If You Build It, They Will Ink: Tearing down the walls of tattoo “tradition”

There is a movement happening in America that you may not even be aware of. You see the signs around you, inked across the skin of soccer mom and goth girl alike. The bank teller hands you your change and your eyes flit across the colorful chain of flowers tattooed around her wrist. Your neighbor mows the lawn, tank top proudly worn to expose the guns and the tribal swirl covering his shoulder. Professional athletes, covered in tattoos, are idolized and celebrated. Tattoos are no longer “confined to sailors and street hoodlums” (Levins). Celebrities, what we embrace as near royalty in modern society, show us, through their own ink, that tattoos are no longer for the shadows.

Actor Johnny Depp Photo Credit: Tattoo Retro

In fact, the tattoo industry (as of recent reports) is the sixth-fastest growing retail industry in the United States. Within 10 miles of my house alone, there are 20 tattoo studios. These are not back alley parlors where designs are chosen from boards on the wall and customers are herded through on skin canvas production lines. These are warm, sterile, creative places where tattoos are done mostly by “appointment only”. These are places like Mystic Eye Tattoo, DNA Tattooing or Patrick Tattoo, where every attempt is made to cater to a growing middle-class of tattoo customers. What is the fastest growing demographic of the newly tattoo initiated? Middle-class suburban moms.

The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion explains “tattoo marks are clearly symbolic… Tattooing in preindustrial societies dominantly relates the tattooed person to a social group or totemic clan, age or sex category, secret society or warrior association… As societies grow more complex and the division of economic and social labor becomes more refined, tattooing becomes more a matter of individual choice and serves the purpose of self-expression… As the technology of the art develops (for example, the invention of the electric tattooing needle), so do the designs and colors multiply, allowing considerable scope for self-expression and making statements about the self… Contemporary tattooed men and women wear on their bodies subtle and beautiful expressions of a continuous tradition that links deity, nature and humankind.” (The Encyclopedia of Religion (16 volumes) Macmillan Publishing, New York, Mircea Eliade, editor, 1987, vol. 2, p. 270).

Tattooing, an art dating back at least 4,000 years (“Tattoo Renaissance,” Time magazine, Dec. 21, 1970, p. 58) is now recognized as a fine art. As John Berendt wrote in Esquire magazine:

“Serious artists…are joining the ranks of tattooers and their designs are being exhibited in museums and featured in expensive coffee table books; fine-art tattooers are, furthermore, leading an effort to improve the image of tattooing….Fine art tattoos…appeal to an affluent, well-educated clientele…The new-style tattooee doesn’t merely pick out a design from the tattooer’s wall; he has an image in mind when he arrives at the studio and then discusses it with the tattooer, much as an art patron commissions a work of art.” (“That Tattoo,” by John Berendt, Esquire magazine, Aug. 1989, p. 32. Thanks to Hoag Levins for supplying the reference).

Tattoo artists themselves, from the celebrated stars of LA Ink (TLC), led by the incredibly talented Kat Von D

Kat Von D

of High Voltage Tattoo and Miami Ink (TLC show), led by the legendary Chris Garver to the local ink scribes of South Jersey, are now recognized as professionals with highly regarded skills.

Chris Garver

When Patrick Levin wanted to open his tattoo business in Camden County, New Jersey, in 1998, he became the first person to be registered under New Jersey’s new tattoo regulations, recognizing him as a “professional” and acknowleding his trade as an “art“.

Patrick Levin

But the highly regarded and much sought after talents of these ink masters are not merely contained to local proximity. People are waiting on appointment lists and traveling out of state to seek work from artists who they feel best represent their identity, their soul. Brandee Gordon, owner of Native Ink Tattoo in Elwood, IN, recently told me that she often has customers fly in to get work done from her. She has also traveled to them, going as far as London to tattoo clients. This is art, appreciated, celebrated, even venerated.

There is a renaissance blossoming of identity and individual celebration. Fine art walks amongst us, gracing the skin canvases of friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers. There is a desire to share ourselves with the world, from the outside in. People are no longer content to hide behind the walls of their flesh. We are, in a sense, tearing down the walls and the skilled artists of the tattoo industry are helping to lead the charge.

“Your body is a temple, but how long can you live in the same house before you redecorate?”

Brandee Gordon of Native Ink Tattoo