THE CHANGING CULTURAL STATUS
OF THE TATTOO ARTS IN AMERICA
As Documented in Mainstream U.S. Reference
Works, Newspapers and Magazines
merica's core cultural reference books, professional journals, newspapers and magazines recognize tattooing as a well-established art form that, over the last three decades, has undergone dramatic changes. In the 1970s, artists trained in traditional fine art disciplines began to embrace tattooing and brought with them entirely new sorts of sophisticated imagery and technique. Advances in electric needle machines and pigments provided them with new ranges of color, delicacy of detail and aesthetic possibilities. The physical nature of many local tattooing establishments also changed as increasing numbers of operators adopted
Photo: Lev Dolgachov
|Once a taboo practice largely confined to sailors and street hoodlums, tattooing has evolved into a highly prized fashion product for celebrities and millions of middle-class consumers.|
equipment and procedures resembling those of medical clinics -- particularly in areas where tattooing is regulated by government health agencies.
The cultural status of tattooing has steadily evolved from that of an anti-social activity in the 1960s to that of a trendy fashion statement in the 1990s. First adopted and flaunted by influential rock stars like the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s, tattooing had, by the late 1980s, become accepted by ever broader segments of mainstream society. Today, tattoos are routinely seen on rock stars, professional sports figures, ice skating champions, fashion models, movie stars and other public figures who play a significant role in setting the culture's contemporary mores and behavior patterns.
During the last fifteen years, two distinct classes of tattoo business have emerged. The first is the "tattoo parlor" that glories in a sense of urban outlaw culture; advertises itself with garish exterior signage; offers "pictures-off-the-wall" assembly-line service; and often operates with less than optimum sanitary procedures.
The second is the "tattoo art studio" that most frequently features custom, fine art design; the ambiance of an upscale beauty salon; marketing campaigns aimed at middle- and upper middle-class professionals; and "by-appointment" services only. Today's fine art tattoo studio draws the same kind of clientele as a custom jewelry store, fashion boutique, or high-end antique shop.
The market demographics for tattoo services are now skewed heavily toward mainstream customers. Tattooing today is the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in the United States. The single fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoo services is, to the surprise of many, middle-class suburban women.
Tattooing is recognized by government agencies as both an art form and a profession and tattoo-related art work is the subject of museum, gallery and educational institution art shows across the United States.
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Main Report With Footnotes
The state and local governments of New Jersey, like those of other regions across the United States, are being forced to alter their attitudes and laws in response to the changing cultural status and popularity of tattooing.
For instance, in late 1997, Camden County, N.J., unveiled comprehensive new regulations for the growing numbers of tattoo artists operating within its borders. Located just east across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Penn., the county is a sprawl of suburban communities. In February, 1998, when local graphic artist Patrick Levins became the first person to be certified under the strict new tattoo regulations, he received a document authorizing him to "practice (his) profession as a registered tattoo arts operator" anywhere in the county.
It is a mark of the changing times that the county government chose to officially describe tattooing as both a "profession" and an "art." In fact, tattooing is widely recognized as one of humanity's oldest and most meaningful art forms.
30-Volume Dictionary of Art
For instance, in its section, "Tattoo," the 1996 edition of the 30-volume Macmillan Dictionary of Art
|During the last three decades, tattoo designs and trends has been heavily influenced by fine art and the aesthetics of Asian and Pacific cultures, primitive and modern.|
"The art is attested in almost every culture worldwide...the earliest surviving examples of tattooed human skin come from 12th -Dynasty Egypt (1938 BC), but representational evidence suggests that tattooing was practiced in Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt (4,500 BC)."
"...In Europe and North America, until the late 20th century, tattooing was largely connected with two groups: members of the armed forces and prisoners...From the 1960s onwards, however, changes in the social status of tattoo art in Europe and North America has led to considerable experimentation with forms and styles. The repertory expanded to include designs influenced by other tattoo traditions, especially those of Japan and Oceania."
