The Tattoo: Then and Now

Phuc Pham | New University

Look around the room, and you’re bound to catch a glimpse of a tattoo or two peeking from  sleeve cuffs, creeping up necks or clinging to anklebones. Look around the beach (or yoga class, or volleyball practice, or wherever people have a stronger tendency to skimp on clothes) and you are practically guaranteed to see a whole lot of ink on shoulders, legs, arms and on the not-so-elusive lower back.

In today’s world, it seems that most people are sporting ink or at least dreaming of it. In fact, according to a survey taken by the Pew Research Center, a think-tank organization that provides info on American trends and such, 14 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo (that’s about 45 million people). More specifically, about 36 percent of college-age Americans sport ink somewhere on their body.

This mainstream prevalence makes the tattoo industry quite the moneymaker, with Americans spending about $1.65 billion on their ink needs every year. At $45 a pop (the average price for a small tattoo), young people have developed an increasing affinity for spending their hard-earned cash on body art. America’s current love affair with all things tattoo is evident in the emergence of hit TV shows such as “INKED” and “LA Ink,” and in the rising number of art galleries which incorporate tattoos and body art into their repertoire.

This mainstreaming is a dramatic departure from the negative perception of tattoos which reigned in yesteryear, during which, according to Michael Atkinson, the author of “Tattooed,” there was a very “strong association between tattooing and social deviance.”

Tattooing has been practiced for centuries by a variety of cultures, and since its inception has undergone a tumultuous sociogenesis. Having long been a prevalent part of culture in many Asian and Island societies, the art of tattoos was brought to the Western World by the many seafaring European expeditions to Polynesia and other countries from the 16th through 18th centuries. In fact, the English word “tattoo” is a borrowed one, adapted from the Polynesian “tatau” and the Tahitian “tatu.” For early citizens of the United States, body art became negatively associated with all things savage and unknown, and later morphed into a form of entertainment in the circuses and “freak shows” of the era.

Finally, in the 1920s, the art of ink was embraced by the servicemen of America, as well as the working class, who decorated their arms with patriotic images. Tattoo parlors became social hubs, and tattoos became a symbol of national pride. At this point in history, there was little to no stigma associated with tattoos, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the tattoo’s image would be severely tarnished.

During this time, it became common among prisoners and criminals to use tattoos to make permanent note of their crimes and their aversion to society. Similarly, in the 1970s, bikers and motorcycle gangs developed an affinity for body art as well, often wearing ink that proclaimed “FTW” and such. Ladies and gentlemen take note: in the long-past time that was the 70s, “FTW” apparently stood for “Fuck the World,” rather than the now popular “For the Win” (making that abbreviation a strikingly ironic fail). However, as the 70s rolled (or tripped) by, women seeking equality and strength found that tattoos provided an excellent symbol of empowerment and art. Musicians and other giants of popular culture joined the tattoos-as-art bandwagon and began flashing their ink.  True to the American tradition of following the off-the-cuff wisdom of our celebrities, society decided that maybe tattoos weren’t so bad after all (Thank you, wise Janis Joplin).

Now, tattoo “artists,” as they are very rightfully called, hail from a vast variety of backgrounds including prestigious art and graphic design schools. As such, getting “tatted” has become increasingly upscale and artistic. The most important thing to note about the sociogenesis of the tattoo is that it has morphed (magically, you might say) from a form of social rebellion, favored by those fallen from social grace, into a form of self-expression, embraced by people from nearly all walks of life. While the edgier among us still insist on inking themselves with the modern day equivalents of “FTW,” and there is still a lingering association between tattoos and criminality (you can thank the teardrop tattoo tradition for that one), the tattoo is a modern way for people to express their personalities, passions and persuasions in a way that is often quite beautiful.

New UC Irvine freshman Jasmine Sebastian is a newly inked example of someone who chose this form of expression. Jasmine got her shoulder tattoo just three weeks ago in a two-hour process she says “wasn’t bad.” She chose her shoulder as the canvas for her ink because it is easy to cover if necessary and isn’t so shocking to look at in the mirror. “Eventually, I’ll forget it’s there,” she says.

Her tattoo is a shoulder-covering stunner that catches the eye with its wing-like shape from a distance. A closer look reveals a bold, sweeping tribal design that arcs gracefully into three delicately shaded island flowers. Sebastian says that her new ink, which is  an intricate Polynesian and Filipino design and created by an Anaheim artist who specializes in such cultural art, symbolizes “strength, independence and family over everything.”

Her family is represented by the three beautiful island flowers – one for her father, mother and brother. Sebastian was inspired to get her new tattoo by her new journey into college life.

“This symbolizes a new beginning and having the strength to get through a new part of life,” she said.

Asked if her new art makes her feel strong, Sebastian says it gives her strength and confidence: “It feels like a shield, actually.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about getting inked is that every tattoo can speak volumes about its wearer, and more often than not, the things we learn we might never have guessed at first glance. The fact that someone chooses to forever mark their skin with indelible ink tends to mean the story is very dear to the wearer’s heart and all the more worth asking about.

This is not to say that getting a tattoo has lost all of its edge. Sporting a tat doesn’t have to mean you’ve gotten in touch with the art in your life; in fact, it can still mean something as simple as “I’m just a badass, bro.” The truly cool thing, though, is that with tattoos emerging as a strikingly unique form of self-expression, it doesn’t have to.