The skin as canvas – tattoos: from underdog to pure art form

“I am absolutely against tattoos. I think they are truly reprehensible.”

A strong statement—possibly out of place here in the 21st century, now that more and more people are adorning their bodies with ink. In 2008, about 15% of the American population had a tattoo; that’s three times as many as in 1934. These numbers continue to rise steadily.

There was a time not too long ago when tattoos were primarily the markings of “a certain type of people,” as one interviewee phrases it. Of course there are still people who agree with the strong sentiment expressed in the opening line. But at present, this form of body modification is no longer for tough guys only. Younger generations are reclaiming the tattoo. Skin is swiftly becoming a medium through which people can express their true individuality and creativity. “It’s pure art.”

Then vs. now
Though tattooing has been a human practice since Neolithic times, it only made its way back to the Western world in the late 1700s. Reintroduced by sea-men, body ink was long considered the domain of sailors, prisoners, and military men. The tradition of tattooing in criminal circles further contributed to an overall unfavorable image. “To me, tattoos have a bad name,” says Y. (54), a strong condemner of body modification. “I immediately associate them with the low social classes, the socially marginalized.”

According to Dutch tattoo artist Jaco D., those negative connotations with tattoos arose because, “Back then, the entire tattoo ‘business’ was different. The entire experience people had with it.” He thinks part of the reason was the quality of the material tattooists used in the past. “It has really improved. For back then it wasn’t bad—look, I used to drive a Daffie, it wasn’t a bad car, but if you’d drive one now…”

When asked if he thinks the image of tattoos is currently going through a positive shift, D.’s tone is self-assured. “Yes. Yes, very clearly.”
His confidence is underlined by the steady hum of the tattoo machine in his hands. On a stretcher in front of the artist, a young man reclines, shirtless; D. is inking an elaborate design into the skin of his chest. The client’s girlfriend sits to the side, holding his hand. She adds, “It’s quite obvious that young people indeed have a different outlook and don’t judge immediately.”

One such young person with an ink-friendly outlook is Bethan S. (22), herself home to six tattoos. She also has the feeling that tattoos are starting to get a better reputation, although “There’s still a fairly clear correlation between age and approval of tattoos.” She clarifies, “The younger generation generally sees them as perfectly acceptable, whereas older people are slightly more varied in opinion.”

So what exactly is the view of the younger generation—are tattoos art? D. and S. both respond in the affirmative. “Definitely.” “Absolutely.” “Some of them are amazing masterpieces,” S. adds.

A tattoo artist at work.

Living art: “I am the canvas, he is the artist”
Although there are still many people who share Y.’s negative views, there are also many who agree with D. and S.. Our culture is starting to accept the tattoo as a form of art. Then again, there isn’t really such a thing as ‘the tattoo’. Just as every painting is different, there are many different types of tattoos. Black or full color; a single word or a long stretch of text; the outline of a butterfly or a huge, intricate piece… the possible designs are endless, and there is more than enough skin to realize them on.

Some placements are so popular that specific terms have arisen for them. A fully inked arm, for instance, is called a ‘sleeve’. Another well-known example is the ‘tramp stamp’, also known as ‘ass antlers’. This type of lower back tattoo is often the subject of derision. Should such a more tasteless variant also be considered art?
S.: “All tattoos are art, but some are better works of art than others!”
“In principle, every form of tattooing is art to me,” D. insists as well. “Not everyone likes the same painting.” From underneath his gloved hands, D.’s client cuts in enthusiastically: “It’s true, pure art. I’m just a canvas, he is the artist. Together, we decide what it’s gonna be.”

Beyond l’art pour l’art
But the majority of ink is not art for art’s sake. In a 2003 poll, less than 20% of respondents got tattooed for artistic purposes, whereas 43% indicated that their ink represented something personal. This is certainly the case for S. as well; all her tattoos have a different background story.
“I love tattoos. There’s something about the art of it, and the way they can be so unique and personal, that really appeals to me,” she says. “I like to be able to look at myself and see these things [that] are distinctly me. I know that some people don’t understand some of my tattoo choices, but each one means something to me.”

It seems that the majority of inked people view tattooing as a way of adapting their outer shell to match their inner self. It gives them a very personal and permanent way to, for example, express what matters to them or to commemorate someone they love. Why not color in the blank body you’ve been given with souvenirs of your own experiences?

Y. seems skeptical about this more emotional function. When asked for her opinion on tattoos with personal significance, she says, “I simply don’t have that association with them. I don’t understand why people find it necessary to engrave things into their body.” It is partly the permanence of the act that bothers her. “Why don’t you treat [your body] a little more carefully?”

But those with tattoos might view the permanence as a very positive aspect. Their ink will stay with them, grow old with them, remind them of what is (or used to be) important to them. As Fiona C. (23) puts it, “I see my ink as a scrapbook of my life that decorates my body. I take it everywhere with me and it doesn’t let me forget.”

The future of tattoos
In the past few decennia, the number of Americans with tattoos has at least tripled. This statistic reflects the improvement in the public opinion of tattoos. Shaking off its negative connotations, body ink is starting to be accepted as a real art form by the younger generation in particular. Tattoos are now often seen be a physical outlet for one’s identity and creativity; they are a way of documenting inner life in a permanent way.

Unsurprisingly, all pro-tattoo interviewees are optimistic about the prospect of ‘their’ art form. “I think that at some point in the future, tattoos will be so accepted, especially in the younger generations, that it will be just as strange for someone to not have a tattoo,” is S.’s vision. “Once they’re fully accepted I wouldn’t be surprised if they go in and out of popularity, just like any other fashion.”
D. also thinks that the upward curve in tattoo acceptance will continue, “But of course times can always change. I think that in fifty years, the technique will be such that people won’t have to go through pain anymore.”
“Couldn’t you’ve said that beforehand?” complains the guy on the stretcher as the needle punctures his skin over and over again.

Do the men have any final words?
“I’d say, get a tattoo someday,” says D.. “But think hard about it. What you want, and where you want it.”
Barely audible over the buzzing sound of the tattoo machine, his current client mutters, “I’m never getting another tattoo.”
He’s only joking, of course.

I wrote this for my Journalism class. The assignment was to write a human interest-y feature of +-1200 words on the subject “art”. This is the assignment as I handed it in (though it looks much prettier in Word), with the surnames taken out for privacy purposes.

6 thoughts on “The skin as canvas – tattoos: from underdog to pure art form

  1. Very good piece. :)
    Now, I’m not basing this on any polls, but here at least it seems that most people get a tattoo for beautification purposes, with no real emotional/personal connection behind it. I’m referring to the younger population anyways, since it’s been a while since I saw an older person (30+) getting a tattoo. I have a friend who has a tattoo studio and that’s why. Most people, teens, who came through there and get a tattoo, do so because “it looks cool/nice” whatever.
    That just boggles my mind heh, why would you get a tattoo of something you just “like” now, when in 5 years you might not feel exactly the same and you’re stuck with it? Why do it if there’s no other meaning behind it than ..prettiness. Anyhoo..i thoroughly enjoyed your article.

    • Thank you so much!
      I wish I could’ve found more recent/reliable polls for this article. I searched hard but there really wasn’t anything. Maybe I should set up my own large-scale research into tattoos and opinions thereof.

      It boggles my mind, too – if I were to get inked, I’d have to think long and hard about it. As in, several years. At the very least. And it’d have to come with a rock-solid meaning and permanent significance to me. I don’t condemn people who get inked like that, though; I just can’t really grasp it, I guess.

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