Tattoos date back centuries and have been part of Western cultural practices for equally as long. Though initially a Polynesian art form, the modern conception of tattoos is inherently a western invention. This sample sociology paper explores the past, present, and future of tattoos.
History of tattoos
Borrowed from the Pacific Islands, the tradition of tattooing has been a part of Western culture 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). The art and tattoos had religious and mythological elements in the design. Polynesians used these depictions as representations of their gods and great epic stories. 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.
Tattoos of the modern age
As Pitts notes, sailors, servicemen, and other working class individuals were most likely to obtain tattoos during the 19th and 20th century (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.
In 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).
Stereotyping society according to tattoo design
However, during the mid-20th century, the prevalence of tattoos among biker groups, street gangs, and prisoners 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 toward 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 number of women obtaining tattoos increased (3).
During this time, tattoo designs were divided and stereotyped by gender with the weaker sex (women) receiving feminine designs and the stronger sex (men) receiving more masculine designs. The exclusively masculine images favored during the Golden Age declines 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.
Body art no longer divided into subcategories
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 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.
Safety and health concerns regarding tattoos and body art
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 HIV and other diseases traditionally transmitted sexually, 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.
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 stigma of tattoos no longer discriminates against age, race, gender, or socioeconomic classes. 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.
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.