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Magic is based on symbols tattooed onto one's body. The types and number of tattoos determine what magic the users can perform.

Since tattoos in our world are easy to obtain (especially with methods like stick-and-poke), it seems feasible that nearly everyone in my setting could have access to magic tattoos. While I'm fine with magic being somewhat common, I'm trying to avoid everyone in my world having access to magic.

A certain amount of hand-waving is acceptable, since I'm already hand-waving to avoid my characters being half-naked all the time trying to expose tattoos on their body ("did you see what happened to that guy who tried to put a tattoo above his elbow?"). However, I'd like whatever justification I have for restricted access to magic to be self-consistent, and to not be "the tattoos only work on people who are born magical." I want the magic to be granted by the tattoos, not for the tattoos to just channel the user's innate magic, as I feel that would defeat the purpose of them.

How do I prevent magical tattoos from being available to everyone?

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    $\begingroup$ Just because magic is accessed through tattoos, must that imply every tattoo gives access to magic? Electricity is supplied through metal wires, but that doesn't every electricity flows out of every metal wire. $\endgroup$
    – Abigail
    Apr 6, 2023 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond if you think you havecan answer, please add another answer. In the comments we cannot vote for or against them, nor do they improve the question. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Apr 6, 2023 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ "Since tattoos in our world are easy to obtain" — in our world it's quite easy to craft a firearm. But most of handcrafted firearms will be able to shoot once, and maim or kill the shooter. So, people who need a weapon, get a professionally made one. Which comes with a price, and regulated. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ Given how large the rang of potential answers here it may help if you can elaborate on what you do want for your tattoo mages to look like so we can better tailor answers towards your end goal? Do you want everyone to have one or two but a few to have all? 80% to have tattoos and 20% without? Everyone to have some but no one have more then X? What is your ideal end-goal? $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on the half naked point? Do the tattoos have to be exposed/visible to work? Is this a key plot point? $\endgroup$
    – Jontia
    Apr 7, 2023 at 20:05

31 Answers 31

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Magical tattoos are insanely complex and have to be made accurately or they might backfire terribly. Accordingly, the tattooists who can do them are rare, in high demand, and can ask for steep prices.

Additionally/Or the ink used has to be produced from virgin blood or something...

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    $\begingroup$ Yup, like calligraphy. You can tell a dodgy amateur from a professional. This also allows for a skilled, dedicated amateur (plot point). $\endgroup$
    – mcalex
    Apr 7, 2023 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ Also, if it's a quasi-medieval society then tattoo artist would be in the guild that will control what kind of tattoos they can make, and for whom. Even if they can pay the price, they can be just banned from getting any due to their status/social class/etc. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ Re specifically virgin blood as tattoo ink: Biological materials like blood can and will be removed by living cells in your skin, so a tattoo made with blood wouldn't last very long. Then there's all the possibilities of infection and incompatible blood types. $\endgroup$
    – Mar
    Apr 8, 2023 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin You could distill out the iron... It's magic, not science. The point is mystery and interest, not mirrors of reality. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 8, 2023 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ Compare to the real world difference in outcomes for novice, low-cost rocketry and professional, high-cost rocketry. Materials matter. Deep knowledge matters. Multiple non-adjacent crafting skills matter. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2023 at 15:36
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The Lovecraftian Solution

You can go down to a local magi-tattoo parlour and get a new spell inked. It's not proprietary, or particularly difficult. Most people have the "good health" tattoo, which has really made a difference once it was codified.

There is a waiver when you're getting inked, and most reputable shops won't put more tats on someone already pretty decorated.

You see, the strange, eye-bending patterns that allow those who bear them access to magic also make the wearer more visible elsewhere. There are things that grope blindly in the dark, seeking power and intelligence. Eager to drain both away into the endless entropic dark of their being.

The upshot of this is that practically everyone has a story of someone with so many tattoos performing yet another incredible feat of magic, only to have their body snap into a rictus, jerk about like someone gripping a live wire, and collapse like a puppet with their strings cut, their tattoos briefly glowing an eerie green.

