Monday, 21 July 2014

From counter-culture to mainstream body design: Why the red-hot tattoo boom is only skin deep!

Very recently, Nike pulled a line of leggings and sports bras inspired by Samoan tribal tattoos following an outcry from Polynesian people. This event marked a tipping point in the dark and dirty cultural history of tattoos.

Once a tribal rite of passage, a signifier of dangerous associations, or a mark of freakish deviance, the tattoo has become commercialised, ironic, often tacky, rarely edgy, and widely available at low cost - all of which bodes ill for the art as a cultural movement.

Globally, tattoos are more common now than they ever have been, yet for cultural, stylistic, anthropological and even epidemiological reasons, the trend is on the wane.

The interest in tattoos - especially large bodyscapes - is declining as the original target group gets older and see that their 20 or 35-year old tattoos don’t look nearly as beautiful as they did when they were first applied. And, it goes without saying; tattoos look better on young, taut skin than on the older, corrugated variety.

Among the confused signs of market shift are that tattoos are now used for increasingly diverse applications. For example, medic-alert bracelets, warning doctors of conditions such as diabetes.  Another? Wait for it! Once especially taboo for Jews, who are said to be barred from Jewish cemeteries if they get inked, is the growing interest in “kosher” tattoos.

Tattoos have always played two primary roles in human culture - as a mark of deviance or decoration. They can convey stigma, as in the marking of captives or the marginalized, especially Nazi concentration camp victims. At the other end of the scale, they can also be extraordinarily beautiful, such as the henna designs for brides across Africa and Asia.

In the West, a burst of popularity in the 1960s, driven by the mainstreaming of biker and hippie culture, meant that by the 1990s, the leading tattooed demographic was white suburban females. Tattoos had become a symbol of lost youth amid the doldrums of mainstream adult life.

Not everyone liked this upsurge, but motivations remained equally diverse. One study by German sociologists found they included beauty, art, fashion, individuality, personal narrative, physical endurance, group affiliation, resistance, spirituality, cultural tradition, addiction, pure impulsivity, and, naturally, sexual attraction.

Naturally for some, regret came on like a hangover, and by 2008 there were as many tattoo removers as tattooists, all marching behind the banner that tattoos “no longer satisfied the need for uniqueness.”

Other trends have emerged. Most people do not get just one. In the military, a person’s name is the most common. Men get their first tattoo earlier than women. Tattooed women are seen as less attractive but, stereotypically, more promiscuous.

But perhaps the ‘fading of the tattoo’ as a statement of individuality is something far simpler. Fashion, by definition, has a fear of commitment. Consequently, the permanence of tattoos is terrifying. The brevity of the wealthy’s fascination with tattoos may be due to two factors: simultaneous increase in the number of social ‘deviants’ getting tattoos, and an increased visibility of over-the-top ‘vulgar’ tattooed bodies.

Novelty will always find a way of wearing thin. In the future, technological advances, like tattoos that change under different light conditions, implanted electrical lights, or semi-permanent tattoos that slowly fade away might change that momentum.

But already there is an emergence of a “new world order” in tattooing, no longer reserved for the youthful counter-cultural fringes, and more accessible to the older generation.

For tattooing as a trend, the implication is dire, and becomes the bottom line for this story.  When the old adopt the stylistic lingua franca of the young, the young tend to cringe, shout and then move on to the next big thing.

The truth is that for many body art aficionados, cool has already left the tattoo parlour.

All images found on Google. No offense or copyright infringement intended. Images can be removed if requested by originator.

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