On why I think the media should stop asking if tattoos have become too mainstream or uncool

Last week I was interviewed live on ABC radio for a segment on tattoo. I am not a tattooist—I am a sociologist that has experienced over 150 hours of tattooing and has been writing on tattoo and body modification for over six years for publications such as Vice, Dazed, Inked, Skin Deep, and Things & Ink. Credentials aside, it was my first radio interview, and my blood was flowing with too much caffeine and the all-encompassing fear of saying something irrevocably stupid.

The bit was a follow-up to Adam Gabbatt’s piece published days before in The Guardian entitled, At arm’s length: are tattoos finally becoming uncool?. Here he defined Vogue’s front page spread of a disrobed and tattooed Bieber and the topless tattooed torso of Adam Levine’s Super Bowl performance as the graceless demise of tattoo’s cultural capital. Tattoo expert and art history lecturer, Dr Matt Lodder, informed Gabbatt that the media have been positing these tropes about tattoo’s status—'Now tattoos are middle class’, or ‘Shock horror, women are getting tattoos now’—for decades. In other words, each unexpected location a tattoo turns up elicits another round of existential interrogations from mainstream media on the socio-cultural place of tattoo.

Justin Bieber and Hailey nee Baldwin Bieber on the March 2019 of US Vogue. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/AmericanVogue.com

Justin Bieber and Hailey nee Baldwin Bieber on the March 2019 of US Vogue. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/AmericanVogue.com

I was ready to don my sociological hat and put the question to bed. Instead, and even despite my using the first question to reveal my work’s modus operandi as one of presenting the stories of unique individuals without the usual fetishization found in mass media, I was asked the traditional set of facile questions tattooed bodies have been facing from mainstream outlets ever since they took a fascination with the ancient practice—what was your first tattoo?, how much have you spent?, where did it hurt the most?, what styles are popular?, are tattoos becoming uncool? what is the future of tattoo?.

This is not a value judgement on the interviewer; if one’s exposure to tattoo is through cultural industries like galleries, museums, advertising, the music industry, and mainstream print and online media, understanding tattoo as merely an aesthetic object makes sense. However, this one-dimensional view of tattoo and tattooed bodies imbues them with the same essence of ambivalence and ephemerality that makes a fad a fad, thusly encouraging these regular spurious musings on whether tattoos are uncool or too mainstream. And now, the same mechanisms responsible for saturating cultural industries with a superficial view of tattoo declare its rebellious spirit and visual impact diluted. Not only does this negate the social and sacred function traditional tattoo fulfils for many non-European bodies, it assumes the motivations for undergoing such a painful ritualistic process in the West is mediated merely by the current climate of cultural capital gains.

To better understand this phenomenon—and hopefully stop the reoccurrence of such questions—we need to trace back to what social theorist, Mary Kosut, identifies as the artification and commodification of tattoo.

Have you had your monogram inscribed on your arm? Is your shoulder blade embellished with your crest? Do you wear your coat-of-arms graven in India ink on the cuticle of your elbow? No? Then, gracious Madame and gentle sir, you cannot be au courant with society’s very latest fad
— (early example of the media ‘elevating’ tattoo to fashion) December 12, 1897, New York Herald

For most of the 20th century, tattoos and art were two distinct socio-cultural spheres. Before the 1970s, tattooists were understood more as tradesmen ploughing their craft (yes, mostly men, although Australian Bev Robinson, aka Cindy Ray, is a noteworthy exception). These tattooists had little or no knowledge of the western art cannon; the industry was predicated on copying and reproduction, tattoo stencils were bought and sold, flash sheets displayed formulaic and limited iconographies such as roses, ships, cartoons, and pin-up girls. Although members of high-society would often flirt with the practice, tattooists were mostly working-class tattooing the dispossessed, blue-collared, itinerant, or criminal.

Samuel Steward Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos.

Samuel Steward Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos.

A rarity worth mentioning, however, is Samuel Steward, aka Phil Sparrow, a university professor turned tattoo artist who, during the 1950s, wrote what could be described as the first comprehensive sociological ethnography of a tattoo parlour in Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, notwithstanding Albert Parry’s 1933 contribution, Tattoo: secrets of a strange art, which examined the practice albeit through a more prurient lens. Indeed, Sparrow observed the dearth of artistic skill firsthand, “There is not much creativity nor originality among tattoo artists as a whole,” he wrote, “Obviously, someone at some time had to create the designs first, and there are a few talented designers in the field. But the majority of tattoo artists have never had any art training.” Nor were there magazines, associations, conventions, or even many methods for learning the trade. Steward attempted to teach himself from a “poorly mimeographed” set of lessons that revealed, he noted in hindsight, a distinct lack of knowledge on the teacher’s part. Regardless, Steward thought “learning to tattoo from a book is just about as successfully accomplished as learning to swim from a book in your living-room.” The characteristics of what have come to be known as “first-generation” tattooists contrast starkly with those entering the field during an era of fundamental social and cultural changes.