Practically, this makes getting tattoos a press-your-luck mechanic. One or two isn't any more worrying than driving in a car regularly. A whole sleeve is akin to taking up base jumping as a hobby. Anyone tattooed like the magi of old is expected to be on severely borrowed time unless they're very lucky.

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    $\begingroup$ (TVtropes warning!!) This is also similar to tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CyberneticsEatYourSoul, but with magic $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2023 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ Just to extend the idea it need not go specifically lovecraftian horror. Any number of potential down sides can be use to justify tattoos becomeing increasingly problematic the more you have, and some may allow certain people to better handle them. Maybe they sap your energy and make you tired, maybe you need a physically strong body and dedication to extensive physical exercise for your body to be able to handle massive tattoos. Perhaps it takes mental training to pull out the right spell from the tattoo instead of mixing and flubbing the spell etc. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ ... maybe they haven't discovered disinfectants, and so each one just makes it more likely you get a staph infection and die horribly... $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2023 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ The blasphemy! How profane! $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 8, 2023 at 14:07
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Giving someone a sword does not make them a warrior. Giving someone a bow and some arrows does not make them an archer. Giving someone a pen and paper does not make them a writer. Using them well also requires practice.

Having a magic tattoo only equips one with the tool. Use of passive magic (eg. straightforward protection) can still happen as easily as wearing an armor, but magic that needs to be used intentionally (eg. as a weapon) depends on skill, and maybe natural abilities.

It is even possible that without sufficient understanding you can accidentally use the power of tattoo in a way that harms you or others, not unlike a gun you shoot your foot with.

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    $\begingroup$ It may require not just practice but also a certain amount of cleverness or creativity. e.g. Anyone can buy art supplies. With training and commitment, anyone can paint well enough to make tourist art. But only Rembrandt was Rembrandt. (This is similar in some ways to having "innate magic", but I think it's different in feel from the way that term is usually used. Like, it's a spectrum, not a binary wizards/muggles thing.) $\endgroup$
    – c roald
    Apr 7, 2023 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer. Perhaps the "Optimum Circulation" tattoo operates largely passively and has dramatically reduced the need for emergency cardiac care, but the "Shoot Plasma from your Hand" tat requires specialized training to not blow up your hand in a plasma fireball. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2023 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ "As easily as wearing armour" - As someone who has worn armour, it's actually quite restricting until you get used to it. So perhaps these passive tattoos have some form of "weight" you need time to adjust to $\endgroup$
    – Kyyshak
    Apr 14, 2023 at 8:12
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Bad tattoos can still allow access to magic, but with sufficiently bad side effects that most people don't want to risk it.

By "bad" tattoos, well, there are options.

  • Only certain kinds of ink work, and "bad" happens when they're mixed.
  • The exact pattern takes expertise to tattoo correctly, and "bad" happens when the pattern doesn't match. Also, parts of the pattern may change due to age of the ink, age of the person, or interaction with the channeled magic itself; those changes result in "bad" if not compensated for. (credit to Sarah Messer for this addition)
  • "Bad" could be "the tattoo is temporary, and thus so is the magic."
  • "Bad" could be "the tattoo will be much weaker than desired."
  • "Bad" could be "the tattoo will prevent other tattoos from working."
  • "Bad" could be "the tattoo will kill you, e.g., from the magic in it setting you on fire."
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    $\begingroup$ I'd also adda side effect like: The tattoo will change shape & color as you age, change weight, exercise, etc. This will modify the magic too. A good tattooist (and some educated guesses about the recipient's future health changes) can adjust for this. A bad artist might give you something that initially lets you shoot fire from your fingers, but eventually triggers sets you on fire. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2023 at 13:32
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Duplicate real life, which is full of practical magic that nobody bothers to do for themselves. Why don't most people hunt, write computer code, or do their own baking - skills of magical potency that transfigure useless objects into useful (and tasty) ones? These are all skills that one can obtain in a week, using tools that can be obtained for about the price of a good tattoo.

1: Obtaining the skill is mildly inconvenient and requires a little effort.

2: Manufacturing the product (hunting, writing code, cooking food) once the skill is obtained is mildly inconvenient and requires a little effort.

