I don’t have any hard statistics to back me up, but anecdotal and empirical evidence tells me that tattoos have become a lot more popular in the last ten or fifteen years. Today it’s not unusual to see a permanent design on the arms, wrists, ankles, legs, neck, or back of someone under thirty years old, male or female, and TV shows like LA Ink, Chicago Ink, and Miami Ink, and magazines like Inked, Skin Deep, Skin Art, Rebel Ink, and Flash clutter airwaves and newsstands. Just look around you: Maori, Goth, pagan, and biker motifs have been needled into millions of epidermises everywhere.
The ubiquity of tattoos has made the mere fact of having one no longer a novelty. A generic heart, anchor, or “Mother” mark in itself holds little interest. When James Dean and Marlon Brando wore plain white t-shirts in the 1950s, the garment itself was a gesture of rebel cool, but a few years later it was expected that the shirt had to display the wearer’s personal message – a slogan, a favorite band, an individual (possibly illegal) taste. Similarly, today’s tattoos must be unique statements for others to assess, which has led to a much greater variety and complexity of art for inkers and inked to show off. So, is skin the new self? I ink, therefore I am?
Whatever. Old people’s wisdom has been earned; you can see it deep within their eyes. But twentysomethings’ wisdom can be purchased, to be seen on the surface of their flesh. The craze for body art (make that “body art”) reminds me of the Black Label phenomenon of the 1980s, when the Canadian beer brand previously associated with middle-aged truck drivers and outdoorsmen was given a slick ad campaign that portrayed it as the choice of young urban sophisticates. Black Label became so crass it turned cool, or, as the alternative genius Huey Lewis theorized, it was hip to be square. Likewise, tattoos have caught on with a demographic at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the stereotypically tattooed: today they are most often found not aboard a battleship, on the factory floor, or in jail, but in classrooms, offices, and fitness clubs.
This goes against the trend of other cultural signifiers. Smoking and obesity were once associated with an affluent leisure class (cigarettes had a noirish glamour and a few extra pounds meant well-fed respectability), but they are symbols of poverty and ignorance nowadays. Tattoos, on the other hand, have moved up from the milieu of sailors, convicts, and garage mechanics to that of university students and soccer moms. Yet there remains a sense that tattoos inexorably drag their human canvases down to a coarser stratum. The strapping collegiate lad looks a little more like a barroom thug, when you glimpse the Celtic knot on his forearm; the pretty aerobics instructor, on discovering the entwined roses at the small of her back, becomes that much closer to a stripper; the interesting, independent person you’ve just met isn’t so original, once they show off the ink on their ankle or their shoulder.
The British essayist Theodore Dalrymple has observed this degrading effect among the youth of his country, noting how tattoos, no matter how finely executed or philosophically rationalized, do little but lasting harm to those who sport them: “You can stigmatize yourself thoroughly in an hour or two for a mere fifty dollars,” he has written. Defenders might say that such notions are old-fashioned, and that newer generations see nothing shameful or boorish in skin illustration. But shame is one thing, sheer plagiarism is something else. It may be that tattoos are simply the new t-shirts (or blue jeans, or baseball caps), in the sense of representing another harmless adoption by the bourgeoisie of proletarian styles. No big deal, right? Except that when minds and manners outgrow t-shirts, blue jeans, and baseball caps, as they usually do, t-shirts, blue jeans, and baseball caps can be taken off. As with Black Label beer, there may have been a brief moment when tattoos were edgy and innovative, but that cachet has since descended into a commonness and conformity that will last long years – will last, in fact, for many irreversible and indelible lifetimes.