The Melodramatic Nostalgia of Tattoo Reporting

On Saturday I presented a paper at the 2014 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference (on what ended up being quite a solid panel with my fellow tattoo-scholar friends Amelia Klem Osterud and Nick Schonberger and a sociologist Derek Roberts who we hadn’t met before but who is doing some interesting work).

It’s not the kind of paper that I would ever publish in a journal, but I thought I’d archive a slightly revised version of it here. I think I offer a useful critique of some of the recent editorial media pieces about tattooing as well as some helpful guidelines at the end for anyone authoring tattoo writing. I also didn’t get to present the entire paper because, well, perhaps I tend to ramble on a bit…so this is a way to get it all out there. In the process of doing research for this paper, I mined a significant amount of my personal history with tattooing, and that caused me to dredge up some amusing photos that documented my early years as a collector (and scholar).


Me getting my first sleeve finished in 1993. The artist is my art-school friend Forrest Curl (working at River City Tattoo in Austin, TX…a long way from Providence, RI, where he had started tattooing me). A couple days later he started the other sleeve and finished it within a few months in my apartment in Chicago.

So here’s the paper:

My paper this morning will be fairly unorthodox. 8 am on a Saturday lends itself well to experimentation. I apologize in advance if I might cross the line from the usual self-absorbed academic drivel into the realm of narcissistic navel-gazing.

In my proposed abstract, I had intended to more concertedly mine a paper I gave about tattooing nearly 20 years ago, at a Popular Culture Association conference in 1996, that still has much relevance today. But this past weekend I got sidetracked by a completely obnoxious, melodramatic, and egocentric essay about getting tattoos in the late 1990s published in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Existential Anguish of the Tattoo.” (And I just found out Friday night while perusing my Facebook that it was one of TWO terrible tattoo articles that appeared in the New York Times this past week.) It was by an author named Dan Brooks who apparently got two crappy tattoos while a college student in New York City in the late 1990s. And now he really regrets the first one—an asterisk that looks like the Red Hot Chili Peppers band logo that he seems to have had inscribed in 1997, judging by the ages he cites. This regret has resulted in an “existential anguish” that he assumes everyone else who got a tattoo in the late 90s similarly feels. Bleh. I had a hard time reading the piece and not cringing at his saccharine nostalgia and his misunderstanding of both recent and more remote tattoo history.

Here’s just a sampling of how awful it was:

“Like many important signifiers of the 1990s, tattoos began as a gesture of rebellion and became so ubiquitous as to carry no stigma at all. There was a time when a visible tattoo disqualified you from most jobs, many families and several religions. To be tattooed was to declare that you would no longer rely on strangers’ good will, either because you were an adventurer — sailor, yakuza, heavy-metal musician — or because you had such poor judgment that you were likely to alienate people anyway. Now the tattooed type has expanded to include hairdressers and graphic designers, accountants and yoga teachers and — perhaps most disturbingly — cool dads. I know a dozen people with full sleeves, and all but one of them have children. Their sleeves now read as an indictment of nonconformism rather than an assertion of it — which is weird, because the tattoos themselves haven’t changed.”

So, I figure, if some random writer guy with two tattoos can get away with such conceited bloviating, I can certainly mine my 20-plus-year history with tattooing both as a collector and a scholar for purposes of a conference presentation, especially given that I was critically writing about tattoos and had acquired full tattooed sleeves plus a number of other pieces before Mr. Brooks ever set foot in a tattoo shop.

A bit about me: I first started getting tattooed in 1990 inspired by punk rock and the very first mass-market tattoo magazine Outlaw Biker Tattoo Revue. By 1993, after having obtained a smattering of small-to-medium-sized tattoos on various parts of my body, I began to get “sleeved.” By the fall of 1993, I took my place among what probably amounted to perhaps only as many as 300 women in America who could boast of having two full shoulder-to-wrist sleeves (more easily hidden large pieces like backs were more common for women at the time). I look back at these pictures and realize they would never get published in a major magazine today. I was a grungy art student with bad skin who eschewed makeup—absolutely the antithesis of the type of tattooed woman who is now featured in tattoo magazines which have become dominated by a problematic soft-core porn/Suicide-Girl aesthetic.


That’s me in the upper right top corner, 21 years old, freaked out by being photographed to be in the tattoo magazines that I pored over for hours. This image appeared in the Winter 1994 premiere issue of the long-defunct Tattoo Ink. The photograph was taken by Bill DeMichele at the 1993 Tattoo Tour tattoo convention when it was held in Chicago.