3: The product being obtained (meat, simple computer applications, baked goods) is available inexpensively via market mechanisms.

4: The product being obtained has been widely available via market mechanisms for long enough that it does not appear glamorous.

If Suzy is the only one who can turn a pile of mild poison and ground up dried plants into delicious baked goods using 500 dollars of reusable tools, she's Suzy the amazing cake-witch, and people will be willing to expend huge amounts of effort and money to duplicate her magical ability. If anybody with 500 dollars and a few hours to learn can turn a pile of mild poison and ground up dried plants into a cake, Suzy is just Suzy, baking is just a hobby, and most people will go their whole lives without ever baking a cake from scratch.

If Suzy is the only one who can turn a pile of mild poison and ground up dried plants into a puppy using a $500 reusable tattoo, she's Suzy the amazing puppy-witch...

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    $\begingroup$ "It happens in real life" finds its way into the oddest circumstances, doesn't it? $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Apr 8, 2023 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ @NoName And I didn't even mention the most certain way to make people not care about the ways humanity has learned to summon the awesome power of the sun, the moon, the sky, the earth beneath us, and the fundamental building blocks of reality, bind them to human will, and bend them to human artifice: make it require... algebra. (Sound of a billion teenagers groaning.) $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Apr 8, 2023 at 1:44
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What if drawing the tattoos is not enough: they need to be infused with magic for them to work?

Which would mean the tattooists themselves have to have the filling-other-tattoos-with-magic tattoo first. There may be a few designs of these, but all of them are a closely guarded secret of the tattooing guilds who control the magic trade.

The major consequence of this option in terms of worldbuilding is that the entire world is basically controlled by these probably pretty paranoid guilds, as they have to be careful with what power they allow their clients to access. And they'd be pretty naive not to always include a booby trap kind of pattern.

Another consequence is that magic would firmly be restricted to the rich and powerful, plus the people the tattoo guilds deem useful to be on their side. For example those they employ to ruthlessly hunt down any rogue tattooist. (Think Venetian mirror makers.)

I don't know if this is the mood you want to go for, but it's how it appears to play out logically, assuming we're talking about a world populated by people of largely human-like intellect and motivation.

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There are some options here which are about the tattoos themselves:

  • Tattoos are really picky about things like shape and size. Even if you do get the right tattoo, it must retain the correct curvature on the skin to work. So gaining or losing body weight (fat or muscle) can affect things. This also means you cannot place them in any spot on the body.
  • Tattoos are very complex. The skill required to get them right are so high that it would be rare to actually get a fully functioning tattoo. Many people can get the inferior versions, but they are super ineffective, to the point where they may as well not have them.
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    $\begingroup$ An idea to go with this: If you have a specific person you want to stop from getting magic, you could ruin that spot on their body by tattooing something else non-magical there. This might even work on existing tattoos, by "crossing them out" basically to nullify their power. This could be something like a punishment for abusing magic, or societal control for specific class of people. $\endgroup$
    – tylisirn
    Apr 6, 2023 at 17:37
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Secret tricks and ingredients

Many tattoos, if not all, are known. This isn't necessarily a problem, if there is another trick to the tatoos.

It can be as simple as needing the right ink(s). Not the right ink, no powers. This can also lead to an extra dimensions of people pretending to have a working tattoos, while they might have no or only a few actually working with the right ink.

The other one is something difficult to see or know if you aren't a magical tattoo artist. For example, tattoos need to be implanted under about 5 layers of epidermis. The magic tattoo can be hidden just a fraction deeper, creating the desired shape but hidden from direct sight. Different inks could also add to the misunderstanding of non magic tattoo setters. Adding normal ink around your magic ink will hide the real shape of the tattoo, even if someone gets magic ink.

Lastly you can have the story play in a culture that has very strict cultural rules and regulations. Let's give religion as an example. It is unlikely all religions are correct, so we can see that the culture a religion creates can make people follow strict rules. In science we can see examples as well. Human cloning, certain DNA experiments and the like are following strict rules. Disobedience might happen, but being ostracised from your group of profession is a powerful motivator to do the opposite, or hide it as much as possible. A culture can have strict rules and regulations when and how you become a carrier of magical tattoos.