16-Volume Encyclopedia of Religion
In its extensive treatise on the subject, the 16-volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion notes: "Tattooing resembles painting, with the face and body as canvas... In a religious context, as distinct from a purely decorative context, 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 notes the changing nature of tattooing during the last several decades: "After World War II the practice subsided, but because of the influence of the 'counterculture' of the late sixties, the role of electronic media in bringing the practices of other cultures into the American home, extensive tourism, a general emphasis on individuality, and improvements in the techniques of professional tattooing, there has been a marked revival in the art."
THE PUBLIC RECORD
Over the last twenty years, a broad range of U.S. media has documented, analyzed and commented upon the dramatic changes that have altered the social status and cultural implications of the tattoo arts since the 1960s.
In 1970, Time magazine was one of the first national publications to note the trend as part of a profile of San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, whose designs on singer Janis Joplin and members of the Rolling Stones were drawing national attention.
"As an art, tattoos have been traced back 4,000 years to the Egyptians," Time reported. In contemporary times "they have adorned the arms and chests of sailors, roustabouts and construction workers. Now, after a decade or two of decline, tattoos are enjoying a renaissance. They have become the vogue of the counterculture."
In 1982, as it prepared for an international convention of tattoo artists, the Governor's Office of California issued an official state proclamation that declared,
Photo: Adam Radosavijevic
|A California governor's proclamation acknowledged, "The tattoo is primal parent of the visual arts... It has re-emerged as a fine art attracting highly trained and skilled practitioners."|
"The tattoo is primal parent of the visual arts... It has re-emerged as a fine art attracting highly trained and skilled practitioners. Current creative approaches are infusing this traditional discipline with new vigor and meaning. At a time when these artists from around the world meet in California to share, teach and celebrate their skills, it seems appropriate to remind Californians that the tattoo is indeed one of the most ancient arts."
Wall Street Journal
By 1986, tattoo arts had become a subject of interest even for such publications as the Wall Street Journal. That year, in the Journal's Leisure & Arts column, reporter Ed Ward wrote a succinct history of the changing tattoo art scene as part of the newspaper's coverage of the National Tattoo Association's annual convention in New Orleans.
"Tattooing by the '60s was in a rut," Ward noted. "The same old designs that World War II had birthed were being chopped out in studios in every dingy port in the world...mediocrity was rampant." But by 1972 a new, "modern" tattoo art scene surfaced across the U.S. as an expanding group of artists combined fine art disciplines with fantasy motifs executed in the lush, highly detailed tattooing style of the Japanese. The results were tattoos that were more like rich bits of tapestry than the stark pen scratchings that had characterized U.S. tattoo art of the World War II era. The result, wrote Ward, was that "what was formerly considered a sleazy perversion...became just another form of self-expression and style."
In 1989, Esquire magazine reported: "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. Fine-art tattoos are beautifully drawn; they reflect the Japanese influence in tattoos."
In March of last year, the national daily newspaper USA Today reported: "The once-rebel art of tattooing has achieved mainstream popularity in 90's America. Today's typical tattoo studio is clean and comfortable with tattooing areas that resemble medical-clinic rooms. The people who come in on any given day might be students, professionals, even senior citizens."
St. Louis Post Dispatch
The St. Louis Post Dispatch in Missouri reported last May: "Tattoo shops, once catering to bikers and bums, now ink middle-and even upper-class clientele....Now that more customers come from mainstream America, tattoo parlors have moved out of bars, back alleys and carnivals to Main Street."
Anchorage Daily News
In March of this year, the Anchorage Daily News told Alaskan readers: "What is striking about body art -- even the terminology implies something of skill and value -- is how it has moved from society's margins to the mainstream. Models and MTV sparked the trend, making the outrageous seem cool. But mostly, middle-class adult women have fueled it, changing the definition of a tattoo from the sign of a deviant act to a just-slightly scandalous but quite public beauty mark."