And that’s me in the lower right, also taken at the 1993 Tattoo Tour tattoo convention in Chicago. This was in one of the very early issues of International Tattoo Art. In both this and the previous issue I find the photography so fascinating in contrast to what we see in most of the magazines today. The focus was squarely on the tattoos, on disseminating what was going on in tattooing at that moment.

But I also had a deep academic streak and, as a nerdy high school student a quarter of a century ago (albeit one with black lipstick and combat boots), I had been researching the history and culture of tattooing since before I had even gotten inked (you can read that story in the first of the pieces I wrote for Tattoo Culture Magazine). At every opportunity, I would incorporate tattooing into my college papers and art projects. So when I decided to go to graduate school in art history in 1994, focusing on tattooing made sense.

The paper I’m going to be mining today as a historical artifact constitutes my very first conference presentation ever. Titled “From Subcultural Sign to Fashion Statement: the Changing Meanings of Tattoos” it reads like what it was: a paper written by a 23 year-old graduate student just beginning to learn how to compile research into a convincing argument that was substantive rather than superficial. I have to say, though, upon digging this out from my files, I was pretty impressed with my younger self’s capacity for critical analysis. But I cringed when I realized it suffers from some of the very same mistakes I see today—nearly 20 years later–in so many papers about tattooing, particularly a belief that tattoos were, before the 1990s, always seen as taboo or somehow deviant. I know now, from much more careful and in-depth research over a broader historical period, that this trope is untrue.

Before I wrote this paper I had attended a Popular Culture Association conference the year before (my very first academic conference attendance), when it was coincidentally also in Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton (diagonally across the street from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I was attending classes–an incredible serendipity, right?). Somehow I knew there was a tattoo panel (this was in the days before the internet…I’m not sure how this happened, I think perhaps Ed Hardy had given me a head’s up about the conference since we had been in correspondence for a couple years at that point, and he had helped me out immensely with tattoo history).

Being a poor grad student and a longstanding punk rocker, I crashed the conference, sneaking into the panel without any sort of badge. At the conference, it was so inspirational to meet people who had gotten university acceptance for studying tattooing. I was excited and wanted to contribute to this new work beginning to happen in tattoo scholarship! (I’m still excited…I don’t get jaded easily, despite frustrating media pieces.)

And s0…I guess why I bring up this past personal history and the history of tattoo papers at the Popular Culture Association Conference is that it angers me to no end when people like Mr. Brooks write that tattooing was somehow so subculturally special in 1997. It was well recognized as a trend and a trend worthy of study—in fact my 1996 paper analyzed the mid 1990s rise of tattooing through the lens of Dick Hebdige’s important Subculture: The Meaning of Style study of how punk and other streetstyles “trickled up” and had their power defused in the 1970s (in the case of punk, nearly as soon as it had been codified into a streetstyle it began to be exploited by mainstream culture just as nearly every iteration of tattoos fads have). Mr. Brooks was merely feeding into a trend, just as many people have fed into fashion trends for centuries. His acquision of his two tattoos was part of the trend well documented in my 1996 paper.

I wrote in that paper:

“Lately, pop culture seems to be increasingly fascinated with the “alternative” or subcultural identity, so much so that it has almost ceased to be a subculture and is not longer particularly alternative. A vast number of people (especially members of the so-called Generation X) have been interested in breaking through the conservative boundaries of traditional “taste.”…An article in Vogue from March of 1994 about fashion trends for the future references this:

And, of course, there’s the tattoing and body-piercing craze that’s running rampant among the 30-and-under set. ‘All of these gestures are how Generation X-ers express their identity and show that they belong to a new kind of tribe,’ says Ash De Lorenzo, trend director at Brain Reserve Inc., a marketing consultancy that specializes in tracking societal trends. ‘It’s all about clanning—joining together along new lines and new loyalties; showing that you have the same appreciation and concern for other cultures.'[1]”

So often in these contemporary media pieces about tattooing, authors, as Mr. Brooks does, assert that tattoos have become wildly popular compared to some earlier decade (the Brooks’s article quote is: “Somewhere between the release of “Reality Bites” and the closing of MTV’s sports bureau, my generation got tattoos. We were not the first Americans to do so, but we were the first to do it en masse.” The latter sentence is, of course, patently untrue!) I am not convinced that the percentage of “Westerners” (people of European heritage) with tattoos has changed all that much over the centuries (and I stress centuries, not decades, as most media reports do).