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The tattoos are non permanent. While having a tattoo gives the wearer access to magic, actually using the magic consumes the tattoo.

This means when you go to get inked you'll usually get several done at once. Size and complexity scale with the power of the effect, though clever use of smaller effect (butterfly stamping) is a recognised skill set.

This in turn means that the cost in both time and money to have and use magic goes up, because the tattoos themselves are burnt away.

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What about good old social stigma? Sure, anyone can become a sorcerer - but everyone else would then mistrust them and blame them for everything that went wrong in a 50 mile radius. Witchunts happen here and there from time to time. Rumours abound about dark pacts that need to be made by sorcerers and how they sell their souls to the devil and how they all invariably turn into murderous monsters, etc, etc.

Add into the mix a few actual calamities in the past and - there you go.

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Tattoo licences

Your fantasy world can prevent people from getting back-alley tattoos in the same way that mundane societies stop people from making/printing their own money, or claiming to be a doctor; by a process of rigorous examination, licensing and significant punishment for those that breach those rules.

Each country has a list of those that have been assessed as suitable to have a (for example) fire-magic tattoo, and each town periodically performs a census of tattoo bearers in their vicinity, with punishments doled out for those that have illicit tattoos.

Having an illegal tattoo removed in the most expeditious way available to a medieval society (e.g. chopping it off with a big knife) would be a strong discouragement to getting an illegal tattoos to which you're not entitled.

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    $\begingroup$ And yes, I'm aware that this is a very boring answer. Sorry. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Apr 7, 2023 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Are you kidding? For cyberpunk it's awesome. $\endgroup$
    – c roald
    Apr 7, 2023 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ Are the towns subjecting their citizens to strip searches every few months? I think most countries would prefer to keep their census of tattoo bearers by just having the tattooers submit the paperwork of who they tattoo (and risk their license if they fail to fill the paperwork in time, or if they tattoo someone not approved). $\endgroup$
    – Ángel
    Apr 9, 2023 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Ángel - You maybe don't need to stop everyone who's out walking, just spot-check those that are observed performing magic. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Apr 9, 2023 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe one of the tattoos gives you the ability to see through clothing $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Apr 9, 2023 at 7:48
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Your people have an allergy to the ink used for the tattoo, so that whoever gets a tattoo gets killed by anaphylactic shock.

Unless they get a vaccine for it, which is administered only by a master who believe his disciple is worth of having the magic power.

Yes, this will create schools of magic, where the power is handed over from generation to generation only to those worth.

And you the mages will keep a secret that is the vaccine and the tattoo to enable magic.

At the end, if we have believed for decades that carrots gave good sight, it's also plausible that people will believe that magic heals tattoo allergy.

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    $\begingroup$ I feel like an alternative ink would be developed, or the vaccine would be disclosed to the general public. It's hard to maintain a condition like this realistically, in general. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2023 at 17:16
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Put a price on it

As many economists will tell you: the higher the price is, the less it is used. Just put a price on magic tattoos. And that can be anything. Perhaps it requires a really skilled worker to set a magic tattoo, who charges very high sums of money. Perhaps it the ink requires very expensive or hard to get materials like the petals of a rare flower growing in hard to get to places. Or the ink requires something that's very dear to them, like the crushed heart of their first born. Or it's not the creation of that tattoo which is expensive, but just having them, or using them. Perhaps your life span decreases. You become infertile. Become bald.

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The ink used is "poisonous" where most people can tolerate some but not a lot. some can't tolerate any... and a few are immune (or can build up immunity somehow - ie "vaccine").

Too much smoking? Lung cancer. Too much alcohol? Liver failure. but not everyone gets lung caner or experiences liver failure. some live to 120 smoking 4 packs a day. Some drink a bottle of vodka a day for years without liver failure. But those people are exceptions. Most experience horrible reactions way sooner and die young as a result.

So just make the "ink" into something that the body can only tolerate an unknown amount of. Doing it more and over longer periods is risky.

Get a pack of smokes with a warning "This will kill you. It causes cancer!".