Canada's Toronto Star
reported in September of 1997 that when Beth Seaton, professor of mass communications at York University conducted a study of the clientele at one of Toronto's
Photo: Bartosz Ostrowski
|In the last two decades, tattooing in U.S. women has quadrupled, and it is estimated that almost half of the tattoos now being done are on women.|
most popular tattoo art studios, she found that 80% of the customers were "upper middle-class white suburban females."
This trend -- the spreading popularity of tattooing among well-educated women in affluent suburban communities -- is one of the most striking aspects of the new attitudes about the art form.
The medical journal Physician Assistant which circulates to doctors' offices throughout the country, has alerted its readers: "Tattoos were most common among motorcyclists, criminals, gang members, and individuals with psychiatric problems... However, these stereotypical associations have changed over the past 20 years... Tattooing in women has quadrupled, and it is estimated that almost half of the tattoos now being done are on women."
The daily Bismarck Tribune of North Dakota in November, 1997, took a closer look at the clientele patronizing tattoo art studios in and around Hazen, a middle-class suburb of Bismarck. Tribune reporter Lauren Donovan reported that the 30-40-year-old age group of "Soccer Moms" is the fastest growing demographic of the local tattoo market. She wrote that four typical clients included "two hockey moms, one figure skating mom and one figure skating coach" who were "women with full lives at home, church and in the community. They couldn't be less like the leather-wearing biker with skeleton tattoos on his chest." One woman wore a small rose tattoo on her shoulder; another had a tiny white baby seal on her ankle.
The national marketing magazine About Women, Inc., in April of 1998, published an article that reported: "Tattooing is on the rise among adult women, including professional women; almost half of all tattoos are being done on women. Professor Myrna L. Armstrong of Texas Tech University School of Nursing told About Women, Inc., that several trends play into this interest in body art...for some young women, tattooing is an outward expression of the internal process of identity building...'a tattoo makes them feel good -- it makes them feel special, different,' says Armstrong."
THE MAINSTREAM MARKET
The conservative weekly news magazine U.S. News & World Report, in November of 1997, informed its readers: "Tattoos ... have become widely acceptable, appearing on celebrities, in toy stores, and as games on the Internet. In the United States, tattooing was the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in 1996, after Internet, paging services, bagels, computer, and cellular phone stores. Since then, the industry has been expanding by more than one studio a day, a 13.9 percent increase in nine months."
The same month, the Chicago Tribune reported: "Tattoos have begun to appeal to people from every walk of life...tattoo parlors are experiencing a growth trend due to three major changes in the tattoo industry: a greater number of tattoo ink colors, the fact that fine artists are entering the field and the proliferation of celebrity tattoos...because many famous, high profile people in music and sports have tattoos, they have become more socially acceptable."
Lawyers, Accountants and Homemakers
Florida's Palm Beach Post, in November of 1997, explained that the local tattoo industry that once catered almost exclusively to "bikers, sailors and topless dancers," is now applying ornate art works to the skin of "lawyers, accountants and homemakers."
"Professional athletes had a lot to do with the mainstreaming of tattoos," the Post said. "They made them visible, socially acceptable and desirable." Sports Illustrated noted: "Tattoos have become the sport's world's most flaunted form of self-expression. Ten years ago, only boxers or wrestlers had visible tattoos; today, they are everywhere, in every sport."
In 1997, when it conducted a preseason survey of all 29 NBA teams, the Associated Press reported that 35.1% of all NBA players had tattoos. Professional sports observers estimate that similar percentages of America's national league football, hockey and baseball players also have tattoos. Aside from raising the visibility of tattoos, these legions of sports figures -- who also constitute one of the country's largest groups of millionaires -- have had a major
Photo: Joseph Graf
|The high-profile flaunting of tattoos by rock musicians, movie stars, fashion models and celebrity sports figures has had a major impact on the tattoo business.|
impact on the nature of the tattoo business. Much like millionaire rock singers, movie stars and fashion models, they have created a new market for high-end custom tattoo art studios geared to an affluent and demanding clientele that only patronizes vendors who provide high standards of service in clean, respectable surroundings.
