Tattoo Taboo: Not Your Grandma’s Body Art

by Rachel Long


Self-expression has won the day: tattoos are in. For those of us who have tattoos, this means a more accepting society may finally see the merit in body art, and I think it’s about time. According to a poll taken by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 40 percent of Americans had tattoos in 2014, compared to 21 percent in 1999. Tattoos have gone from being freak show attractions, to the marks of rebels and outliers, to one of the prominent features of mainstream culture. Society today is engaged in a strange power struggle between two intensely individualistic generations, one that views body modification as a brand for outcasts (and sailors, because sailors get everything nice), and one that has embraced the various forms of body art, particularly tattoos. And so here we are in all our flamboyantly tattooed glory, flaunting our ink for all to see. So why the change?

Modern culture is a product of the rebellion against its predecessor, Generation X, a group that warns against the negative side effects of tattoos. Though I agree that caution is best when it comes to something a permanent as a tattoo, it is time that we make our own decisions about what goes on our bodies. Our definition of art has expanded to encompass previously unavailable forms, like digital media, and art forms previously seen as taboo. Our current generation has not only a love of defiance, but a fascination with personal artistic expression. Out of this we have given rise to the hipster nation, one of our generation’s most influential social forces. The driving purpose of this social phenomenon is rejection of the mainstream and adoption of the strange or condemned.

However, the ‘hipster’ lifestyle is such a large movement that it has, in fact, become the mainstream that it attempts to reject. This movement has brought a myriad of trends into popularity, tattoos among them. The hipster craze has ushered in an abundance of tattoos, but for the most part they follow set trends. In an NPR interview, tattoo artist “Fatty” of Fatty’s Custom Tattooz in Washington, D.C. points out that many of the tattoos his clients request are just variations of one or two popular designs.

The fact that many choose to follow preset or mainstream designs also contributes to the popularity of tattoos. People can recognize a familiar image on another person and immediately relate to both the tattoo itself and to the person and their motives for getting it, leading to a common bond among the tattooed. Because people with tattoos are now such a large part of the population, there is a general acceptance of them as normal means of expression. This cultural acceptance opens the doorway for tattoo artists and those being tattooed to become truly creative and expressive. When popular tattoos became mainstream, other, more extravagant or out-of-the-ordinary designs also became less taboo, if not a part of conventional culture.

Tattoos still remain controversial, and many recommend abstaining from any that are difficult to cover in a work environment. However, the current millennials are growing up and will eventually have to make decisions about what is work-place appropriate. This could create an interesting shift in social consciousness and possibly lead to a society that’s even more accepting of body modification.

Because tattoos are a form of artistic expression that has only recently come roaring into popularity, only time will tell if this is merely a fad or an actual shift in the way we view tattoos as an art form. Whether you have an infinity symbol, a tribal print, or a personalized design, tattoos are a way to show off what makes you, you. When considered carefully, tattoos can become a beautiful commemoration of a stage of your life. I love that we’ve reached a point where I can walk into a tattoo parlor and request that twelve multi-colored bunny silhouettes be permanently affixed to my skin, and no one bats an eye. This new trend opens the door for people with tattoos to be accepted, and for people who never considered getting a tattoo to express themselves in a new way.