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Tattoos: mainstream or rebellion?

Tattoos: mainstream or rebellion?



In the moments before the artist’s whirring tattoo needle touched my skin, my mind flooded once again with decades of judgments and admonitions. Listening to the echoing voices in my head, you would have thought that getting a tattoo meant the instant perks of gang membership, a career in the illegal sex trade, and the very real possibility that one day Charlize Theron would gain 30 pounds and shave off her eyebrows to portray my ruination in a movie.

I perched awkwardly on the tattooist’s chair with my shirt half off, trying to repress the shivering – which I thought would only contribute to my looking like a nervous rodent. These worries felt real to me: illogical yet somehow possible. As she prepared her space, I critically evaluated my anxiety one last time. Well, there was my (laughably stereotypical) sailor-great-uncle who arrived back from WWII with an illustration on his arm that was crude in both subject matter and artistry. I never actually saw the tattoo; as my conservative father was fond of whispering in explanation, my uncle was so embarrassed by his youthful transgression that he would only wear long sleeves, even in the summer. The horror! So, would I be all right with the occasional covering of my art, should I decide it necessary? Of course. Years of avoiding the sun (cultivating that gothic pallor) already made sleeves in the full summer heat “normal” to me. Stupid reason.

No, really, would I be able to keep a job? Wow, I wasn’t getting a hate tattoo on my forehead, I was getting something meaningful and beautiful that I could cover up. How about the possibility of social judgment? I steeled myself: those people aren’t the ones I’d want to associate with, anyway. I crossed those things off in my mind one last time and nodded to the artist that I was ready.

While I might be a little more neurotic than most (see also: I resembled a trembling rodent) and perhaps my family a bit more melodramatic, the fact that I experienced multi-faceted anxiety points to one real possibility: that tattoos are still, in some regards, a deviation from the norm. A rebellion.

Tattoos have obviously gained more of a mainstream presence. You only need to drive by a college campus and look upon the sea of inky infinity symbols, feathers, pet paws, and skulls to see this played out. (But in case numbers are needed to support this notion: the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 40% of people 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo.)

Despite this widespread incidence of people paying other people to poke them with an ink-soaked needle, it turns out my father’s worry – while extreme - wasn’t necessarily incorrect; research conducted at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland showed that job interviewers and hiring managers very clearly discriminated against people with tattoos. One research subject went so far as to declare tattoo-bearers “dirty.” (I, for one, demand to see the sterile pod this self-righteous person lives in.)

However, as sense would dictate, the research also showed that a tattoo’s content and placement – as well as the industry in which the job-seeker wishes to be employed – all matters. So being smart about what you get and where is an obvious consideration for people possessing any amount of foresight. There are people, of course, who reject this concept – and with it, reject the job culture that would reject them eventually. They find work elsewhere. Then there are the folks who revel in the fact that underneath their suit or scrubs, they are a “tattooed freak.” Overall, it’s an individual decision that reflects a person’s values.

Values can also dictate what the tattoos look like. In terms of artistic merit, not all tattoos are created equal. While the (tattooed) masses do enjoy their mass-produced flash – the equivalent of a vending machine for tattoos – there is a small fraction of tattoo supporters who elevate tattoo ownership to art patronage. Rather than randomly picking the first “tribal” arm band off the wall (this life decision brought to you by alcohol!), artsy tattoo aficionados carefully select both their tattoo and its artist. This faction supports the arts to such a degree that they make it part of themselves, permanently. In our society, there’s something subversive about supporting artists (who they themselves are often marginalized because, well, they’re artists who tattoo and are covered in tattoos) and their art in such a dedicated way.

And more, our culture tends to favor the disposable, the replaceable. A permanent piece of art might as well be a lifetime membership to the local arts society. Well, probably not the one with the pearl-clutching grandmas.

Tattoos were associated with the marginalized in the not-too-distant past. Nowadays, the popularity of tattoos forces a bit of duality: getting one (or nine) means you’re part of the tattooed herd, yes. But, it can carry meaning depending on what you get and where and why. In a way, those things determine what camp you are joining. “Freshman on spring break” is a possibility, but I’ll take the artsy and the offbeat, thank you.

I’ve heard people argue against tattoos, saying that it’s more rebellious these days to avoid getting one. Until the percentage of tattooed people (of all ages!) reaches 50% - so you can truthfully say “most people have one…” I will simply troll and argue math with them. And even then, I will continue to argue that keeping oneself natural-skinned and plain is, well, boring. Tattoos allow you to express yourself, support the arts, and claim membership with like-minded people.

Hmm, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment for my next one.


floi Journal author

Posted: 1 year 8 months ago by Tumang #2295
Tumang's Avatar
I have never understood those accusations and meaning behind marginalised reviews and spit talk about someones tattoo.
In not so recent time, you could end up very dead or thought harsh lesson if you try to victimise someone without tattoo just by pointing and comparing it with someone that has it. G'zus :S