from an “old biker dude” who tattooed minors.

“It was at the time when tattooing was still a little bit edgy but you were starting to see tattoos,” Lynn says. “It wasn’t super common like it is now, and I just liked the way they looked.”

Now Lynn says he’s coming full circle.

Lynn has so many tattoos all over his body that he can’t count them all. Sometimes his tattoos were done over multiple years or multiple sessions. Others remain unfinished.

While in Samoa, Lynn shot footage for a documentary he’s creating on one of the two families, also known as guilds, that’s keeping the ancient tattooing practices alive on the island.

“There’s tons of cultural traditions and hierarchy and status imbedded in tattooing, and that’s what we’re interested in documenting,” Lynn says. “The more important you are, the less you talk — you have people who speak for you.”

Lynn also spent a week in Washington, D.C. developing his public engagement skills with AAAS as part of his fellowship. His film, which is currently unnamed, is another part of that process. He says he’ll head back to Samoa next year to follow up with the people he filmed in July.

Naturally, Lynn scored a hand-tap tattoo on his leg towards the end of his research trip in Samoa. While the tattoo was quite painful and made his leg swell up, it didn’t wipe him out energy-wise, he says.

“It healed up really nicely,” Lynn says. “Aside from being stuck on a plane for 30 hours, it’s healing really well.”  

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