How have tattoos become so popular in the last few decades?

How have tattoos become so popular in the last few decades?

I’m no expert in this field of anthropology/sociology, but I wanted to search around academic articles on the possibilities of tattoo’s expanding popularity. Margo DeMello (“Bodies of Inscription”) argues that bringing non-Western (largely East Asian among other cultures) techniques and imagery to the West allowed for an artistic distance that was more acceptable than simply skulls and MOM tattoos:

Where is today’s version of the Rock of Ages or the Rose of No-Man’s-Land? These classic American tattoos have been replaced by a more “authentic” tattoo, one which distances the wearer from his or her white, American, middle-class standing-a position that is simultaneously confirmed and rejected through the tattoos. It is confirmed because to wear tribal or Japanese tattoos is to mark one as middle class, educated, and artistically sophisticated; yet it is rejected, because for many the non-Western tattoo is a way to rebel against middle-class values. The irony here is that neither tribal tattoos nor the Chicano tattoos that have recently become popular among whites originated in the middle-class tribal tattoos were first worn by punks and gays, and Chicano tattoos were worn by Chicanos and convicts. Yet they have become popularized through middle-class wear, and the tribal tattoo, at least for a while, stood with the Japanese tattoo as the ultimate middle-class adornment. (Margo DeMello, 2000)

So the tattoo is a political act: to symbolize rejection of middle-class values but to also avoid lower-class stereotypes (gang/biker/sailor tattoos) – thereby solidifying middle-class values to appropriate but modify to maintain class positions.

Angela Orend and Patricia Gagné bring up an interesting point of view in their article “Corporate Logo Tattoos and the Commodification of the Body (2009)”:

Turner (1997, 1999) contends that tattoos are a routine feature of consumer culture. Drawing on Baudrillard’s (1995, 1996, 1998) argument that the mass production of signs in postmodern society has led to a loss of meaning, with the sign bearing little, if any, connection to its original referent, Turner (1999, 41) maintains that tattoos are part of a crisis of identity in postmodern times where “body marks are commercial objects in a leisure marketplace and have become optional aspects of a body aesthetic, which playfully and ironically indicate social membership” whereas “tattoos have no cosmic foundation from which meaning could be derived.” As such, they are part of the spectacle of signs that are vacuous messages to the self (also see Bauer 2002; Foster and Hummel 2000)… Accordingly, tattooed bodies are “commodities on display,” with tattoos having little connection to the referents they once symbolized (Featherstone 1991a, 173; also see Scheper-Hughes and Wacquant 2002).

This one is quite the downer on tattoos, but as a tattooed person myself, I quite agree to with the sentiment: that middle-class consumer culture has found a new frontier to solidify self-identity through bold and understandable (“spectacle”) signs that invoke membership and rejection – but in the end become hollow signs by decontextualizing them upon the body – what exactly does a “Harley Davidson” tattoo actually mean once upon the body? The simple statement of “I like Harleys”?

An important point that several articles I’ve read mentioned (though others directly mention secularism):

Specifically, as individual identities are less rooted in kinship and geographic communities, individuals are influenced by consumer culture to believe that they can purchase individual and group identity through the products they buy. (Orend and Gagné, 2009)

Deniz Atik and Cansu Yildirim proposed a rather uninspired explanation of the rising popularity of tattoos, citing various celebrities and other famous individuals who have paved the way tattoos to be more culturally acceptable. However, it jumps the gun on the second and third “why”:

  • Why One: Why have tattoos grown in popularity? Proposition: because of celebrities and popular media.
  • Why Two: Why have celebrities and popular media perceived that it would be more acceptable to broadcast and popularize tattoos? ???

We can answer Why Two with Orend and Gagnés summarization: that middle-class/consumer culture has found identity in a previously stigmatized practice.

  • Why Three: Why has consumer culture found identity in tattoos?

Why Three could be answered with the innate properties of the modern tattoo: they are easy-to-understand signs that have paralleled the expanding iconography consumer culture – where Apple has its logo, a middle-class consumer can also self-brand with a tattoo that can refer to preferred characterizations: intellect, worldliness, creativity. Otherwise summarized in “Reasons Behind Body Art Adoption: What Motivates Young Adults to Acquire Tattoos”:

The differentiation of tattooing from other body modification techniques (e.g. scarring, piercing, painting, and shaping) is based on its relative permanence, symbolism embodied in the creative potential of tattoo designs, and rapid dissemination across social strata, which represents interest for marketers due to impressive sales potential (Pentina and Spears, 2011).

Tattoos are at the intersection of the changing meaning of images in the modernist/postmodernist world, middle-class/consumer identity, and general bourgeois appropriation of lower-class aesthetics in order to self-differentiate – consequently maintaining class divisions in the process.

Hope this is not totally wrong! But it’s a fascinating subject cause I have a love/hate relationship with tattoos – it’s viscerally satisfying but symbolically a minefield.

Posted in /r/askanthropology.