Go to a tattoo parlor where signs say "Surgeons General Warning: more than 3 small tattoos is not recommended. Do so at great peril."

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Magic is like drugs, tatooists are like medical specialists

Drugs can be harmful to a person if not prescribed correctly, if the ingredients are impure, and of course drug interactions are very dangerous.

As others have mentioned, there can be terrible consequences to imprecisely done tattoos. And, if more power is desired, more tattoos need to be added, and the resulting complexity increases. The skilled tattooist create a tattoo compatible to the client, and take into account the interactions between the different tattoo components, lest there be a disastrous outcome. This takes decades of study under a skilled master as they learn how to holistically analyze the client and apply their judgment to the intricacies of tattoo design.

As a result, the best experts in tattooing are rare and in high demand. And you get what you pay for - so most people would not risk limbs spontaneously liquefying, or getting their lineage cursed, or something equally horrifying, for the power that a tattoo could bring if they cannot afford the experts.

I can also imagine a second tier of tattoists. Instead of bespoke designs, tattoists could also offer some "standard tattoos": tried and tested tattoos which work on most people most of the time, with modest power as well as a modest price. There might be some disadvantages such as inability to be upgraded with further tattooing due to the configuration. Of course this would be still out of reach from the average person as it might be only slightly less expensive.

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Some people just don't want a tattoo.

Getting a tattoo can be time-consuming, expensive, painful, and socially or religiously stigmatized. Getting a tattoo that you have no choice in the design of, nor any choice in where it's going to be placed, is even less of an attractive proposition. Magic use itself may also be stigmatized, in which case an conspicuous tattoo will have social implications. There are of course limits to these drawbacks which will be weighed against the power of the magic, and they'll be considered differently by different people. A small tattoo might be worth magic that makes you omnipotent, but I for one would not get a large ugly face tattoo that made me a social pariah for the sake of shooting sparks from my fingertips.

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The tattoos are really, really small.

We have a pretty close analogue for this situation in the real world: integrated circuits are made similarly to tattoos, using geometric patterns to "draw" features onto the surface of silicon in a process called lithography. Once upon a time, this was done by hand, but that quickly became impractical to make anything powerful enough for modern usage - now the features are so small that only a handful of factories in the whole world have machines which can etch the tiny features.

Magic tattoos could be the same way - a skilled nonmagical tattoo artist might be able to make the tattoo for extremely simple, centuries-obsolete spells. But modern magic has advanced significantly, and the only way to get the tattoos for it is for the tattoo artist to be magically augmented, giving them some way to make microscopic features. Even the ink has to be magic, as the features have gotten smaller than a skin cell, requiring the ink to "float" between the cells rather than actually filling them with pigment. Those with this specialized magic have the opportunity to gatekeep tattoos, especially any that could be used to replicate the creation process.

There were once intermediate complexity magic tattoos, which were achievable with only minor magical assistance. But the rapid progress of magic left a lack of interest in preserving the art, and the skills to make these intermediate designs were lost to history.

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You can't replicate a tatoo just by looking at it

Drawing inspiration from c roald comment, magical tattoos are actually very common and also very simple - a spiral, a thick ring around ankles, geometrical shapes. But those tattoos are simple and practiced by every village and every tattooist in every town. They provide good health, luck, protect from bad spirits bad aren't very powerful. Average person will be covered head to toe with those simple tattoos and not have space for much more.

Then there is another class of tattoos - those practiced by skilled artisans who posses ancient knowledge and deeply guard their secrets. Those tattoos grant the user a powerful magical ability but they are not easy to obtain. Maybe when they are done they look like generic tattoos but contain lines in special ink that are filled later with another ink. Both inks are common, it's the fact that you make "two" tattoos that cover each other that gives them power. Maybe they are just to complex to make without special equipment or training.

I don't like the idea of locking those tattoos behind a hefty price, that would imply that rich people have all the powerful tattoos they can get. If that fits your story, then there is no issue. Another option would be a religious cult that guards those secrets and passes them from one generation to another or state institution that teaches the techniques to only trusted members and tattoos only their soldiers. The second is especially fun if your story is centered around the Rebels fighting the Evil Ruler, because then getting the tattooing technique to the resistance can be a plot-point or a backstory for a character.

