How Tattoos Became the Favored Art Form
With the Internet, rapid idea-sharing is the norm. However, some things, such as tattoos, seem to be “trending” at a much higher rate. Even though there is research and poll data to show the increasing interest in tattoos in recent years, it is not difficult for the average Joe with a laptop to notice the rise of tattoos and their prominence in visual media and social media sites.
While some of these sites are simply extensions of other tasteless “hot people” fetishization in the media, posting scantily clad models of both genders showcasing their inked-up bodies, the growing interest in tattoo-gawking online may represent a more noble instinct.
One common reason to get a tattoo is to tell one’s story to the world through a visual representation of an important moment, person, or memory. Tattoo artist Ericksen Reed Linn of Heart and Soul states, “Most of my clients are interested in getting a tattoo to mark some milestone in their life.” Tattoos are a form of self-expression, except that they are so much more communal than traditional art. The tattooist and the client experience the creation of the piece simultaneously, and the person getting inked entrusts their personal story, not to mention part of their body, to the artist.
Blogging platforms such as Tumblr encourage people to upload photos of themselves with their new tattoos, which serves as advertising for the tattoo artist as well as the tattooee. Tattoo artists are heavily involved in social media, which helps them stay artistically inspired, and enables them to network, and market themselves to potential clients. Ericksen Reed Linn (Instagram handle clumsysurgeon) has nearly 400 artists that he follows on Instagram alone. He says “I just get to look at great art. It’s exciting to find an artist that you have never heard of all on your own, and to have great artists show an interest in your work.” Instagram and other visually focused social media seem to be the most common platforms that attract tattoo artists.
Part of the increasing interest and acceptance in tattoos might also be partially due to the increasing cultural capital of television shows (such as LA Ink/Miami Ink and personalities such as Kat Von D). This is somewhat controversial in the tattoo world since some artists believe that television encourages people to self-tattoo, which can be dangerous, and that it might cheapen the industry. While the type of person getting inked has been in flux, so has the population of artists themselves. Most people who go into tattooing these days are those who have a serious interest in art and truly identify as artists and artisans, like tattooist Brittany Marie Cox, who “grew up in a very artistic family,” and has been an artist for as long as she remembers. For many tattooists, ink is just one form of artistic expression.
Younger people, professional artists, and women are more frequently becoming tattoo artists, for example. Ericksen Reed Linn argues that “up-and-coming tattooers of today are not necessarily renegade, subculture biker types, but rather educated fine artists who are looking for a medium to make money in. The competition is vastly more intense artistically than it was even just a few years ago.”
Shannon Perry from Alleged Tattoo is one of those naturally talented artists who got into tattooing “almost by accident.” She argues that although the tattoo industry used to be a “boys club,” it is now much more accepting in some ways. Both Ericksen and Shannon express some concern that there is still a lingering culture of judgment in the tattoo scene. Ericksen has noticed that some people getting tattoos do not respect their own bodies, and that some artists are judgmental when it comes to their clients. Shannon expresses more annoyance in judgment between artists, and resistance to innovation from up and comers.
Even though social media has created a positive outlet for creativity in the tattoo world, there is still pushback from artists themselves about the new types of customers and new types of artists entering the scene. Shannon states, “There's a lot of macho posturing and tradition. I'm a fan of tradition and old-fashioned things, but my apprenticeship didn't involve working 16 hours a day for four years and scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, or getting beat up by some big tattoo dude at the shop. I was given assignments, chores, and challenged to improve my skills through as much practice as possible. I've met tattoo folks who've said that's not "tough enough" for an apprenticeship. Sometimes that bothers me, especially since I tattoo full time.” However, she agrees that “in the end, I guess it doesn't really matter what people think. My work will either speak for itself or it won't.”
Shannon is still an apprentice, who graduates in March, 2013. She, like many other artists, has been drawing for a long time before getting into tattoos. Her work is not very traditional, which also seems to be a recent trend in tattooing. Shannon specializes in portraiture, but categorizes her favorite style of work as “dainty, line-based, sketch work with creative forms of shading, whether it be stippled dots or cross-hatch or etching style. I like to draw on skin like it was paper, using a liner for an entire piece. I'm of course happy to try any style, but punky line-work is my favorite. My favorite thing to draw is hands. Realistic, stylized, however, just hands. Or psychedelic stuff like eyes and geometrical shapes. I really like goofball tattoos. I'm a sucker for humor.”
Because of the rising popularity of tattoos, niche markets are able to both showcase and create demand for their ideal clientele. So, whether clients are looking for something more traditional, realistic, a recreation of a favorite art piece, an indie-inspired humor piece, or a fun and jokey one, there is a tattoo artist who specializes in that niche.
Despite the broadened population of inked and happy customers, not everyone likes or accepts tattoos, and some cultural resistance remains, especially from people who grew up seeing tattoos as marks of criminality, a naval background, or even victims of torture or concentration camps. This resistance includes an older generation that feels that putting marks on one’s body is an aberration for someone who wishes to participate in “respectable society.” Many parents would still be surprised and perhaps a bit reticent to accept their children’s tattoos, even though there are those who take their children to get their first ink, or funding the venture as a graduation present. One mother and writer for The Guardian describes the emotional mortification and even betrayal that she felt when her son got his first tattoo. She had told him growing up that it was the one thing he should never do, and he still got one.
Tattoos have become so popular in certain scenes that getting a tattoo might run the risk of becoming a cliché. A friend recently said that he is automatically less attracted to women with tattoos, not because he doesn’t like the marks, but because he feels like they probably just did it to follow a trend, and that gets just as dull when everyone has a tattoo as it does when nobody has them. While tattoos used to be considered rebellious, the more mainstream they become, the less intimidating or surprising they become.
There are websites dedicated to showing which tattoos are the most popular and for which reasons. Carly Chasing Rainbows is a blog that shows common tattoo designs and common placement, and even has a diagram guide for tattoo planning. Many professionals recommend to dream big and “just go for it.” Brittany Marie Cox, one of the owners and artists of Golden Dagger Tattoo Parlour advises to have a good meal and plenty of water beforehand, but to avoid alcohol and drugs the day of, excepting ibuprofen. She also says, “Breathe. Relax. Sit still.”
Not all tattoos are created equal. Ericksen warns, “Just like someone might judge you for wearing cheap and dirty clothing or admire your designer clothing, I believe people will see tattoos as well-made aesthetic decisions that cost real money, or cheap garbage with little thought behind it, depending on quality of the tattoos.”
When someone is about to get a tattoo, social media is a host of opportunity for inspiration and excitement building. However, it also might lead to a lot of copycats. If the goal is to get something personal and unique, uploading to or downloading from the net might not be the wisest choice. When everyone is pinning and tweeting and tumbling their favorite tattoo designs to share, the “trending” tattoo ideas are more likely to spread like wildfire.
Photos: Shannon Perry.