The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Inked Well

The sudden popularity of tattoos among the American bourgeoisie is undeniable. But what does it mean?

Published on November 1, 2006

And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them . . . .
—Herman Melville,
Moby-Dick, Chapter 110

Some tattooed people are easier to read than others. When Richard Costello tried to sell stolen motorcycle parts on eBay earlier this year, he put the items on the floor and photographed them, though the photos also included his bare feet, with the word “White” tattooed on one and “Trash” on the other. The bike’s lawful owner did a Web search, found what appeared to be the stolen parts, and notified the Clearwater, Florida, police department. Since jail records typically include identifying marks, it didn’t take long for local detectives to identify Costello and set up a sting. He was arrested after showing up with a van full of stolen parts and is now facing trial. While incarceration isn’t always damaging to a criminal’s reputation—it shows a fellow’s out there trying, after all—he’s already known in every bike shop and beer joint on the west coast of Florida as the idiot who put photos of his tattooed feet on the Web so the police could nab him. According to Sergeant Greg Stewart, Costello “just tiptoed his way back to jail.”

L’Affaire White Trash confirmed just about everything that I thought about tattoos until recently; namely, that in addition to being nasty and unsanitary, tattoos only grace the skins of either bottom feeders or those who want to pretend they are. Richard Costello’s phenomenal act of self-betrayal wouldn’t have been a surprise at all to modernist architect Adolph Loos, whose influential 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” is still cited today as a potent argument against frills and fancy stuff. Loos wrote in effect a manifesto opposing decoration, which he saw as a mark of primitive cultures, and in favor of simplicity, which is a sign of, well, modernism. Thus, Loos reasoned, it’s okay for a Pacific Islander to cover himself and all his possessions with ink and carvings, whereas “a modern person [i.e., a European] who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate. . . . People with tattoos not in prison are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats.”

So, presuming the kid with a Tweety Bird tattoo on his forearm who delivered your pizza last night isn’t a down-on-his-luck baronet who’s trying to earn enough money to return to his ancestral estate in Northumberland and claim his seat on the Queen’s Privy Council, does the fact that he’s slinging pies mean that he simply hasn’t lived long enough to commit his first murder? Not necessarily: Tattoos have a richer social history than one might think.

Tattoos were brought to Europe from Polynesia by 18th-century British explorers, as Margo DeMello writes in Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community (2000). Europeans who had tattoos in those days were not social bottom dwellers. And as Charles C. Mann points out in 1491 (2005), Americans first saw tattoos in the New World on their conflicted Indian hosts as early as 1580. William Wood, a Pilgrim colonist, described the Indian chiefs of New England as having tattooed their faces, arms and legs with elaborate geometric patterns and totemic animal symbols. To Protestants of ascetic temperaments, these exotic displays were of a piece with the colonists’ propensity to see Indians as primeval savages.

Perhaps predictably, however, tattoos came ultimately to signify patriotism rather than exoticism in the United States. The first known professional tattoo artist in the United States was one Martin Hildebrandt, who set up shop in New York City in 1846. Hildebrandt became instrumental in establishing the tradition of the tattooed serviceman by practicing his craft on soldiers and sailors on both sides in the Civil War as he migrated from one camp to another.

And then occurred one of those curious little shifts that makes history so delicious. Tattoos became fashionable among members of the European aristocracy, who encountered the practice during 19th-century trips to the Far East. By the beginning of World War I, though, the lords and ladies had all but abandoned bodily decoration. Why? Because by then, anybody could get a tattoo. The laborious process involving hand-tapping ink into the skin with a single needle was made obsolete with the invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891. Tattooing suddenly became easier, less painful and, mainly, cheaper. This led to the speedy spread of the practice throughout the working class and its abandonment by the rich.

By the middle of the 20th century, tattooing seemed largely the province of bikers, convicts and other groups on the margins of society, much as Adolph Loos had predicted. Except for all those patriotic servicemen, a century ago tattoos were the tribal marks that you paid somebody to cut into your skin so that everyone would know you belonged to a world populated by crooks and creeps, along with a few bored aristocrats who would probably have been attracted to living a life of crime had their trust funds not rendered it redundant. And if things had stayed that way, I wouldn’t be writing this essay: Like leather vests with gang insignias, unmuffled exhaust pipes, and extended middle fingers, tattoos would be simply one more way of differentiating “Them” from “Us.”