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Placement matters in a network Specific spells come from crossing specific spots, like a chakra chart but with thousands of nodes. You need a dozen or hundred nodes for a specific spell, which denies you the use of any spell that needs those nodes, or worse, crosses any lines of existing tattoos.

Tattoos in secret or internal places Skull tattoo on a shaved head that later grows in hair again. Behind the ear. Under the foot, normally covered by shoes. Under rings or wristbands or crowns (kings keeping their tattoos secret via crowns is great). On the outer eyelid, usually hidden while open. On the inner eyelid, much harder to tattoo there. Behind the lip (inside). On a variety of internal places only accessible via surgery, dangerous and requiring intense trust of the tattooist, for only they know what's been put there.

Tattoos must be placed personally to matter, corresponding with specific rituals or journeys that the caster has undergone

In the game Disco Elysium, the early travelers between worlds would tattoo the map of the journey on their body as a map, to find their way later. Your world could have similarly intensely personal stories engraved on a person by their own hand, allowing them access to magic that comes solely from experience. Yes, riches and learning help you get there, but you have to climb the mountain yourself for the tattoo to mean anything.

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Similar (but not identical) question: What would prevent living skin from being a good conductor for magic?

And an adapted answer: The tatooed runes have to be inscribed with a specific depth (they are 3-dimensional grooves). While possible, cutting runes into your skin is very unpleasant. And the bleeding fills the runes and stops the magic. When the bleeding stops, healing processes start and destroy the (sensitive) depth profile very soon.

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Requirement to deeply understand the symbols

Successfully casting the spell requires deep concentration. The caster must first visualize, feel and manipulate the symbols to create stable 2d or 3d structure in their mind, then guide the resulting energy structure toward the tattoo and anchor it there. Only then the spell can be cast, the tattoo acts as gateway for mana effect to enter outside world. More complicated spells require even higher dimensions or manipulation of shapes in weird geometries.

Everyone can learn but it's hard like college maths. Some neurodivergent people are likely be naturally talented to do this. If you are familiar with asperger/autism enough to have such characters, it might add some depth to the story.

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Tattoo's are multi-layered/intricate and you can't fully see them, only a projection of them.

What if the tattoo is itself also magical, and you can't see the complete and intricate detail of the tattoo unless you already understand how to wield the magic it imbues? Since someone who doesn't know the magic can't see the whole tattoo, it can still be rare.

This opens up a lot of interesting dimensions:

  1. Mistakes can happen when someone attempts to copy a tattoo without fully seeing it.
  2. Tattoo designs can get increasingly more complex and evolve as the story progresses and characters learn more powerful magic. A tattoo may start off ugly, but get increasingly beautiful as the observer grows/advances.
  3. Simple magic can be distributed on temporary/lick on tattoos.
  4. Tattoos on two people can be "connected" i.e. when two people hold hands together the magic of the two tattoo's activates. (Or sorta like Keanu in the Constantine movie when he puts its arms together.)
  5. A tattoo might be so powerful but you can't tell since you can't see it. You may underestimate someones strength. Or perhaps you should "be careful what you wish for" when you go get a tattoo, maybe you can't handle the process physically.
  6. Since how the tattoo appears also depends on the observers capability, different people might see the same tattoo differently.

Anyways, sounds like a super fun world.

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The tattoo doesn't do anything by itself.

So, you just got the tattoo for Draegor's Floating Armaments. Congratulations! Now you must learn what the spell really means. What is the Aristotelian Form of a floating gun? Why does it float? What is its purpose? Getting the tattoo gives you access to the spell, but it doesn't give you the content of the spell, its essence. You must learn that in order to cast it.

As a result, the relative popularity of a spell depends at least partially on its conceptual complexity. If the idea of a spell is simple, it will be easy to learn. For example, it isn't hard to use an Instant Death spell; you just focus on your target, shout "avada kedavra" while really, really wanting them dead, and the target dies in a flash of green light. Easy. On the other hand, a spell like Xanth's Perspective Nullifier would be incredibly difficult. To cast it, the user would have to have an intuitive understanding of space-time, including knowing exactly where they are and exactly where the thing they want to see close-up is. This effectively limits complex spells to savants and highly-trained specialists.