Madison Avenue Executives
Other professional groups are also helping support the rise of a new upscale genre of tattoo art studios quite different from those seedy establishments once found only in urban tenderloin districts. For instance, in its May 1998 review of the development of the local tattoo art studios since that business was legalized in March of 1997, the New York Times reported "Tattooing in New York is coming of age...the art form has evolved from drunken-sailor initiation rite to quirky fashion statement...tattoos have moved beyond peace signs for hippies and skulls for bikers. A recent fashion in tribal designs -- inspired by the work of American Indians and tribes from places like Borneo and Thailand -- is now displayed on the ankles and arms of Madison Avenue executives."
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
The tattoo-related arts are studied and celebrated by leading museums, galleries and art institutions across the country.
In 1995, when she reviewed the tattoo-based art exhibit "Pierced Hearts" at the Drawing Center of New York City, Village Voice art critic Elizabeth Hess wrote "Every artist in town will want to see 'Pierced Hearts' because it's the real thing." The show, which included 300 drawings of tattoo art from the 1800s to the present, turned out to be so successful that it went on a national tour, appearing in such institutions as Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art whose curator, Bonnie Clearwater, described the event as being about 'bringing a popular culture into a world of higher art'."
Meanwhile, that same year, "The Devil's Blue: American Art and Practice through the Port of New York, 1840-1961," another exhibit devoted exclusively to the art of tattoo designs, opened at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City.
Publications such as the New York Times have continued to cover tattoo art events. In a February, 1997, story, the Times reported: "Thousands of tattoo fans gathered in Detroit recently for one of the nation's biggest tattoo conferences. Once considered a back-alley art form, tattoos have been moving into the mainstream, bringing new profits to tattoo parlors and even attracting attention from art museums."
Later that year in Detroit, the Detroit Institute of Arts hosted a conference of scholars from around the country to study the tattoo arts. Speakers included anthropologist Margo DeMello of San Francisco University, folklore scholar Daniel Wojcik of the University of Oregon and art historian Dora Apel of Wayne State University. Isabela Basombrio of the museum's educational department pointed out to reporters that "the mainstreaming of the tattoo has produced a number of outstanding artists who have developed their own styles and are documenting their own history."
In its 1996 article on the subject, the medical journal Physician Assistant alerted its readers that cultural attitudes about tattoos in the U.S. have changed during the last two decades and that "Tattooing is a recognized art form in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington." In fact, in 1986, the National Museum of American Art, a part of the Smithsonian, added pieces of tattoo design work to its permanent art collection.
In October of 1997, the Hallways Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, New York, hosted a gathering and art exhibit entitled "Needlework: A Festival of Woman Tattoo Artists." It was not only evidence of the museum-quality treatments tattoo artwork is receiving around the country, but also of the growing numbers of female tattoo artists who are yet another group changing the nature of the art and atmosphere of the professional tattoo business. The conference was organized in cooperation with Erie County officials who regulate local tattoo artists.
In March of this year, the University of Colorado-Boulder museum mounted a cultural and anthropological exhibit of body art called "Tattoo." The Denver Post reported that the exhibit's opening drew 1,000 people and that "body art has captured the public imagination."
Art journals take serious notice of art created by tattoo artists as well as art derived from that genre of drawing. The July, 1997, issue of Art in America, for instance, featured an article on the work of Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick, whose etchings and drawings are based, in part, on tattoo art. Fitzpatrick is himself the founder of the World Tattoo Gallery in Chicago which showcases similar artists.
In April of 1997, in an article entitled "Preparing for a Career in Illustration," School Arts magazine advised America's student counselors that the tattoo arts were a "growing field" offering job opportunities for students trained in fine art principles.
Tattoo art displays in galleries have become common. For example, in the first four months of 1998, the "Art in Review" section of the New York Times and the "Arts" section of Newsday reported on two separate galleries in the New York area -- Wessel and O'Connor Gallery and The Outsider Gallery in Long Island City -- that mounted new exhibits that included tattoo images.
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