In recent years tattooing has emerged to the forefront of popular consciousness, and has evolved into a highly stylized and valued fashion product for millions of middle-class consumers and celebrities alike.
The word Tattoo is said to be derived from the Polynesian word ‘ta’, meaning to ‘strike something’, and the Tahitian word ‘tatau’, meaning to ‘mark something.’ The tattooed remains of ancient peoples have been discovered across the globe, evidence of tattooing’s long practice, dating back more than 5000 years1. It is said that the first tattoos were likely created by accident; someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire, and, upon the wound having healed, the ashen mark remained permanently.
There have been stereotypical and sensationalized associations with tattoo design. For instance, the tattoo conventions were often associated with sailors (using common motifs such as flowers, hearts, mermaids, ships, anchors, snakes, birds, and names) and ‘hoodlums’ (as the ultimate insignia for some gangs, and an imprint for autonomy and identity). In the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of tattooing prospered in the circus, with major circuses exhibiting people covered in tattoos; however, these stereotypical associations have changed over the past 20 years2. In 2008, it was estimated that 14% of Americans have one or more tattoos, and there are an estimated 20,000+ parlors operating in the United States3.
In the 1970s, artists trained in traditional fine art disciplines began to embrace tattooing and brought with them entirely new sorts of sophisticated imagery and technique. Advances in electric needle machines and pigments provided artists with new colour ranges, delicacy of detail and aesthetic possibilities. Flaunted by influential rock stars including the Rolling Stones, tattooing became accepted by ever-broader segments of mainstream society by the late 1980’s. Today, tattoos are routinely seen on celebrities from rock stars, professional sports players, ice-skating champions, fashion models, film stars and a number of other public figures, each playing a significant role in setting the norms and behavioral patterns of contemporary culture.
According to journalist Hoag Levins, two distinct categories of tattoo salons have emerged over the last fifteen years. The first is the tattoo parlor, offering “pictures-off-the-wall” assembly-line service and often operating with less than optimum sanitary procedures. The second is the tattoo art studio, most frequently featuring custom, fine art design—the ambiance of an upscale salon, and worthy of mention “by-appointment” services only3. In here, the person being tattooed doesn’t simply pick out a design from the shop wall; he or she has an image in mind when arriving at the studio and then discusses it with the artist, much as a patron might commission a work of art. In Toronto, all shops have to meet minimum provincial guidelines through health inspection. Thus, the sanitation of the ‘tattoo parlors’ isn’t widely in question, so much as the quality of work, and comfort of the setting.
Today’s fine art tattoo studio draws the same kind of clientele as a custom jewelry store, fashion boutique, or high-end antique shop. The market demographics for tattoo services are now skewed heavily toward mainstream consumers. Tattooing today is the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in the United States. The single fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoo services is, to the surprise of many, middle-class suburban women. In 1997, Canada’s Toronto Star reported 80% of the customers were “upper middle-class white suburban females.”4 Why you ask? According to Levin’s, tattooing makes women feel better about themselves and allows them to express their identity. But I also wonder if tattoos represent a sign of deviance—rebellion and pushing the envelope, or it is simply a fad.
Tattooing is recognized by government agencies as both an art form and a profession, and tattoo-related artwork is the subject of museum, gallery and educational exhibitions across the United States. With confidence, one can say that tattooing is a well-established art form that, unlike other arts, could be lucrative for many artists and feel-good for the tattooees.
This narrative is my contemplation to get one done. I like tattoos. But despite the acceptance of tattoos as fine art, I cannot help but wonder about the needle, the pain, the side-effects, and the permanence of the chosen image. What if I don’t like the image, the work, and the side effects (if any)? Would it make me feel better about myself? Furthermore, there is a substantial literature on tattooees who wish to have their tattoo removed, but tattoo removal is expensive and incredibly painful. As a result, I am not ready to go under the needle, yet, but if you are, thumbs up!
Would love to hear your thoughts!
1 A brief history of tattoos
2 Tattoo Facts & Statistics
3 The Changing Cultural Status of the Tattoo Arts in America by Hoag Levins
4 Life, Young Street’ by Odelia Bay, The Toronto Star, Sept. 30, 1997, p. E1.
5 Tattoo removal is expensive, time-consuming and painful. It’s also a booming industry