Thinking About Tattoos

Back in 1989, when the Re/Search book Modern Primitives appeared, I was living in Seattle and saw the ripples it caused. Within a few very short years people who weren’t ex-cons, ex-service or gang members were wearing barbed wire and Celtic design tattoo bands around biceps and calves, and a healthy smattering of California’s finest tattoo artists had set up shop in the Emerald City.

Nowadays I’m back in England and until last week I worked a few hours a week in a corner shop. Both there and in supermarkets- everywhere, in fact – I’ve been quite amazed at the number of men of all ages with tattoos. There was a customer in his 20s, with a shaved head and menacing manner, with a scorpion on the side of his skull and a teardrop under his eye (and yes, I know what the latter is meant to signify). So many with tattoos on their necks. Women with them inside their forearms, on their backs, feet.

The speculation in the 90s, as the percentage of tattoos among white folk shot up, was that it was a need to belong, to feel part of a tribe. That was 20 years ago and tattoos are now more prevalent than ever, certainly in England. Is that sense of identity so lacking that the need to tattoos has become much greater? Does this explain the fact that so many EDL members seem to be tattooed in pictures (they all also seem to have shaved heads, but that’s another topic), this urge to belong?

Modern Primitives dealt not only with tattoos but also piercings, although (in England, anyway) the fad for them has passed.  That seems strange, given how widespread they became. But why do tattoos remain so vital? I do genuinely want ideas and opinions. If you have a tat, why did you get it? Do you want more? What do you think is the reason so many have/desire them?

7 thoughts on “Thinking About Tattoos

  1. So many people I know have tattoos. They come from all walks of life and their reasons for them are personal and unique to them. I can only tell you why I decided to get mine. It’s nothing to do with tribal or wanting to belong. It’s a personal thing, hidden unless I wish to show it (and I don’t usually). I chose to make a positive about a part of my body I see as negative. The design was symbolic and in honour of my Grandmother. I worked with an artist friend for several months to make sure the design is unique, the last thing I wanted was something someone else has. I am an individual and maybe by marking myself I am emphasising my differences to someone who maybe bears a physical resemblance to me. My tattoo brings me joy and strength. I see it as art, adding to me not detracting from me.

    1. Interesting. I’ve had a few similar replies – one person called her tats here rules for life. So perhaps my theory is utterly wrong or there are different strains of reasons for tattoos…

  2. Cary Goldberg

    Hey Chris, I got my first tattoo last year, to honor my 60th birthday. It was something I’ve always wanted to do, but just never did, for whatever reason. I’ve never thought about it as a way of identifying with a particular group, or somehow defining myself. As an artistic person, the aesthetics of body art appeal to me. Every generation has its cultural touchstones, and piercings and tattoos serve that purpose for a great many people who decide to decorate their bodies in that fashion. But regardless, the blank canvas of the human body just seems to call out for enhancement. I plan on getting another tattoo this year, as soon as I find or design another that appeals to me. My only prerequisite? That it be placed on my body in a place that will be among the last to sag :o)

  3. My favourite tattoos belong to a friend who had a significant poem tattooed down each arm and in a necklace sort of shape across her collarbone. When she had a bad break of one arm, the kind where the bone comes through the skin, she was lucky enough to get a surgeon who skillfully fixed it without destroying any of the tattoo words.

    Have never been interested in getting one although there are local tattoo shops here at the beach. Every summer there’s a sort of punk event (Jake the Alligatorman birthday party) that draws loads of big city tat folk, and there’s a “tattoo nation” convention at one of the local resorts each year.

    I admire ones that are individually meaningful. Especially words or (not too surprisingly) flowers and plants.

    I think sleeves are too much and are going to end up being just a blur of color.

    The Celtic cross is really overdone. But now I’m just bring opinionated.

  4. I agree, tattoos that mean something have real value. And you’ll recall as well as I do when they first became popular (or had a revival). Nowadays, over here at least, neck tats or commonplace. It’s not a look I care for, but to each, etc…I’ve seen some beautiful sleeves, but also some ugly ones, so there’s art and there’s tattoos. It takes skill to stand out from the commonplace. At times I’ve considered one, but never managed to come up with anything I’d permanently want on my skin.

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