This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in Seattle, U.S.A., mainly amongst the buzz of electric needles and the smell of green soap in a selection of local tattoo shops. Tattooing and tattoos in modern day Seattle are created and enacted in a complex and contested matrix of motivations and interpretations that refer to the western tattoo's specific history as a mark of enforced or self-inscribed marginality, to other tattoo practices and discourses around the world, and to the relation between the tattoo itself as a material object and its process of production, which has certain technical elements in common wherever it is performed. The meaning accorded to the tattoo process and the finished tattoo differ widely in different contexts, but the technical commonalties mean that local variations are variations over a technical theme, a theme that makes tattooing a particularly loaded and intense mode of metaphorical expression. Two recent processes of change play a key role in both local Seattle and wider western uses and interpretations of tattooing and the tattoo. One is a significant increase in the number of people getting tattooed and getting into tattooing as a profession, and a marked process of diversification and differentiation among both groups. The other is a combination of technological improvements and a growing focus on the aesthetic and spiritual aspects and potential of tattooing and tattoos, and on the collaboration between the tattooist and the individual client on the creation of unique, customised designs. Through investigating different ways in which tattoo practices and discourses are enacted, articulated, negotiated and contested by local tattooists, tattooees and untattooed 'audiences', I attempt to explore and make a case for the ambiguity and complexity of the tattoo as a mark and tattooing as a practice, and argue that the tattoo's potency and potential is intimately linked to this ambiguity. On a more general level this paper is also about the multiple and mutually influential relations between structural changes and individually lived lives, the dialectical relationship between power and resistance, and differing conceptions of the relationship between appearance and essence.