Of course, while conceptually simple spells are easier to learn, that doesn't mean that everyone does, for two reasons.

First, while simple spells are easy to learn, they're also easy to block. You see, while other spells come in a whole bunch of little sub-types due to the different ways people conceptualize them, everybody casts simple spells more or less the same way. This makes them highly standardized, making it easy for people to get passive blocking spells which guard against them and don't require mental effort to operate. Furthermore, most mages have the Metamagic tattoo, which gives them direct control over magic instead of having to use other spells as intermediaries. It gives you an extremely fine-grained control, but at the cost of being very weak. Because of this, it's mostly used for fine-tuning other spells and theoretical applications like devising new ones. In a pinch, it can also be used to modify other people's spells. Usually, this isn't safe to do; randomly messing with somebody else's spell will have unpredictable (but usually very explosive) results. However, for the more standardized simple spells, it's easy for mages to memorize a list of safe modifications to render them ineffective. Since they are easy to foil, most people don't bother using simple spells in offensive applications.

As for civilian use, they're too much of a blunt instrument. For example, while an Instant Death curse would be great for sterilization, trying to use it on a broad area would also kill the neighbor's cat, which would be highly suboptimal.

TL;DR: Spells are either very hard to learn or not very useful, so it's usually easier to just find a mundane way to do it.

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A whole complex of reasons, which give you much flexibility in the powers of wizards

  • inks are specialized and expensive
  • needles are specialized and expensive
  • the correct tattoos are hard to make and need an experienced and knowledgable tattooer
  • there's always the risk of a badly done tattoo, ranging from minor curses to horrible death
  • once the tattoo is complete, you still have to master magic, it doesn't come to you naturally, and the greater the magic, the longer the study
  • magicians sell magical services to such an extent that most people would rather learn other skills and hire what they need
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Magic tattoos only work for certain skin colors.

Obviously this answer would only be used if you wanted your story to have a comment on racism. For example: "even though they can't use magic, that doesn't make them inferior".

The magic in the tattoo reacts with melanin in a specific way so that if the person has too much/not enough melanin (ie too dark or light skinned) the magic won't work. Assuming that your culture is mixed race that means that not everyone will be able to have a magic tattoo (technically they could still get the tattoo but it wouldn't function). You can decide if you want the "correct" skin color to be the minority or majority of people and whether the magic skin color is completely dark, completely light, or something in the middle.

Note that tanning causes a temporary increases in melanin. And that albinism (in the extreme cases) completely lack the ability to create melanin and thus are damaged by sunlight instead of tanning.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good point. But it shouldn't be "tattoos don't work on this skin type" but "this particular ink doesn't work [too well] on this skin type". Just like one face lotion is not suitable for everyone, the tattoo should use ink appropriate to your skin pigmentation. If you have a skin tone similar to other people getting tattooed on this town, they likely have the magic ink you would need. If you have an atypical one, they may need to but it from outside, or require a magistral formula designed for the individual... if they can afford it. $\endgroup$
    – Ángel
    Apr 9, 2023 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Ángel Your answer is "they would have to travel far to get the right ink" but my answer is "there are some people who can't ever. they're simply out of luck" which seems to me to fit better with OP: "Since tattoos in our world are easy to obtain". Also "some people never can" is a stronger dividing line between people for commentary on racism. (yes, I know "racism is bad" stories have been done to death but that's ok). For a story without racism themes "hard to find the right ink" would make more sense. $\endgroup$
    – SkySpiral7
    Apr 18, 2023 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ A potential variation is "The tattoos work fine, but they're hard to see". A spy wearing subtle tattoos $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2023 at 20:47
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Religious custom

Look at ancient traditions that used tattoos. Most of them had sacred or religious meaning. If a priesthood has control of the secrets of the tattoos, or if the power ultimately derives from gods who can set the rules, then it's pretty likely that you're going to have to earn initiation to the appropriate rites or circles before being allowed to receive higher levels of tattoos.

