Gone are the good old days when a tattoo was a simple heart on the bicep, adorned with ‘Mom’ or maybe a sweetheart’s name, or an American eagle on the forearm for the sailors at sea. Tattoos are no longer the Scarlet Letters of bikers, sailors, and prison inmates—they have become a generally accepted part of mainstream society, and ‘Mom’ is as likely to have a tattoo as her devoted son. Tattoos have become works of art akin to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or odes to Salvador Dali in their surrealistic style. Their shock is no longer as shocking as, say, a grandma with a pierced nose (give it a few decades, and let’s see how attractive the older generation is as a whole).
Tattoos are one of the oldest forms of body modification, originally applied by primitive peoples for ritualistic purposes, and are still used as ornamental tribal art today. The word comes from the Polynesian ‘tatau,’ meaning scarification, but the ancient art traces back over 6000 years ago to Egypt, circa 4000 BC. These earliest known examples of tattooing were simple dots and lines in geometric patterns, placed on the skin with blue dye. Tattooing was purely spiritual in nature, and like the practices of effigy, was a process of identification in the afterlife.
The art of the tattoo was a sign of royalty, and body tattooing maintained its symbolism as a sign of privilege throughout history as it traveled across Southeast Asia to the Pacific Islands. The New Zealand Maori are still widely recognizable for their unique practice of facial tattooing. When the art of tattooing reached Japan, it became an ornamental art, as opposed to being affiliated with spiritual or magical properties. But the placement of ink (or other staining dye) placed into the skin was still a time-consuming and expensive process reserved for the elite.
When mechanical electrical tools were made for tattooing in the 40’s, men saw the permanent marks as a sign of their masculinity, or their role in a specific club. World War II servicemen were the first Western group to ritualistically commit to body modification via tattoos as a sign of solidarity to their outfit and country. Military men out having a good time on weekend leave would routinely take the new recruits to get them tattooed with American Eagles or the more scandalous pinup girls, discreetly placed on biceps and forearms.
The tattoo next became associated with the deviant society, as biker gangs repeated the military ritual and marked themselves as an expression of their fraternity. The problem was, these bikers were often ruffians who disturbed society, and a coarse new meaning was thrust upon the artform. During the 50’s, tattoos belonged to gangs and prison inmates, and it wouldn’t be until the late 60’s hippie culture that the tattoo emerged from the shadows. The hippies’ return to tribal/ethnic lifestyles included a new look at the tattoo as an expression of social awareness, and of the hippies’ protest of the Vietnam War.
Still, the hippies were counterculture, giving mainstream society yet another reason to see tattoos as something only ‘those kinds of people’ would get. Tattoos largely remained the province of fringe culture and those who temporarily lost the power of judgment thanks to alcohol, but acceptance was growing.
The 90’s quest for ‘personal expression’ brought body modification to the forefront, and more people adopted tattooing as a way to express their individuality. When tattoos came to the mainstream, they were no longer simple primitive fare. The stigma behind the tattoo was evaporating, and the body was now conceived of as a canvas, a natural way to express yourself.
Tattooing split off into two factions: ornamental and return to primitivism. The modern primitives looked to ancient tribal cultures for their art. Ancient symbols like the Mindinao (Philippines) geometric designs and the Native American ceremonial bands around biceps or calves joined Celtic knots and Asian kanji as tribal lures. The popularity of tribal art, while first practiced as modern ritual, soon became merely ornamental.
The ornamentalists wanted flowers, vines, dragons, animals—any form of decorative symbol chosen not for its symbolism, but for the personal connection between tattoo and wearer. Childhood favorites like Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse, unicorns and hearts were the old standbys when you couldn’t make up your mind, and sometimes elaborate personal designs were constructed and turned into tattoos.
Even as tattooing became more prevalent, with celebrities like Cher popularizing the artform, there were still others who were unable to commit to the permanence of the real deal. For the unadventurous or commitment-phobic, temporary tattoos made a big mark. A form of model decals for the skin, the temporary tattoo could be easily applied with a little bit of water to lift on the design from the paper, forming an adhesion to the skin. So don’t worry about going on that job interview next week: you could still look like a rebel for the weekend and a squeaky clean executive for Monday. The advent of temporary Henna tattoos gave an even longer-lasting tattoo, dyeing patterns onto the skin that would wear off after a few weeks.
Tattoo art merged with fashion, and designers like Betsy Johnson printed tattoo-like symbols on mesh shirts for a very realistic tattooed look. For those less inclined to personal graffiti, tattooing went beyond colorful pictures on the body, making its way into cosmetics. Tired of lining your too small lips every morning, or applying black eyeliner with shaky hands? Get a permanent cosmetic tattoo of lined lips, eyeliner, even a permanently rosy glow painted onto the cheeks!
So whether you believe the body is a canvas, or a shrine to be kept clean and unmarred, tattooing has become as acceptable as putting on a little lipstick or wearing a pushup bra. But remember, the fad for painting the skin has also introduced a new fad: removal. And this process is almost as painful as the initial product. So choose wisely…