Nick White discusses the changing nature of tattooing culture and the emerging reasons why young people get tattoos on their body.

The use of ink to permanently mark human skin dates back to ancient cultures from various continents. As the meaning, reasoning and purpose behind tattoo has evolved, so has its aesthetic. This article aims to analyse how we as a society have evolved the medium of tattoo and how we perceive it in society today.

Tattooing is one of many forms of traditional body modification in numerous cultures. Ancient India was one of these, using Henna to decorate the skin of women and sometimes men as a ceremonial art form. This form of skin art was however temporary, using dye to stain the skin. Native American tribes were also known to use temporary mediums of body decoration such as painting, greasing and scratching, and would only use tattoos to represent a permanent change of status for an individual in the tribe. Philipino and Samoan cultures also held tattooing in high regard. A variety of markings were used to indicate rank and power within tribes and was often somewhat of a rite of passage for young men.

The art of applying tattoos was also of great importance in Samoan culture, with knowledge being passed from generation to generation, and many hours of practice being carried out by young males.

In contrast to the significant role tattoo played in these countries, cultures such as Ancient Greece, China and Japan, would usually only apply tattoos to criminals and slaves as a branding method and to exhibit ownership. Aside from these more barbaric and inhumane purposes of tattooing, body art in these ancient cultures was usually used as a means of identifying a person’s belonging in society, and their role within it.

…forty percent of generation Y in the United States is said to have a tattoo.

So how did tattoo culture evolve from what it was to what it is today? While Western culture’s association with tattooing is brief in comparison to others, it has been embraced within the last few decades. While still somewhat associated with deviance, like criminals and gangs, tattoo in today’s world is primarily a form of self-expression. Around forty percent of generation Y in the United States is said to have a tattoo, indicating their mainstream and common place in today’s society.

As art forms go, tattooing is one of the boldest but most expressive. Antoinette B. Wallace describes it as “the medium which a person most directly projects him or herself in a society”. Ancient tribes used tattoo as a way of representing their identity from the rest of the tribe, but also to signify belonging to the group. In today’s culture, it is understood that the reasoning behind many people getting tattoos is still in touch with the idea of belonging. Twins perhaps, reaching a milestone birthday; a group of university students celebrating their graduation; or perhaps an Olympic team commemorating an experience of a lifetime. Tattooing was used to signify identity in ancient cultures, but the shift in defining identity is possibly what may be responsible for the change in tattoo culture from this period. A member of a tribe who marked their skin would do this to indicate what tribe they were a part of; that was their identity. In the 21st century however, we relate our identity with more individual characteristics and circumstances. Apart from the concept of belonging mentioned earlier, our expression of identity is typically only relevant to ourselves.

As self-expression has grown in society, particularly the 21st century, so has the spectrum of modern tattoos.

Fundamentally, these characteristics of identity and belonging in tattoo culture can be extracted from the past; however it may be the interpretation of the body art from the individuals themselves that can exhibit the evolution of tattoo culture.

…physical representation of a memory, passion, person, feeling and many more can be produced

Tattoos today usually reveal inwards reflection as opposed to outwards projection. The conscious decision a person makes to permanently mark their skin demonstrates that there is a reason for it. No longer is a tattoo used to distinguish one’s place in society, but more for the opposite effect; to distinguish one’s self. The physical representation of a memory, passion, person, feeling and many more can be produced through the act of tattooing. Whether an abstract interpretation or a life-like depiction, body art allows people to project what is important to them onto the world. A tattoo can be defined as a lived experience.

Tattoo practice has exploded in recent years. While people of many ages have strong enthusiasm for ink, it is definitely Generation Y that have uniquely evolved the idea of what a tattoo can be, by pushing boundaries and conceiving trends. The consumer is not the only one responsible for the ever morphing culture, as tattoo artists have been required to keep pace with the rapidly expanding industry. From an underground and grungy scene, tattoo parlours have become a staple in modern consumer culture.

Throughout the 20th century, tattooing was typically associated with masculinity. Americana culture introduced a wave of tattoo with a distinct visual theme of expressive colour, cartoon-like human representation and dramatic light and shade. The visual qualities of maritime tattoos are similar to these, and were highly popular throughout the 20th century. Anchors, ship wheels and women summarise the tattoo style of this era, and are still popular tattoo choices in this day and age.

Through the combination of Generation Y’s fascination and enthusiasm for ink, and the array of existing styles and resources, the variety of visual styles of tattoos have become infinite.  While us Gen Y’ers have been hard at work expressing our identities, some rather artistic and innovative styles of tattoo have arisen. Many tattoo artists globally are celebrated and known for their distinct visual styles. Whether they have penned their own signature style, or mastered an existing one, their art is a mainstream interest to many.

Social media is used heavily by these artists, not only to promote themselves and their work in order to ensure an income, but also to no doubt influence thousands of people on what kind of ink they should get. Instagram users such as Dr Woo (@dr_woo_scc) and Fernanda Prado (fprado) create tattoos which epitomise the changing visuals in tattoo culture. Fine lines, intricate geometry and quirky typography are what set their work apart from traditional tattoo, and encompass the qualities of the most recent “trend”.

From observing tattoo culture over the past few decades, post 2000 particularly, it is likely that its popularity and evolution will continue to grow. With the art form’s style, meaning and audience constantly changing and growing, it can be assumed that tattoo culture is something which can never die. I guess you could say it’s permanent.

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