Tattoos often feel like part of youth culture. Specifically this youth culture. Nothing says London hipster like a sleeve tattoo and a fixie bike. Nothing says a teenage mistake in Marbella like a dolphin above her ankle. Modern day lads come with undercuts, beards and back tats.
Many feel that marking your body is an act of rebellion: a statement about your individuality in a homogenous society, the exuberance of youth set against the increasingly washed-out, middle-aged middle classes.
Yet our generation is not the first to have their tattoos perceived as something new and different. Far from it.
The New York Times ran this headline in 1883 – “Tattoos not confined to sailors”.
“Since the 1880s, newspapers are writing stories about how tattooing is a brand new thing,” explains Dr Matt Lodder, an art historian at the University of Essex. “About how everyone’s doing it now; how women are getting tattooed; how it’s fashionable; And always how people are going to regret it when they’re older; how the fad’s nearly over; and how awful and barbarous it is.”
Is there anything more up-to-date though? We couldn’t find the data for sailors but Tumblr site NBA Tattoos tracks the ink on display in the league. It tells us that the 2015/16 season saw 53% of NBA players adorned with at least one tattoo.
Google Trends tracks the relative popularity of search terms made through their engine, and ‘Tattoos’ has been a pretty consistent one. There are small peaks and troughs, but their relative popularity right now is level with July 2005, May 2009, July 2011 and January 2014.
Sonny Joe Williamson, 23, has worked as a tattoo artist for five years, in Middlesbrough and now Perth, Australia. We asked him what drives the demand for tattoos.
“I tattooed a 60-year-old woman two days ago, and that was her first tattoo. So that proves it’s not just for all the young cool kids.”
He also highlights the diversity of the practitioners: “I’ve met a lot of tattooers who are graffiti artists, fine artists and graphic designers,” says Williamson. “The industry is full of people who first started off with another art form before tattooing.”
Different types of tattoo clearly go in and out of fashion but the popularity of body art has been a constant going back to the 19th century. A sleeve may be the tatt du jour now, just as henna was in the ’90s, but the truth is we shouldn’t truly care. Any attempt to spot trends is kind of missing the point.
Sonny Joe Williamson says that “none of the tattoos I have really have any meaning, I usually just get designs that I think look cool.”
And as Dr Matt Lodder concludes, “some people get it, some people don’t.”
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Photos: Jo Harrison. Un1ty. Modern Body Art, UK / Un1ty.tattoo; Dirk, The Pixeleye“ Behlau (dirkbehlau.de) Models: Christine Zimmer, Makani Terror, Andy Reisinger; Tattoo Temple, tattootemple.hk: Wang, Jamie, Joey Pang; Ivana Tattoo Art / ivanatattooart.com