But “We” are the ones who are tattooed now: In the late 20th century, the middle class began showing up in droves at tattoo parlors. A study in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reveals that as many as 24 percent of men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 have one or more tattoos—up from just 15 to 16 percent in 2003. Men and women are equally likely to be tattooed, though the women surveyed are more likely to have body piercings, as well. These days the little old lady sitting next to you in church may have a tattoo, as may your accountant, even the plastic surgeon performing your tattoo removal.

How did this change come to pass? Those of us who are certain we’ll never get a tattoo will always shudder with joy when we read about knuckleheads like Richard Costello. But more and more people who wouldn’t have dreamed of being tattooed a few years back are stepping into businesses with names like “Demented Again” and “Mom’s Body Shop” (the names of two California tattoo studios) and paying good money to have sketches of boom boxes and court jesters and spider webs incised into their hides. Why, and what does it say about the world we live in?

To answer these questions, I walked the streets of Tallahassee, Florida, accosting total and sometimes menacing-looking strangers with the intent of asking them questions about the most intimate parts of their bodies. In the process, I went out of my way to sound as though I had done my homework and cared about my subject. (Hint: No matter how repelled you may be, when asking people questions about their bodies, it’s advisable to heap on the praise. I got into the habit of pretending my subject was showing me a photograph of a newborn baby, say, rather than a blotchy, sun-damaged line drawing of Godzilla destroying St. Patrick’s Cathedral.) Most of the time, my approach worked, kind of: I usually gave subjects my business card and asked if I could call or e-mail them to set up an interview at my university English Department office. These were people of both sexes ranging from their twenties to their forties; roughly half looked as fierce as pirates, while the others appeared to be middle-class types with a little extra ink on their skin. Some never responded, but most did.

Any stereotypes of tattooed “victims” I had fell by the wayside rather quickly. One of my first lessons was that people can get the biggest, most colorful tattoos either for exceedingly complex reasons or none at all. Jen (I’ll use first names only), a pretty, slender brunette in her late twenties, said getting a tattoo was simply on a list of things she wanted to do, like learning a new language or visiting a state she’d never been to. Her “tat”, as tattoos are often called, is an ornate scroll that goes all the way across her lower back where she can’t see it without using a mirror because “I didn’t want to be defined by it”, Jen told me. “I just want to know it’s there.” Melissa, a grad student in modern languages whom I spied in a bookstore wearing a pair of low-slung jeans, got a black and blue love knot high on one hip because she and her friend wanted identical tattoos, “even though she’s not my friend anymore.”

Becky wanted a tattoo that would be a means of “making a promise to myself that I would become the person I wanted to be, that I would improve my life through hard work.” She explained the design:

I knew I wanted wings; the idea of ascension was very compelling to me. But angel wing tattoos are common, and of course, such a design has religious connotations. So my tattoo is a pair of mechanical wings, a rising up by means of human ingenuity. And of course, the need for temperance, the Icarus myth, is implied as well.

Hmm, I’m thinking: mechanical wings? But Becky was right. When I viewed the tattoo on her back (she wore a backless top for her interview), it appeared as though the wings, which had more of a gossamer, da Vinci-esque, Wilbur-and-Orville/early days of flight quality than the word “mechanical” suggests, were somehow connected to Becky’s tendons and ligaments. It seemed that, with a shrug or two, she could lift off and flap gracefully around the building that housed my office. (The protocols involved in asking young ladies to show you their tattoos is a subject in itself. Being older and having a track record as a writer helps, as do frequent references to my wife, who always sent me off with the same firm injunction: “Leave your office door open!”)

Not everyone is as temperate as Becky, though. Hunter, a boy-next-door type until he starts rolling up his sleeves, as well as the best-dressed of my interviewees (he has a cuff link tattoo on either wrist), introduced me to the idea of the “revenge tattoo.” He told me of a friend who wasn’t getting along with his girlfriend, so he had “UGLY” tattooed the length of his forearm in Olde English letters; then showed it to her and said, “This is how you make me feel!” (I asked how they were getting along now, and Hunter replied, “Uh, not so well.”)

