Tattoos are at once permanent and a constant reminder of impermanence. When we choose to get inked, it is undying passion and value that permeates many of our choices. As time passes, however, too many of us are reminded of the shifting weight of time.
It’s not that we’re in denial; we all know how the whole time thing works. We just somehow convince ourselves that it doesn’t apply to us, that somehow getting tattooed helps us tap into something slightly immortal. Ironically, it is tattoos that remind us of our own mortality as skin starts to wrinkle and sag, ink fades, love dies and trends lose momentum.
This is why tattoos are more about the action itself, rather than the end result. A willingness to get tattooed signifies a willingness to undergo pain for something a person believes in. It symbolizes a willingness to risk social disapproval, and a willingness to believe in something or someone so strongly that you would alter your body for it and, in many cases, advertise it. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve.
Cultural history of tattooing
Tattooing is nothing new. It has been around for longer than we really know and is found in most parts of the world. Using varying tools and colouring agents, depending on local environments, the pervasiveness of tattoos is astounding. From Europe, to the Middle East, to Asia, to North America — the art dates back centuries.
There was a rupture in Europe’s tattoo culture with the spread of Christianity. The widespread tattooing practices came to an end in Europe but continued to thrive in other areas of the world, namely Polynesia and New Zealand.
North America and body art
It is captain James Cook’s voyaging that is attributed to the rise of tattooing in North America. Although already being done by many of the indigenous groups in North America, visiting the South Pacific in the late 1760s, Cook witnessed elaborate tattooing in Polynesia that he brought back to North America — both as drawings and as captives.
His finding fascinated the growing number of settlers in North America and was the catalyst for a tattoo renaissance among former Europeans. Years later, as traveling circus were manifesting, side shows began featuring tattooed women for the circus-going crowds to scrutinize. This represented a shift from the primarily male domain of tattooing.
Gender and tattoos
As tattoos were traditionally done by men for other men, women’s first major entanglement with tattooing in North America came in the form of freak shows. Women’s tattooed bodies were displayed for scrutinizing, opening up public discourses about the long-standing silence about women and tattoos.
With stunning implications, it was women from lower classes who were regularly getting tattooed by this time, as upper class women looked down on the art. So much so that upper class women who were getting colour permanently added to their cheeks, stylizing their eyebrows and getting the appearance of more eyelashes got treatments that were called “complexion treatments.” These treatments were in fact tattoos, but because tattooing was associated with lower classes, there was a heavy bias when it came to tattooing.
The idea of tattooing has undergone a radical transformation in dominant society. Once considered disdainful and irresponsible, tattoos have successfully transitioned into the mainstream. Everywhere you look in popular culture you are bound to see tattoos. And for all of the tattoos that you do see, there are likely numerous other ones that you cannot see.
Men and women alike are getting inked in large numbers and as more people do it, the more tattoos become socially accepted. Maybe we will even see a day when it will be those who are not tattooed that are the minorities as the art of tattooing earns the respect and recognition that it deserves.
This trend also means that there are more people who are actually willing to believe in something, more willing to even choose a side. In a time when indecision and apathy are common traits, seeing more people tattooed is a sign of a growing collective passion. And this passion is something that we can all use a little more of.