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When did tattooing become so normalized?

By in Opinions

TOMAS BORSA
Opinions Editor

The art of tattooing — or, more bluntly, the act of voluntarily having oneself repeatedly stabbed by an ink-bearing needle — has been practiced for thousands of years as a means of representing accomplishment, rank, rites of passage or for purely aesthetic purposes. Ötzi the Iceman — who lived 5,300 years ago — had 57 tattoos, most of them simple dots and lines.

Then again, I suppose it might not be a great idea to take life advice from an old corpse once fond of isolated mid-winter walks along mountain ridges.

But somewhere along the way, tattooing lost its status and began to be viewed in a negative light, ultimately coming to be seen as the mark of prisoners, scumbags, bikers and vagrants. At best, it was the mark of the working class and at worst, it was an indication that you had something to hide.

In some parts of the world, the stigma associated with tattooing continues to be fierce, influencing not only public opinion but, in some cases, legislation as well. In Japan, it is illegal to publicly display tattoos in bath houses as a result of the strong connotations that exist between tattoos and organized crime.

Particularly in North America, tattooing is back in vogue and the sleazy back-alley reputation connected with the tattoo culture is quickly fading. To put things in perspective, there are 15 tattoo shops in Saskatoon alone — that makes it one fifth as popular as pizza, and I challenge you to find anything more universally beloved than pizza.

Thirty-six per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 25 now have at least one tattoo — one of the highest rates in the world. And thankfully, a lot fewer of those people are getting barbed-wire armbands, instead opting for large-scale work requiring multiple sittings. Now, interested clients rarely even talk about “getting a tattoo” — a meaningless stamp in the middle of nowhere — and instead talk of “tattooing”: a highly personal, coherent piece of artwork intended to capture a certain aspect of one’s personality.

After my first tattoo, I refused to accept the mantra that “once you start, you won’t be able to stop.” Having since spent a little over $1,000 on tattoos, I will have to reluctantly agree.

Much of the resurgence in the popularity of tattooing can be attributed to its rapid commercialization, having been so radically re-branded that what was once the ultimate counter-cultural act has very nearly become an accepted social norm. Turn on the television any given night and you’ll find re-runs of LA Ink, Miami Ink, Inked, Tattoo Highway, Rio Ink and a host of other similar programs. Five years ago, the National Arts Club, one of the most prestigious arts societies in the United States, invited tattooist Paul Booth to its ranks.

The Internet has made it possible for potential clients to view the portfolios of virtually any artist in the world. As a result of this increased accessibility and a growing cultural acceptance, tattoo artists are becoming celebrities in their own right.

For some, their tattoos are worn as a sort of trophy, proof that they were able to endure the pain (the most painful tattoos, as a general rule, are those on either very bony or very fleshy areas, like the ribs or inner thigh.) For those in this camp, tattoos can be used as a tool to increase one’s sense of mystery and intrigue, to draw attention, or as a way of documenting (or at least giving the impression of having lived) an interesting or dangerous life.

The sharp rise in the popularity of customized tattooing illustrates this aspect of tattooing perfectly. Custom tattooing appeals to our generation — the Facebook generation’s — love of identity editorialism, where with the click of a button, specific aspects of one’s visible personality and life-history can be strategically omitted, tagged, highlighted or modified. Tattooing is simply an extension of this “social customization,” whereby an intentionally cryptic tattoo will provoke inquiry, or an ironic, nonsensical tattoo could serve as an icebreaker.

Whether or not a person’s tattoos are an authentic reproduction of their true life experiences remains hidden — though it’s probably best to assume that anyone with a tear drop tattoo has it for a reason.

For others, a tattoo can also act as a conversation starter: there is an undeniable fraternity between the tattooed that is akin to the bond between two smokers.

Perhaps the best explanation for the rise in the popularity of tattooing came to me from Chris Higgins, a tattoo artist at Into You in London, England, and proud owner of a body almost entirely covered in inked markings.

“Simply put,” he said, “a life un-documented is a boring life indeed.”

But he continued: “People ask why I decided to get so many tattoos. They say, ”˜You know, when you’re older those are all going to look like shit.’ ”

His response is blunt and to the point: “Past a certain point everyone looks like shit. I’ll just be way cooler, ’cause I’ll be that wrinkly old man with lots of tattoos.”

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image: Philippe Leroyer

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