Of the dozen or so subjects I interviewed, Jodie was the sweetest, the most articulate and the most heavily inked—her arms were fully sleeved in tattoos, and she was making plans to get started on her hands and neck. As with all my subjects, I began with what, up to that point, I thought of as a simple ice-breaker: What got you started? Jodie, the one tattooed person I talked to whose sheer square footage of ink was equaled by her candor and eloquence, replied that she had been a “cutter” who “was having a lot of trouble with hurting myself physically for various reasons, so I began to get tattooed. It didn’t take me long to realize that getting tattooed was quite comparable to cutting myself; it was a way for me to ‘bleed out’ the emotional pains which I was unable to deal with otherwise.” And then she said, “Wow—I bet you weren’t expecting that, huh?”

Indeed, no. But Jodie is smart as well as troubled. She knew she was hurting herself and would continue to do so, so she sublimated her self-destruction and made art of it, as surely as, say, Sylvia Plath did—temporarily, anyway. Jodie’s most noticeable tattoo is of the words “Lady Lazarus” across her collar bone, like a necklace. That, of course, is the title of one of Plath’s best-known poems, one that details three suicide attempts yet ends with a cry of triumph: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”

You can’t miss Jodie’s poem-title tattoo (or, if she’s wearing a tank top and shorts, most of her others), though fully half of my subjects seemed to take seriously the advice of the father of musician Brian Setzer, who, in the Rolling Stone compilation Tattoo Nation: Portraits of Celebrity Body Art (2002), is credited with telling his rocker son, “Never get a tattoo where a judge can see it.” I was a little disappointed when I sat down with both Hunter and his girlfriend Shannon; except for those cuff links, they looked like any other cute couple until they began to roll sleeves and hoist hems to show me their ink.

I asked all my subjects what advice they would give first-timers, and the responses were as conservative as they were consistent. Jodie said, “I usually tell them to think about it a whole lot.” Becky was even more cautious: “I tell them to think about it for a decade.” Rose suggested what I’ve come to call the Jerk Test: “No matter how good the tattoo ends up being, if every time you look at it you think, ‘Jerk!’ then you’ll probably regret getting it.” Even more cautious notes came from surprising sources. Heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne, who sports 15 tattoos of his own, said, “If you want some advice from me, don’t have a tattoo at all.”


Now, everybody and their mother and their goldfish is inked.
— Johnny Depp,
Rolling Stone, June 29, 2006

If the study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology is accurate, roughly a quarter of the population isn’t listening to Ozzy, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of tattooed ladies and gentlemen may be higher than that and rising. It seems that more and more people from every walk of life in these United States are getting tattooed, and for every inked-up Jodie, there is a Jen, a Melissa, a Hunter, a Shannon, a Rose and a Becky, people who are tattooed (heavily, in some cases), but not where a judge can see it. These pioneers are “deterritorializing” tattoos, in Margo DeMello’s words, liberating them from patriotic sailors and dim-bulb motorcycle thieves and making them available to soccer moms and dads.

Prior to the 1970s, most tattoo designs were masculine, depicting military icons, motorcycle insignia and roaring animals. With the peace, gay and women’s liberation movements, however, came a whole new generation of tattoo designs. Peace symbols, Yin-Yang images, astrological signs, dolphins, butterflies, bunnies and kitties began to show up at an ever-increasing pace on the bodies of young middle-class women and men. And recently television got in on the act: Five years ago, who thought there would be not one, but two, prime-time television shows devoted to tattooing, Miami Ink on TLC and Inked on A&E;? You’re scarfing your burrito and thinking how much you like the Indigo Girls when suddenly, right there on Channel 45, there’s someone getting the title of their latest album stitched onto her deltoid, and it’s exactly the tattoo you’d get if you were the kind of person who got tattoos! The next thing you know, you are.

Tattoos have always been a means of identifying oneself, notes DeMello, and are always meant to be read—even a tattoo that’s hidden becomes a secret book of sorts. When you get a tattoo, you write yourself, in a manner of speaking, and make it possible for others to read you, which means that every tattoo has a story. And if the tattoo itself doesn’t tell the whole tale, in my experience, the tattooee sure will.

Both my reading and my conversations with the tattooed tell me there are primarily two types of tattoo narratives, the Record Book and the Canvas. Melissa, the young woman who got her tattoo to signify bonding with a friend, was capturing a relationship as one might with a photograph, even though the relationship failed. In the pop music world, rap artists and other musicians sometimes get tattoos of friends or relatives who have died violently or merely passed away. The Dixie Chicks agreed to get a little chick footprint on the insteps of their feet for every Number One album they had. In Tattoo Nation, lead singer Natalie Maines says, “I think now we’re getting too many chick feet, and they’re not the most attractive thing to have when you’re wearing a nice elegant heel. But how can you bitch if you’ve had that many Number Ones?” Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco says her tattoos are “mile markers, road maps, pictures of places I’ve been to.”