There is no real quantitative data to historically mine to come to an exact conclusion about tattoo trends over time, but from the bits and pieces I have found, I might hypothesize that at any given time somewhere between 10 and 25% of the adult population of the United States and certain European countries like the UK, France, Germany, and Italy (all of which have significant tattoo traditions that reach back centuries) had tattoos. Currently, according to the only broad scholarly survey out there, the Pew Millennial study from 2010, 23% of all American adults were tattooed. That project also found that 38% of the so-called Millennials (people 18-29) had tattoos.

The only preceding studies of any real comparability to this Pew report are on much smaller populations ranging from standard small-scale sociological research surveys like Clinton Sanders’ Customizing the Body project and the handful that have followed in his footsteps to studies like historian Ira Dye’s in which he mined the late 18th century Seaman’s Protection Certificate records for mentions of tattoos to create a data set that could be mined for statistical analysis.

I’d like to draw your attention to one particularly interesting quantitative study about the prevalance of tattooing on a segment of the population that, to me, indicates how little the percentage of tattooed people has changed over time. A 1908 study by US Army Surgeon Ammen Farenholt noted that among recruits, 23% were tattooed upon first enlistment but that number jumped to over 53% for second enlistments and beyond. The Farenholt study is particularly interesting to me because at the time that he was investigating military recruits, people from a broader demographic range were entering the military making his numbers perhaps more translatable to the American population at large (although Farenholt warns people not to presume that the tattoo percentages on recruits mimic the general population yet notes that “probably 8%” of recruits had absolutely no connection to the maritime world or port cities, which, by his reasoning, would predispose people to getting tattooed). The Farenholt study also makes me even grumpier at the New York Times for running Mr. Brooks’s piece and others with similar rhetoric because they covered his study on April 24, 1908, and the article is readily available in their online archives.


An article in the April 24, 1908, New York Times about Farenholt’s tattoo study on Navy recruits.

Moving back to the present day, one could perhaps assert that if, IF, the current tattoo trends among youth/Millennial culture continue, we might end up with a more heavily tattooed population than in centuries past. But if I have learned anything from studying the history of tattooing for so long and over such a wide chronological range, tattoo trends are ever cyclical. The way to rebel against lots of people having tattoos is to…not get tattooed. Which is something we are starting to see now. I chat with people all the time about tattoos, and I have heard from an ever growing segment of my interlocutors that they are purposefully avoiding getting tattooed to be different, particularly my students and former students who are in their early 20s. Granted this is just anecdote. We’ll see what happens! I should start tracking the data…

So tattoos have not necessarily become particularly more popular over time. However, two aspects of tattooing that do seem to have changed are size and placement. Interest in big tattoos in the 21st century, especially on women, really does seem to have expanded far beyond what it ever had been before, and tattoos are now commonly rendered on parts of the body not usually covered by clothing (necks, hands, even faces) which is a fairly dramatic shift in placement.

Yet, big tattoos and facial tattoos on Westerners are not at all unheard of historically. I could pull myriad examples, but in the interest of time I will limit myself to two. First, an illustrated example: Holy Land pilgrim Ratge Stubbe’s elaborately tattooed arms from 1669 show an incredible dedication to getting extensively tattooed in places quite easily visible with the mere rolling up of a shirt sleeve. Second, a textual example: the Talon siblings had facial tattoos inscribed in the 1680s in the Mississippi region near the Gulf after being culturally adopted by Native Americans—all of them went on to successful lives, including in government jobs, when they reintegrated into European French and French colonial society. [N.b. once I get my dissertation published you all will be able to read about the fascinating Talons in depth.]  None of these people, to refute Mr. Brooks, were “disqualified…from most jobs, many families and several religions.”


Ratge Stubbe’s 1669 pilgrimage tattoos–those are two very heavily covered arms, and all he would need to do to show them to people would be to raise his shirt sleeve.

 I will readily acknowledge that tattooing did gain a certain amount of stigma in early and mid-20th century America and Europe. Much of this stigma comes from writing by a group of scientific racists that then gets popularized in newspapers and magazines around the turn of the 20th century (the classic example would be Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s piece in Popular Science Monthly in 1896, “The Savage Origin of Tattooing,” that offers a scathing assessment of tattooing on non-“savages”).


