By Matty Collins
I am well aware that plenty of people will go through their life without ever being tempted to have their body modified with drawings and writing that can be as meaningful as a loved one’s name, or as fatuous as a favourite lyric from a song. However, despite there still being a certain degree of disapproval of tattoos in the present day (largely from the older generation), it is beyond doubt that society’s perspective on body art is changing as tattoos continue to integrate themselves into mainstream culture.
A key reason for this is the increasing frequency with which tattoos are seen in global popular culture. A wealth of celebrities are now choosing to get inked, showing of their tattoos on Instagram, and inspiring potentially thousands of replications amongst their followers. It is through social media that tattoos have essentially bluffed their way into popular culture as, with increasing numbers of people being encouraged to get them, tattoos have forced their way past the labels of ‘alternative’ and ‘deviant’ to now be considered by some as a statement of high fashion.
This evolution of opinion that social media has instigated is certainly something which influenced my own decision to get tattoos. I would be lying if I said that any of the designs had special meanings, yet they are also something that for an intrinsic part of my identity. Just by choosing to decorate your own body represents a choice you are actively taking to control the way you present yourself to the world. Perhaps this feeling of empowerment was what encouraged me to go through a process that requires you to lie in a chair for hours while being stabbed by a rapid-fire needle. So how does the process work? Historically, tattoos were created in tribal cultures by cutting into someone’s skin, and rubbing ash, ink, or indeed any coloured substance into the open wound. However in western cultures, the most common method of tattooing is the electric needle which penetrates the skin up to 150 times a second. As the popularity of tattoos continues to increase, so too does the demand for unique methods of delivering them. One of the most touching tattoos I have seen had mixed the ash of a dead relative into the ink, and then had their name tattooed over their heart. Undoubtedly, this is not a method that everybody would be comfortable with, but it nonetheless shows the wide range of meanings, and the hybrid effect between tradition and modernity that tattoos are capable of delivering in contemporary society.
However, while tattoos’ emergence in popular culture is a relatively recent, in reality, they have formed a part of traditional culture for thousands of years, with 3350-year-old Egyptian mummies being the oldest examples to have figurative tattoos. Even firmly conservative figures like Winston Churchill had tattoos; they were an aspect of high fashion in the late Victorian period. Why then, did they symbolise subcultures and deviance for so long? As I have touched on, tattoos aid in forming identity, which was, and still is, utilised by criminal gangs to mark their members. From this anchor point, tattoos became associated with criminals, prisoners, and sailors. Another, more disturbing, association that tattoos have is with branding. Indeed, what immediately comes to my mind is the branding of Jews in Nazi Germany – but perhaps this should act as the greatest motivation to change the stigma surrounding them. Tattoos are undoubtedly an artform, and it could not be more apt that this art is now helping to shape and build identities, rather than label and subjugate them. With this is mind, I think it is clear that the stigma surrounding tattoos is undoubtedly changing for the better. It is important and positive that they are no longer viewed as criminal and deviant, but are now accepted as an artform that can express and define self-identity, and act to unify cultures and friends.
This is why, if I could ask for you to take one thing from this article, it would be to accept tattoos as a part of culture. No, I’m not asking you to get one yourself, but only not to judge and stigmatize the decisions of others. Good luck.