If your body is a Record Book, then you and everyone who sees you is looking back at the events depicted there. But if you see your body as a Canvas, then the story you tell is, at least in its conception and execution, as inner-driven as any by Faulkner or Hemingway. Jodie, for example, is going over every inch of her body, using it as a way to tell herself a story she’s beginning to understand only gradually. The more she understands, the more she “revises”, just as any other artist might: Her first tattoo was “a horrible butterfly thing”, she told me, “which has since been covered up with a lovely raven.” Hunter told me he was motivated by “a slight self-loathing” but mainly a boundless artistic desire, which makes him sound like most of the poets I know. His biggest, still unfinished tattoo is located up the side of his right calf; it’s of a centaur wrestling with a giant squid. Hunter also wants T.S. Eliot’s lines, “In the room women come and go,/ Talking of Michelangelo”, on his thigh but hasn’t yet figured out the proper placement.

Now, obviously, a housewife with a rose on her ankle and an investment banker with a sketch of Snoopy on his forearm aren’t making the kind of radical commitment Jodie and Hunter are making. Even so, every person with a tattoo is a link in a chain of body modification that goes back to the dawn of human history. Tattooing may have been the first art: Researchers have found sharpened pieces of manganese dioxide—black crayons, really—that Neanderthals may have used to color animal skins as well as their own, according to John A. Rush’s Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding, and Implants (2005). The ancient Egyptians practiced simple tattooing; some mummified remains have parallel lines and oval patterns on arms, legs and bellies. Today, radically different cultures share an obsession with body remodeling that goes far beyond mere tattooing. African tribes pierce and scar the body routinely; weightlifters pump their pecs until they bulge like grapefruit; women pay for cosmetic breast enlargement or reduction; the New York Times has reported accounts of surgery in which toes are shortened so that fashion-conscious patients can wear high heels; and so on. And if that’s not enough evidence that body modification is endemic, I have one word for you: Botox.

The point of all this is self-expression—and we seem to be living in a time where that’s what nearly everybody (word carefully chosen) wants to do, in one way or another. Thanks to the Internet, anybody who can type can blog. Thanks to reality television, too, ordinary people have the chance to get hours of screen time and maybe even win a cash prize. In some cases—as with the Fuse Network’s new television show Pants Off Dance Off, created by Tad Low (an appropriate name, I think)—all contestants have to do is strip and wiggle around in crude approximation of dance.

If sounding off is an equal-opportunity choice these days, so is defying age. And if tattoos are a hallmark of youth, why not get a couple? Christopher Noxon coined the word “rejuvenile” in his book by that title. Also known as a “kidult” or an “adultescent”, a typical rejuvenile might be the father of three who builds a skate ramp in his backyard, the mom who competes with her teenaged daughter to see who can dress the skankiest, or simply the cardiologist who gets a Red Hot Chili Peppers tattoo because it makes him feel young again. The Rat Pack days were the last stage in Western history when adults ran things; ever since Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey and Peter were dethroned, the kids have been in charge, which means everybody wants to be a kid again.

As with all lifestyle changes, the tricky part is knowing when to stop. If ditching work for a ball game and a couple of beers from time to time makes you feel like a teenager, fine; but quitting your job to spend your afternoons at Al’s Tavern isn’t such a great idea. Again, the Jerk Test applies, because if you think you’re being silly, you probably are. In the world of body modification, your potential for regression is unlimited: One day you’re getting an ankle tattoo to make yourself feel young and, before you know it, you’ve abandoned your place in the food chain to become Catman, with his fang implants and metal “whiskers”, or Lizard Man, with his bifurcated tongue.

Beholding sexually and scatologically graphic, horrifically violent and otherwise disturbingly gross imagery displayed in such indiscriminate profusion in a public institution may convince you that those in the art world, at least, have shed all Victorian repression. But some viewers may pause to reflect on the apparently unstoppable slide of modern culture into the abyss of infantile vulgarity that is capitalism’s inexhaustible gold mine.
—Ken Johnson, New York Times
review of a show on body art, July 7, 2006

My biggest surprise as I learned about tattoos was to find out how eager my subjects were to talk to me. I had assumed that tattooed folk would have chips on their shoulders, but not only were the ones I talked to all eager and chatty, but many told their friends, and I found myself being e-mailed by tattooed strangers who wanted to tell me their stories. Even better, Hunter invited me unbidden to go with him on his next visit to the tattoo parlor.

