For several decades, western culture held tattoos to be the mark of outcasts and rebels – bikers, circus freaks, weathered soldiers, and lifelong criminals were the main representatives of the artform – and for a long time, it seemed that, not only would tattoos never break into the mainstream,they were actually helping to define what ran counter to it. Having a tattoo automatically set one apart from “everyone else” – it was a symbol of being part of another culture, a culture that somehow transcended the standard societal norms. Over time, however, tattoos have crept in to every corner of our culture, and some have even reached the status of “trendy” – a term so mainstream it hurts.
In the 1980s, tattoos were still the domain of the underground, for the most part. The 90s saw them gain some popularity, however, and by the mid-00s, it was estimated that 25% of people aged 16- 40 had at least one tattoo. What happened in less than 30 years to push tattoos from the underground to the mainstream? A large part of that answer is undoubtedly pop-culture. Several musicians and artists of the late 60s and early 70s had visible tattoos (Janis Joplin is often cited as having a pivotal role in popularising tattoos with her small wrist and breast pieces), and by the 90s, the kids who had grown up with these artists were now adults with kids of their own that did not see tattoos as taboo, but as a form of expression they could relate to. Another major boost came from innovators working to create brightly coloured and long lasting inks – prior to this time, ink was most often black, blue, or a terrible red that faded almost immediately – vibrant colours made the idea of a tattoo much more appealing to many. The biggest influence, however, seems to be a shift in perspective – what had once been the mark of an outcast was becoming a legitimate artform; trained artists were picking up machines and creating something that went far beyond the outlines of eagles and hearts with daggers that had dominated the landscape in years prior.
When it comes to popularisation of anything that was once underground, of course, there will be those that champion the progression, and those that resent it. Entrepreneurs and innovators will see opportunity, while those thoroughly entrenched in, and attached to, their subculture will see hostile takeover. Both have valid points. Legitimising tattooing as a form of art and turning it into a multi-million dollar industry has unquestionably pleased and benefitted a lot of people. No longer do tattooists work out of trashy bars and dirty basements, and their rates have gone from the price of a case of beer to a more than liveable income. Clients can be adorned with anything their imagination can conceive of, and artists have far more options than ever before. When the underground becomes the mainstream, however, vital aspects of it have to adapt, and those alterations will please some and disappoint others. The idea of tattoos being trendy is no exception – many see this as an evolution of attitude, a long overdue acceptance of people expressing themselves in visible and creative ways. Others see it as a cheapening of what was once meaningful, turning a sacred act into a fad.
Fads are the bittersweet staple of all industries – they are invaluable in terms of making a mark on society, on bringing an industry to the forefront of people’s minds, but they are also almost always destined to be overdone and eventually become dated and cliché. Fads offer the best and the worst of an industry, and are always walking the line between the next big thing and yesterday’s news. And when it comes to tattoos, fads are evidence that no matter how far underground something may be, one stumble into the spotlight can be all it takes to gain the attention of the masses. Fortunately, the tattoo industry, just like the music industry, fashion, and art, has far more to offer than passing fads. One need only delve a tiny bit deeper than tribal armbands and Kanji to find an entirely new world of art and design. A world of innovation, of the grotesque, the beautiful, the dark, the vibrant, the one of a kind. A world that more and more people are exploring, and whose population becomes more diverse by the minute. We may no longer be underground, but we are adding much needed splashes of colour up here.