Even if the art of the tattoo is not secret, obtaining a magic tattoo without the blessing of the temple would make you a heretic subject to whatever punishments the society sees fit.

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There's Temporary Tattoos, Permanent Tattoos...

My immediate thought is that the magic accessing tattoos are rather similar to Vallaslin in Dragon Age - a tattoo ritual that the Dalish Elves go through if they can endure it as part of a rite of passage. The goal is for them to get the tattoos done in silence, and cries of pain are considered a sign of weakness and an indicator to stop the ritual and delay it for another time.

Another term used in the games of the series for that same tattoo is "Blood Writing". That's relevant, because it implies that it involves etching it in blood...which is actually not all that different from real tattoos. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration; for permanent tattoos, the ink is embedded in the skin via puncturing the skin, whereas for temporary tattoos, they're done with brushes and stickers instead, applied on top of the skin. But notably, with permanent tattoos, you do see a little bit of blood while getting a permanent tattoo, so that's where I'm starting from.

...And then there's Magic Tattoos.

We can go further than permanent tattoos however, and consider what we might, for example, need to substitute as the "ink embedded into the skin" step.

The more likely obvious answer that comes to mind is, well, the user's (Or another person's) blood, but we can get a bit...grimmer.

What if we made the component for tattoos...the own person's bone marrow? Granted, it's not liquid as I understand by default (There can be a process to liquify it, or put it into a prepared liquid to make it the ink in question, or similar - how complex you want the procedure to be can be something added.), but there are some major advantages here for worldbuilding limitations:

  1. It isn't directly tied to the person who's getting the tattoos - you can get bone marrow transplants, they're just...not usually recommended unless you're sick, because there can be problems with actually getting a transplant. Is the possibility of graft-versus-host disease worth it for the risk of not just having your bone marrow be the source of your tattoos?
  2. People probably aren't going to have that many, or very large, magical tattoos, because that uses up more bone marrow. If someone does have large, multiple magical tattoos, they're probably a villain in your setting, taking bone marrow from orphans or their enemies, or adventurers taking them from the creatures they fight. Royalty and the rich might try and use them as status symbols, but that also comes with...dubious means of getting that status symbol.
  3. Do you want your mages to be physically more frail than people who just become trained warriors? From what I gather, bone marrow does regenerate over time, but reduction of it every so often to make or use tattoos is going to have some toll, and likely to leave one with a bit more downtime.
  4. You can still have temporary and permanent tattoos, while having a reason that some tattoos are magical in nature, but also more rare.
  5. The nature of where the source of the magic tattoos come from could be common knowledge, and as a result, the tattoos themselves a bit taboo.
  6. If they aren't considered taboo, the ads practically write themselves; "Want strong magic? Get Milk!".

The type of bone marrow (Red vs. Yellow) used in "Magic Tattoos" could determine the colour of the tattoos - and even indicate, if you wanted to limit which type could be used, as to when someone can undergo a magic tattoo treatment too, so that could help make magic an advanced technique, or something people want to rush towards to get the most out of.

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Tattoos must be tailored/chosen individually for each person in order to work

Similarly to how not necessarily any good tattoo looks good on any person, not every magic tattoo matches the magical profile of every person. Determining the magical profile of people and/or developing appropriate individual tattoos might be difficult.

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How do I prevent magical tattoos from being available to everyone?

By tattooing them!

Criminals can have tattoos overwritten by more tattoos that either cover the old ones completely or by adding cancelling tokens. Children of people you want to avoid having tattoos can be tattooed at birth.

Alternatively just give them cancelling tattoos. Have random traffic stops and, if they don't have a licence, arrest them and tattoo a cancellation.

Make it so that location is very specific so once a tattoo has been spoiled, it can't be placed anywhere else.

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Tattoos react with water

A tattoo submerged in water will color it.

It's harmless and temporary, but it looks pretty dirty so anyone with a tattoo will be prohibited from entering a public bath/shower.

Most people will not consider it worthy to get a tattoo if that means they cannot take a bath anymore, and may be held responsible for any type of water contamination. Note that magic users will cover their tattoos from the rain, so that takes care of the "no half naked mages everywhere".

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