Somehow it seemed right that Fine Art for Life, the tattoo studio Hunter favored, was in the same block as Poor Paul’s Pourhouse, a tavern, and Rick’s Toy Box, a sex-toy boutique. Tallahassee is not that big, yet I had driven past Fine Art for Life nearly every day of my adult life and somehow managed not to see it. Inside, heavy metal poured out of the speakers as Hunter introduced me to Will, his artist. A burly, well-inked gentleman with an air of calm professionalism, Will donned a pair of black latex gloves and went to work on Hunter. The procedure ranks somewhere between a haircut and outpatient surgery: Will soaped and shaved Hunter’s calf, cleaned the surface with disinfectant, revved up his needle, and began to add reds, greens and yellows to the existing navy-blue outline of the centaur and the squid.

As he worked, Will explained that tattooing had evolved considerably from the days of Jerry Collins, the archetypal sailor artist who worked in Honolulu until his death in 1973. Collins’ work consisted of babes, sharks, more babes, the occasional heart circled by briars, and even more babes (designs can be seen in the “Galleries” section of www.sailorjerry.com). Nowadays, people with art degrees do tattoos, but even they have to apprentice: Older tattoo artists are notoriously dismissive, Will told me, because for every new tattoo artist wanna-be, there are ten who just want to make a fast buck.

As Will talked and worked, the centaur and squid slowly acquired muscle and sinew. Torqued like Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, they seemed ready to rise and do battle in the air. All this cost Hunter about $400.

Even though tattooing seems to be growing nicely on its own, a couple of recent developments may make a prophet out of Johnny Depp. Spiritual Tattoo author John A. Rush echoes Margo DeMello when he warns that tattooing is “painful and permanent.” But is it really? My subjects downplayed the pain aspect. As Hunter said, whereas you would yelp in agony if a stranger jabbed you with a needle, you don’t really complain when the doctor gives you a shot. Nor are tattoos necessarily permanent: Laser removal parlors are springing up all over, and while I doubt that Jodie or Hunter will avail themselves, a sorority girl who picks up a tattoo during an alcohol-fueled girls’ night out can have it taken off in a couple of visits.

If she has to: If the FDA approves, a Philadelphia company will launch the first of two lines of impermanent ink next year; the ink would be encased in microcapsules that break apart easily after a few laser pulses and dissolve harmlessly in the skin. I had read that the yakuza, heavily tattooed Japanese gangsters, are likely to die early because of ink poisoning. Thanks to the new inks, the next generation of Japanese thugs can clean up and go straight if they want to, or stay as they are and enjoy expanded opportunities to create mayhem.

As an English professor, I’m often called on to explain what “post-modernism” is, and what I say is that it means that everything is happening at once. The world is getting better and worse at the same speed: Medical science has never been more advanced, even while millions die each year from AIDS and other preventable diseases; just as awareness of global warming is mushrooming, the Chinese are readying themselves to consume resources at a rate approaching those in Western countries. So more people will get tattoos, while at the same time, thanks to the laser removal option and the new short-lived inks, fewer people will be getting tattoos that last.

But for the moment, are more people acting more hedonistically? Yeah, sure—just as the American majority is still deeply religious, still profoundly conservative in dress and manner. You new pagans out there, say hello to the old-school Christians, Jews and Muslims who vastly outnumber you. As of this writing, a month-old Harris poll reveals that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults agree with the basic tenet of creationism, that “human beings were created directly by God.” In other words, a lot more Americans are saying their rosaries than are getting rosary tattoos.

I made a lot of friends in the course of my research and saw some tattoos that were breathtakingly beautiful: original, nuanced, carefully crafted works of art. As I said, I used to think tattoos were for either low-lifes or those who wanted to pretend they were, but my mind now stands changed by the thoughtful, articulate people I talked to and the spectacular designs that had been inked into their bodies. In a word, tattoos are now officially okay by me.

Does that mean I’d get one? Not on your life.

David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University and is the author of Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, The Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila, and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation, forthcoming in 2007.