The beginning of Lombroso’s article

Then with a generally conservative turn to a homogeneous and fairly bland appearance and outlook on life in the late 1940s and 1950s, tattoos did become somewhat taboo and became associated primarily with the working class, the military, prison inmates, and bikers (although exceptions abound, such as the famous Marlboro Man ad campaign of the 1950s and 60s. But what I might term the “stigmatic period” was a very brief blip in the history of tattooing that confoundingly keeps coloring current media contextualizations of tattooing today despite the incredibly diverse and heterogeneous group of people that have been getting frequently and extensively tattooed since the early 1980s (with roots in the 1960s and 70s). I could bring in myriad examples here, but I might just point you to the phenomenal Stoney Knows How film which, among many other gems, documents a fabulous, fairly large tattoo inspired by Moby Dick rendered circa 1980 [jump to about 11:00 in the film if you just want to see that part].

. MarlboroSocialite1958

A tattooed socialite from a 1958 Marlboro ad.

While mining my 18-year-old paper, something that did jump out at me as significant was the role of the fashion industry in making a cultural space for this explosion of bigger and perpetually visible tattoos. My 1996 paper tracked some of these early fashion experiments with tattoos:

“Among these fashion designers who have dabbled in using appropriations from tattoo subculture are Jean Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace, and Betsey Johnson. Gaultier has used tattoos to the furthest extent out of the three, incorporating several different aspects into his Spring 1994 collection. Versace introduced his 1993 line in Miami using models body-painted with tattoo designs (which were, in fact, painted by a tattoo artist)[2], and Betsey Johnson used fabric printed with traditional American tattoo motifs in 1994. Of the three, Gaultier seems to understand the most about tattoo subculture (and other street styles as well), and uses subcultural details in his fashions as more of an homage and less of a marketing ploy.

Certainly, Gaultier used tattoos in his 1994 line for spectacular effects, introducing the line first with a runway fashion show parade of actual tattooed and body pierced people, following it up with his originally designed fashions worn by models flaunting (mostly fake) tattoos and piercings. In addition to tattoos as an accessory, Gaultier (who is tattooed himself) incorporated tattoo-like designs into body-hugging or sheer shirts, dresses, and leggings, so that it appears as if the individual wearing his fashions is completely tattooed in the tradition of Pacific Island tribal or Japanese full-body tattooing.”

A video (and see subsequent clips) of Gaultier’s phenomenal Spring 1994 runway show. This line made me break out of my personal obsession with grunge and punk to begin to adopt a more high-fashion personal style. (Never in a million years back in 1993 when I got my sleeves did I think I’d be wearing designer clothes and coveting expensive handbags, shoes, and lingerie!)

Then I went on to talk a bit about some of the tattooed models who had incited quite a bit of media frenzy at the time:

“In addition to the appearance of tattoo-related fashions on the runway, at the same time (in 1993 and 1994), several fashion models began to flaunt small tattoos. Unique among them, and the most heavily tattooed with four [N.b. FOUR!] pieces on her body, is Jenny Shimizu, a former car mechanic turned model. Included among her tattoos is an image of a scantily clad woman striding a mechanic’s wrench inscribed on her upper arm. Other tattooed models include Carré Otis (who has flowers around her wrist), Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Nikki Taylor, and Eve Salvail (who has a serpent tattoo on her buzz-cut head)…Shimizu…seems to understand the implications of being tattooed or body-pierced: ‘You can’t just do it to be trendy or you will definitely regret it. These are two things you have to live with for the rest of your life.'[3]”


A Calvin Klein CK One ad from 1994 featuring Jenny Shimizu with one of her tattoos prominently showcased.

Today, I might go so far as to say that more than any other factor, the fashion industry’s embrace of permanent accessories and models with tattoos normalized them in a way that no other visibility had. Musicians had long been getting tattooed and by the early 1990s sports stars began to get much more visible and large pieces (think of bands like Guns and Roses or the Stray Cats or basketball player Dennis Rodman). But those celebrity influences seem to have had less widespread influence than fashion’s embrace of the tattoo. [And in conversation after the panel with Nick Schonberger, he made the interesting observation that the embracing of tattoos by fashion gave tattoo artists—at least those who were open to new marketing angles—an entirely different cachet and set of doors to open in terms of promoting their work. The role of fashion in the growth of tattooing in the 1990s and into the 21st century goes beyond the consumer.]


