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            03 / 11 / 15

            Ink obsession and the commodification of tattoos in Western culture

            • It seems these days that tattoos are everywhere – it is amazing to see the popularity tattoos have gained over the last decade. But why do people get them and what does it reveal in our society?

              Tattoos have been around for thousands of centuries. Yet, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that they made their way into western pop culture, adopted by hippies, punks and other emblems of counterculture.

              Miami Ink marked the entry of tattoos in mass media. In 2005, the reality show introduced millions of Americans to the inside of a tattoo parlor. Suddenly, tattoos were no longer an obscure practice of self-inscription. The TV show’s success paved the way for mass media to surf the tattoo wave: as tattooed celebrities gained influence and visibility, they became mainstream.

              Today, tattoos have gone from the exception to the rule. A Pew 2012 US survey found that 40 percent of American aged 18 to 25 had at least one tattoo. Tattoo fever seems to have taken over the Western world. Tattoo parlors that were once intimidating and hard to find are now part of urban gentrification, spreading in cities like espresso bars.

              As tattoos become mainstream, are they still meaningful? While tattoos have become commonplace, they have also been embraced by millenials as a tool to express their individuality, proving that they still hold meaning for some.


              – Tattoos & storytelling

              In an era where individualism strives, millennials have embraced tattoo culture as a tool to construct a customised identity. Authenticity is the new social currency; one is considered interesting if he/she has experiences and stories worth sharing. Tattoos, or ‘Body Art’, as they are also commonly referred to, are all about storytelling. Interestingly, while the expression ‘tattoo’ is rather neutral, ‘body art’ strongly embodies this idea of using your body as a canvas to tell a meaningful, almost noble story. The expression also implies a certain respect towards its own body, as art can only enhance the body.

              – Tattoos as a means to be approved

              While millennials get tattoos to feel unique, they are also looking for approval from their peers, using tattoos as a way to feel part of a selected group, join the ‘cool gang’.

              Like the clothes we wear and the brands we buy, tattoos are a visible mark for others to know to which tribe we belong. As they still carry an aura of rebellion and transgression, tattoos have become the new barometer of coolness. Tattoos imply a lifestyle free of conventions and open-mindedness. When going to trendy outdoor events and music festivals, it is quite noticeable that partygoers have gotten their tattoos not only for themselves, but also for others to notice. The same thing happens in a city like Rio, where tattoos have invaded the beach and seem to be as cherished as bodybuilding and tanning as a way to get attention on the beach.

              – Tattoos as an act of resistance

              But while tattoos are extremely related to self-expression and peer approval, getting one also has a deeper cultural significance, symbolising an act of resistance against the loss of meaning of modern times.

              In our fast-paced, digital world, nothing seems to last very long. Marriages don’t last, jobs don’t last, even friendships don’t last. Today, more than ever, people need milestones to give meaning to their lives. While everything else is ephemeral, tattoos are sometimes the only thing remaining, reminding you who you are or who you once were. Hence, tattoos work as timekeepers, giving us some sense of permanency in a world that has none.

              The future of tattoos

              It’s hard to say if the tattoo fever that has taken over western society is going to fade or if it will continue to attract newcomers. But as millenials are getting older, the tattoo craze seems to be slowing down. 4/10 British people regret their tattoos. As a consequence, the laser removal industry is booming – some tattoo parlors even propose both services now, tattoo and laser removal. Engaged tattoo artists are also reacting to their trivialization. Recently, a tattoo artist in NY refused to get a girl the tattoo she wanted in respect to the ‘tattoo honor code’.

              More generally speaking, it seems that people’s relation to tattoos has started to evolve; as generation Z is considered to be more conservative than their older peers, it is believed that as they grow old they will be less inclined to get one. As getting a tattoo is being thought with more consideration, ‘Think before you ink’ seems to be the new motto.

              Article by Carmen Beer