Tattoos are widely recognized as one of the oldest and most meaningful art forms. What was once frowned upon and even illegal is now a key part of 21st century pop culture. Tattoos used to be most common among motorcyclists, criminals, gang members and people of the armed forces. Now, the fastest growing demographic of people getting tattoos is middle class, suburban, white women. Marketing for tattoo services is heavily directed at mainstream customers. The art has become more popular and mainstream than ever, especially among women; the question is, why?
The art of tattooing has certainly evolved since it’s start. Egyptians started as early as 4000 BC. The Japanese started around 500 BC for cosmetic and religious purposes, as well as to brand criminals. In the Neolithic period and in tribes tattooing was practiced during religious ceremonies and as a rite of passage. In South America at least 30% of the tribal population was said to be tatted, women more heavily than men. In the United States, the first official tattoo parlor came about in 1890 in New York City. They earned an unfavorable reputation when Christianity deemed tattoos to be a part of the Wiccan faith. In the 19th century, women were supposed to be pure and weren’t to express their desires or individual taste so women with tattoos were highly frowned upon, they were considered “loose.” In the early 20th century, tattoos were stigmatized and even illegal in some places. Until the late 1900’s, tattooing was largely connected with only 2 groups: the armed forces and criminals. With the 1960’s came a booming popularity due to the mainstreaming of the biker and hippie culture. In the 1970’s influential rock stars like the Rolling Stones incorporated tattoos into their look. By the 80’s they accepted by much broader parts of mainstream society. The status of tattoos had steadily evolved from anti-social activity in the 60’s to a trendy, fashion statement in the 90’s. Tattoos became more popular because they are being worn by celebrities, athletes, and are being marketed within the fashion industry. By the 1990’s the leading tatted demographic had become the white, suburban female.
Tattoos’ popularity among women has risen as a result of the shifting of social implications. No matter what tattoo one gets, how big it is, where it is or how many one has, they will be judged for it, whether it is good or bad. Common perceptions of people with tattoos are that they are adventure seekers, less inhibited, and are more promiscuous than those without. Nonetheless, the social implications of people with tattoos, women specifically have largely changed throughout the years. Girls with tattoos are being idolized more than ever, especially in music of all genres and in the media. Websites like tumblr and pinterest play a big part in the up and comming love for girls with tats, often featuring them in a very attractive and sexual way. I believe ink becoming popular with celebrities, fashion models and other public figures is one of the reason tattoos have become so popular. What the elite do, the general population will follow, males and females alike. But I believe for women it’s even deeper than that. I think the rising popularity of ladies getting ink is driven purely by self-esteem. Due to the fact the media now sets such a high, unrealistic standard for beauty, it’s harder to have confidence in oneself. Lacan’s Theory of “the mirror” explains this phenomenon well.
He considers the point at which a child recognizes their own reflection and begin to consider how others perceive them, modifying their appearance to satisfy their perceptions of how others see them. Mulvey extends this idea when she writes about ‘the silver screen’ which she suggest operates like a metaphorical mirror; reflecting back to the female viewer representations of female identity, but these representations are not genuine reflections of the viewer but rather male perceptions of idealized femininity.
Idealized appearance is the reason the popularity of women getting tatted is so closely related to the shifting of social implications of tattoos. Women want to get tattoos because they think it’s the thing to do, they think people will judge them differently because of it. I believe this also accounts for why so many women end up getting them removed when they become older. A 2008 paper in Archives of Dermatology reported tattoo removers are twice as likely to be women, usually white, single, college educated, and around 30 years old. They are motivated to do so by social stigma, negative comments, and because tattoos “no longer satisfied the need for uniqueness.” This also explains why so many girls get very similar ink. Someone who has a true passion for the art of tattooing wouldn’t get something that meant nothing to her just to be able to say they have a tattoo. This doesn’t go for all girls, but some girls get tattoos for other people rather than themselves, which is why they often regret it in the long run.
I believe the fad will continue to grow and gain more acceptance. Tattooing has become a very different thing in 21st century pop culture than it was in the past. Though I do believe eventually they will become less mainstream, true artists and ink lovers will continue to show their love for the art of tattooing and followers will fade away. Until then, get used to the dream catchers, dandelions and infinity signs, because they’re not going away anytime soon.