Guns and Roses in the 1980s actively showing off their tattoos.

Another thing that became clear from mining my 1996 paper was how readily the media is always willing to declare tattooing a fad and/or declare tattooing a dead fad. I personally have observed this as I’ve read more and more historical newspaper and magazine material over the better part of the last decade, and one of my tattoo-history colleagues, Matt Lodder, has done some great concerted documentation from newspapers from every decade of the 20th century showing the same rhetoric over and over again. [N.b. I don’t at all like how this BBC article makes it seem like the reporter did the newspaper research–it’s all Matt’s!] But to read myself writing about this nearly 20 years ago, pulling quotes from Vogue magazine from the mid 1990s about the emergence of a tattoo fad and then the death of a tattoo fad opened my eyes to really how persistent this stubborn trope is. Back in 1996 I found this great quote from a February 1995 issue of Vogue:

“Even fashion-conscious models (Carré Otis for one) are in the process of erasing their now-tired tattoos. Removing or altering a tattoo, once as painful as any breakup, has become as trendy in the nineties as getting inked was in the eighties. And while banishing a tattoo is far more extreme than forsaking last season’s mohair sweater, there’s finally a way to undo the damage safely and effectively.”[4]

And so where to take all this? After 25 years of researching tattoo culture and history, I leave you with these admonitions: 1) always approach the study of tattooing from a mythbusting perspective as the discussion of tattooing seems to breed mythmaking more than the usual topic—so much popular writing about tattooing is folklore, 2) try to find proper quantitative data to support any claims about popularity, trends, etc., and if it doesn’t exist, think about doing that important work—so much more needs to be done 3) appreciate that interest in tattooing is as perpetually cyclical as any other body adornment practice, and lastly, 4) never, ever believe anything you read in the media about tattooing.

[1] Janet Siroto, “future chic.” Vogue, March 1994: 178.

[2] “After a Fashion: Tattooing Hits Haute Couture.” International Tattoo Art, vol. 1, no. 2: 60.

[3] Katharine Betts, “body language.” Vogue, April 1994 : 347.

[4] Wendy Schmid, “Inked Out?” Vogue, February 1995: 182.


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10 responses to “The Melodramatic Nostalgia of Tattoo Reporting

  1. For tattooed people or anybody interested in one of man’s oldest self expressions.

  2. This is one of the finest pieces of writing on body art that I’ve read in a long time — reflective, nuanced, respectful, and well-sourced. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. How do I properly compliment this article and your blog in general? My goodness, I feel compelled to list the ways I am qualified to give an opinion, but the truth is: who cares about me! You are amazing. Whether we readers be young or old, educated, well read, tattooed… or not, you are amazing. I absolutely cannot get enough! You are one of my all time favorite writers, bar none. THANK YOU for being you!

  4. Also, and forgive me if this is something you’ve tackled that I have not yet seen… Something I often ponder is what makes some of us, a truly small percentage of the population and even smaller portion of those tattooed, love tattoos so much. Is it in our genes? There are myriad explanations for why folks may choose a tattoo or two, or even a smattering perhaps. I, and perhaps few others like me seek to write our life history in ink on full sleeves from head to toe, dabbling in different styles (or sticking to a favorite or two.) How is it that we can appreciate the art, the pain, the love of the thing, when others are repulsed at worst or perhaps apathetic at best? I ask this from the heart, as I am a 30 something female attorney living in the American South who would be tattooed from nearly forehead to sole, if I could. And few would understand. I’d love to read your thoughts, in short or long form.

  5. Reblogged this on Clearing the Canvas and commented:

  6. Pingback: Tattoo who… is this is a Dalston signifier? | LOVING DALSTON

  7. Thanks for sharing, a good read.

  8. omg I remember that second photo of you. it was from when I first got into tattooing. the image next to you, of the uterus-shaped biomech piece thingy, was the inspiration for one of my own tattoos around that time.

    I may even still have that magazine in the slush pile.

    • Super cool! I’ve come across a lot of those early formative magazines in people’s collections! Even was recognized by some of my leg tattoos in a shop in Amsterdam and they had the issue right there in the shop! Sigh…when we were not overwhelmed with a flood of images of tattoos and pieces could linger in our memories…

      • I was pretty overwhelmed just with the four magazines I knew of. But then again I was apprenticing and conventioning to absorb, so every page of those early magazines is like seared into my brain.

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