The music and movie industry’s ability to instantly commodify and popularize isn’t just apparent in how celebrity has shaped and changed the nature of social media, but other things as well. The grown popularity of the tattoo is a perfect example of this. Tattoos have historically belonged to outsiders and outliers in Western society – from select and eccentric members of the elite, to those who saw themselves as on the fringes of society, or those who were exiled by way of a prison sentence or a life sentence at sea.
Today, tattoos aren’t quite ubiquitous, but they are popular. Arguably more popular than they’ve ever been in living memory. Italy ranks at the top for countries with the most tattooed individuals, where, 48 percent of survey respondents had at least one tattoo, followed closely by Sweden (47 percent) and the US (46 percent). Other nations in the top five include Australia (43 percent) and Argentina (43 percent as well). 2 out of 5 people in at least eight countries are tattooed, which is a significant number of inked individuals. But where did this dramatic growth come from? Why are tattoos in vogue, when they were previously linked to unsavory stereotypes in many of these countries just a few decades ago?
The rise of the tattoo
The rise of the tattoo to the mainstream can be attributed to a slow, gradual growth in popularity, up until the day tattoo artists became reality TV stars. When Israeli-American Miami Ink owner Ami James came up with the brilliant idea of partnering up with TLC to kickstart a reality TV show about tattoos and tattooing, millions of viewers all across the US and the rest of the world were introduced to the inside of a tattoo parlor.
Before 2005, the tattoo had been steadily growing in popularity as its image shifted from ‘biker gangs and Chicano’ to ‘hard rock and punk counterculture’, but the tradition of getting a tattoo among the post-Cold War generation was still mostly a moment of rebellion during a personal coming-of-age tale. Its growth was still niche, almost insular.
Exceptions included certain celebrities like David Beckham, who first got inked in 1999, and Angelina Jolie, who got her first tattoo in 1993, but these exceptions existed throughout history – while most would argue that it certainly wasn’t fashionable to have a tattoo in the 19th and 20th century, some of the most important figureheads of the Western world in that era had tattoos (Churchill had an anchor on his forearm from his navy days, and Roosevelt reportedly sported his family crest). Several European statesmen like Tsar Nicholas II, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and King George V visited Japan to get inked.
The jump to the mainstream happened when the tattoo hit the small screen, in a big way. Miami Ink was wildly successful, spawning several spinoffs and making the artists associated with the brand extremely popular, and quite rich. For the first time in American celebrity culture, tattoo artists were celebrities.
The next step towards the mainstream was the Internet. More specifically, social media, and the rise of social networks as a premiere platform for business and celebrity. While tattoo-themed TV shows had been on-air for years at this point, the Internet provided tattoo artists with better opportunities to market themselves beyond word-of-mouth and enthusiast magazines, and today’s best artists are often booked year-round, commanding prices well in the tens of thousands of dollars for works of art that take dozens of hours to complete.
Tattoos are mainstream – even in the job market
The growth of the tattoo in both mainstream and celebrity culture is almost mirrored. Many of today’s biggest pop icons are heavily tattooed, and embrace it. And while some still voice their disapproval of tattoos, there’s an overwhelming majority who don’t care, are thinking about getting one, or already are tattooed.
To the point that getting a tattoo isn’t even likely to impact your chances at getting a job, unless it’s somewhere incredibly conspicuous (like the face), and even then, attitudes differ depending on whether it’s a tattoo with cultural or religious significance. Among actors, a tattoo can help further hone in on a niche or type they want to play, and when it’s in the way, makeup departments and editing tools have the ability to let even big pieces of skin art completely disappear.
Tattoos are a fluctuating trend
But this recent growth is slated to be ephemeral. Tattoos have historically always experienced booms and busts, and preliminary surveys are already showing that Gen Z, those born after 1996, are far more conservative than previous generations when it comes to skin art and piercings. Nevertheless, tattoos are very likely to live on and grow thanks to the Internet.