Only in the 1960s or 70s did people even remotely start to think about it as being something about the individual. It was never about that… It was about ‘you’re a sailor so you get this, you’re a prisoner so you get this prison tattoo’… Only very recently has it become about individual expression both for the client and the artists
— (2006) Alex Binnie, Tattooist

The 1960s and 70s saw tattoo’s clientele diversify. The social and political mood of the time was one of ontological insecurity—the voices of minorities began challenging traditional Western structures for meaning making and self-identity became insecure and problematic. As psychologist Erik Erikson described it, it was an era of identity crisis. The historian Eric Hobsbawm saw men and women scrambling for groups to which they could belong—certainly and forever—into a “world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else it certain,” while sociologist Anthony Elliott wrote of identity in the era as breaking with images of “sameness, continuity, regularity and repetition”, coming instead to mean “rebellion, discontinuity and difference”.

Such was the lack of solid structures to identify with, and growing avenues for difference and identity construction, that tattoo shifted from a marker of identity to an expression of self. This fundamental shift rendered flash art incapable of meeting the complexities and diversities of individuals wishing to construct and express their “selves” through tattoo. As a leading figure of this “tattoo renaissance”, tattooist Don Ed Hardy observed, “people had to fit their individual psyche into pre-congealed images that were often very out-of-date.” Tattooists had to up their game—they had to become artists.

Coincidentally, it was around this time universities saw a dramatic rise in the number of fine art graduates. Not only did the climate of uncertainty attract previously absent groups looking to anchor and express themselves though tattoo, the industry also saw the arrival of a new, university-trained generation of artists unable to find work in the already over-saturated and often impenetrable art world. Even today, large swaths of tertiary educated artists find themselves migrating to tattoo in the hopes of making rent. As such, these institutionally trained middle-class artists brought with them techniques, styles, self-reflexivity, business acumen, experiences, discourses, a highly critical way of understanding art, and a subscription to mainstream values and lifestyles hitherto unseen in the industry.

Item 98—tattoo.

Item 98—tattoo.

Further evincing developing links between the tattoo and art worlds was the appearance of tattoo related exhibitions in renowned galleries and museums. This tradition continues today—only last year did The Museum of Modern Art ordain tattoo as one of 111 most influential items shaping the past, present, and future of fashion and identity. Two pieces by L.A. based tattoo artist, Roxx, were chosen to illustrate tattoo. I was asked by Roxx’s publicist to write on the achievement—yes, publicist, it is not the first time a tattooist’s publicist has contacted me, a fact that palpably demonstrates artification’s stratifying effects, a point I made in my interview with Roxx worth repeating:

“Ultimately, the conditions of late modernity have rendered the body as something malleable—to be modified and improved according to our internal vision. Yet, as corporate culture industries like galleries, private museums, and the advertising industry, continue to include and ‘elevate’ the place of tattoo, such bodies of transgression become increasingly understood through the language of capitalism, as “art”, “object”, “high-fashion”—something to be objectively appraised. The gentrification of tattoo—its ‘elevation’ into the legitimizing world of art and fashion—has spawned a reactionary generation of anti-art tattooists who, in violating the norms of mainstream body art through indiscriminate, often unprofessional, primal, and aesthetically perverse and avant-garde pieces, are attempting to reposition the medium in opposition to mainstream tattoo and society—evoking its deviant and innately transgressive magic.”

The anti-art tattooists I mentioned here were Valerio Cancellier and Cammy Stewart. They collaborated to produce the Brutal Black Project, a tattoo session defined by its brutality and ritualistic elements and inspired by a desire to disassociate tattoo with “art” and affront what Cammy Stewart believes tattooing has become: “plastic, soulless bubble-gum, broken down by fashion, the media and popular culture.”

It is a discord rooted in the generational shift from tattoo practice to tattoo art, from craftsman to artist, from scourge of society to the accoutrements of cool, inner-city individuals. The initial internal resistance to artification was generated by a fear of social, economic, and stylistic stratification that was occurring within the industry. Today, these shifts are regularly influenced by factors outside of the community—for some, thinking about tattoo as “art” has become synonymous with making it palatable for celebrity bodies that shill, or voyeuristic charlatans that want to be associated with an artificially manufactured notion of cool, or for capitalist cultural industries to pillage and repackage into consumable commodities such as reality television tattoo shows, perfumes, clothing brands, tattoo schools, books, music videos, mainstream magazines and salacious or shock-horror clickbait. Meanwhile, despite the prevalence of tattooed bodies throughout culture industries, studies still demonstrate a high level of stigma associated with tattoos, translating into various forms of discrimination and harassment for people that do not perform at the Super Bowl or grace the covers of high-end fashion magazines. 

Perceiving tattoo as an aesthetic commodity ignores its subjective transformative—and permanent—qualities, incongruously positioning it as fair game for appraisal against a slew of ephemeral consumer cultural detritus. Conflated with cool, regularly measuring tattoo’s existential credibility now takes place within the precarious fields that “elevated” the practice, imbuing outsiders with the power to objectify and take agency from a tattooed body and reduce it to passé—as Bourdieu quipped, evaluating the “deficiencies” of another’s appearance is one of the ways the petit bourgeois exercise their power over others whom they deem “vulgar”.

Although, as Mary Kosut observed, it may be contradictory in nature—as both a commodified consumer product and creative and agentic postmodern product—I believe that questioning whether the proliferation of tattoo has reduced its “cultural capital” is an illogical enquiry driven by a superficial grasp of an experience, community and culture. Instead, maybe we should focus on the myriad and often profound functions the ancient practice can fulfil for individuals, groups, and cultures as an artform, craft, ritual, or intense physical and often remedial experience in our ever increasingly technological and digital contemporary lives.