Tattoos: Past, Present, and Future

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Borrowed from the Pacific Islands, the cultural tradition of tattooing has been a part of Western world for many centuries. Though early tattooing reflected its Polynesian origins, the art of tattooing evolved to accommodate Western cultural standards. The status of the tattoo in Western society has evolved greatly since its introduction. While tattoos were historically the domain of select groups, the tattoo has currently gained mainstream appeal. However, because the greater segments of society are embracing tattoo art, it will be necessary to examine the dangers of tattooing and provide greater oversight over tattoo parlors in the future.

Tattoos were first discovered and adopted by Westerners during the 18th century. As Victoria Pitts documents, the first Westerners to learn of tattoos were the sailors on Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific (Pitts 5). After Cook’s crew transmitted their knowledge of Polynesian tattoos to England, the body art form became popular among sailors and even some aristocrats (5). However, in the centuries following Cook’s voyage, tattoos remained close to their nautical origins. As Pitts notes, sailors, servicemen, and other working-class individuals were most likely to obtain tattoos during the 19th and 20th centuries (5). Reflecting the aesthetic tastes of this demographic, tattoo themes evolved from replications of tribal art to masculine and patriotic images, such as eagles, national flags, and war battle insignias (5). However, the social status of tattoos would experience several fluctuations during the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, tattoos had a respectable standing among the working class. As Pitts notes, the early 20th century in the United States is considered to be the “Golden Age of Tattooing” because of the popularity of tattoos among working-class Americans (5). Possessing a tattoo enabled blue-collar laborers to obtain a sense of fraternity with other men from the same background (5). During the period, tattoos served the social function of designating one’s masculinity and signifying one’s class (5). However, during the mid-20th century, the prevalence of tattoos among biker groups, street gangs, prison gangs, and gangs in the military marred the perception of tattoos in the public eye (5). Thus, as the century progressed, tattoos became a symbol of rebellion and affiliation with a counter-cultural group (5). For example, during the 1970s, the British punk movement was known for its incorporation of tattoos into the punk fashion style (6). While it would appear that tattoos were fated to become be relegated to social deviant groups, the tattoo eventually made a comeback near the end of the 20th century.

As a surprising trend, American society became more tolerant of tattoo art during the latter 20th century. During the 1990s, news publications described the period as the “tattoo renaissance,” because of the rise of the body art movement in this period (3). During this period, the number of tattoo parlors, the number of middle-class consumers obtaining tattoos, and the number of women obtaining tattoos increased (3). Further, the exclusively masculine images favored during the Golden Age declined as the popularity of tribal-style tattoos reemerged (3). Further, the tattoos became popular among groups who expanded beyond the insular tattoo community (3). By the end of the 20th century, the appeal of tattoos began to expand to reflect the tastes of mainstream society.

Today, the increased acceptability of tattoos is well documented. According to a March 2013 survey, approximately 21 percent of adults in the United States have at least one tattoo (Tattoo Requests, Removals Rising 15). This figure has increased from 15 percent of American adults in 2003 and 14 percent of American adults in 2008 (15). Further, the demographic groups that possess tattoos are expanding. While tattoos are typically believed to be a fad of the young, the survey revealed that adults between the ages of 30 and 39 are the most likely to have a tattoo (15). Though male sailors were the originators of tattoo art in Western society, today women are more likely than men to have a tattoo (15). However, with this increase in individuals seeking tattoos comes an increase of individuals requesting tattoo removal. A survey of the American Society for Dermatology doctors revealed that 100,000 removal procedures were performed in 2012 (15). Signifying an increase in “tattoo remorse,” the number of removals requested in 2010 was 86,000 (15). However, 83 percent of surveyed tattoo owners report that they do not regret their tattoos, and the majority of those who regret their tattoos are dissatisfied by tattoos that contain the names of former partners (15). The high satisfaction that individuals have with their tattoos signifies the transcendent approval of tattoos across demographic groups.

As tattoos become more acceptable to the general public, there will be an increased need to regulate tattoo artists in order to ensure public safety. As Valeria Carlson contends, individuals who obtain tattoos are vulnerable to infections from unsanitary conditions at a tattoo parlor and having adverse reactions to the pigments used in tattoos (31). Further, because there is little focus on tattooing, there are few reliable estimates on the complications that individuals can face when they obtain a tattoo (31). The consequence of this trend is that society is in the beginning stages of identifying the extent of the dangers that tattooing presents for the general public. Though an increasing number of individuals are interested in obtaining a tattoo, they may be ignorant of allergies that they might possess that could cause adverse reactions with tattoo ink. Further, they might be ignorant of the safety standards that they should expect their tattoo artists to follow. As more individuals obtain tattoos, public agencies must increase the information that is available to the general public on safety matters regarding tattoo art.

Compounding the problem, the need to regulate tattoo artists has only recently gained attention among policymakers. According to Carlson, a comprehensive regulation guide compiled by medical professionals, policymakers, and educators was not available until 2005 (31). As a result, the approach to regulating the tattoo industry must be decided on a state-by-state basis and regulations can vary widely between states. While 41 states regulate tattoo parlors at the state level, only 36 regulate the sanitary conditions of parlors and only 15 states specify training and licensing requirements for tattoo artists (53). Thus, the safety and quality that a consumer can expect can vary widely between states or even different municipalities within the same state. In order to protect individuals from incurring disfiguring or potentially deadly complications, future efforts must be made to establish uniform standards that protect tattoo parlor patrons across the United States.

Though Western sailors initially borrowed tattoos from the Pacific Islands, this art form has become an established feature of Western culture. Today, tattoos appeal to deviants, sub-cultural groups, and mainstream groups alike. Further, the appeal of tattoos has transcended both gender and age. Yet, with the growing interest in tattoos comes a need to educate the public on the safety issues pertaining to tattoo art. Currently, states and localities can set divergent standards for tattoo parlors. In many states, parlors may face very few regulations that ensure sanitation standards are being met. Additionally, individuals who obtain tattoos might be uninformed of the allergies they possess or other factors that could cause individual adverse reactions to tattoo ink. Thus, the future provides opportunities to increase the well being of the public by identifying the risks posed by tattooing. As tattoos become more popular among the general public, the need to establish uniform safety standards must become a top priority to protect the safety of all consumers who patronize tattoo parlors in the United States.

Works Cited

Carlson, Valeria P., Everett J. Lehman, and Myrna Armstrong. "Tattooing Regulations in U.S. States, 2011." Journal of Environmental Health 75.3 (2012): 30-7. ProQuest. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Pitts, Victoria. In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

“Tattoo Requests, Removals Rising.” Dermatology Times 34.3 (2013): 15-15. ProQuest. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.