FROM FREAK TO CHIC: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE TATTOO

These days it seems as if everyone has a tattoo. My doctor has a butterfly on her wrist. The principal of my daughter’s elementary school sports a dragon on his upper arm.  It is possible that nearly everyone has a least one, if not multiple tattoos. Body modification is hot. No longer confined to sailors and circus freaks, tattooing has become the latest must have fashion accessory of the season. Tattoos have a long and sordid history in the United States. Tattooed people were once considered social outcasts who were destined to become sideshow attractions, rock stars, tattoo artists, or criminals. Decent people did not get tattooed. The tattoo phenomenon that swept the nation seemed to happen overnight. One day America woke up to a much more colorful world that no longer viewed tattoos as taboo. 

 Who are the tattooed among us, and why do they feel compelled to permanently decorate their flesh with colors, words, patterns, and pictures? Eric Dorries is a 36 year- old college administrator at Pueblo Community College. Eric’s arms are sleeved in an array of pinup girls, flowers, swallows, anchors, and quotes.  As Director of Student Services, Eric must be able to relate to the students he assists on a daily basis. The student population consists of variety of ages, sexes, socio-economic backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. According to Eric, the only thing that 90% of the student body has in common is a collective appreciation for ink. Eric’s multiple tattoos give him a buy in with the students who consider him a member of their tattooed tribe.

Eric got his first tattoo in 1995 when he was eighteen years old. “Back then, tattoos were a symbol of rebellion. I was an angry kid who listened to punk rock music and hated authority. Getting tattooed made me feel defiant.”  By the time he graduated from college with a Master’s in Leadership in 2004, Eric had permanently transformed his flesh into a canvas of 225 individual and connecting tattoos. The skin on his arms, back, chest, legs, and feet is covered. “Everyone told me that I would never get a job because of my ink.  Perceptions have changed. When my supervisors look at me they don’t see the tattoos. The people I work with have them. The students have them. I am not so different anymore.”

The tattoos on Eric’s flesh have never been a deterrent in his career, but he felt forced to keep them covered when he was looking for work and after he got his first job as an academic advisor in 2006.  Eric worried that his tattoos would give the wrong impression and that he would be discriminated against because of his appearance. “Tattoos were not popular in 2004. Girls were getting lower back tattoos, but the general public had yet to accept tattoos as an acceptable form of self-expression. I was worried that no one would take me seriously if they saw my tattoos.” He remained covered for most of the early 2000s, while he worked his way up to Director of Student Services.

At this point in his career, Eric believes his tattoos have worked in his favor. “The popularity of tattoos has given me an edge with the students. They think I am cool.” Eric’s coolness puts the students at ease. This is crucial to his role as disciplinarian, mediator, councilor, and advisor. “Students like to talk to me because they see me as an equal. Although I am considered the ‘man’, my tattoos show a different side of me.  This is a side that many of his students, especially those with tattoos, identify with.

In certain circles, tattoos have become the ultimate fashion accessory.  Twenty-three year old college student Samantha Farnsworth finds tattoos to be a crucial aspect of her personal style. “We all have them, my friends and I love tattoos. I know like two people who don’t have a tattoo. Everyone that I hang out with has tattoos. Really, it’s about style and showing the world who you are.” Samantha’s latest tattoo is a pink heart surrounded by daises on the top of her right foot. Each of her five closest friends sports the same design in the same place. “It’s a friendship tattoo and it represents the connection that we have. Each of us is a part of the other and will be forever.” Although the tattoos may ultimately outlast the friendships, the concept of permanence seems to appeal to a younger generation unafraid of forever altering their appearance in the name of fashion.

Prior to the tattoo revolution, tattoos were considered a mark of individuality and nonconformity. Having a tattoo made you stand out from the crowd. These days not having a tattoo is almost rarer than having a tattoo. Television shows such as LA Ink, which, premiered on the cable channel TLC in 2005 helped to introduce tattoos and tattoo culture into the homes of millions of average Americans. Tattoos became more conventional and tattooed women such as Kat Von D of both Miami Ink and her own LA Ink were accepted as part of mainstream popular culture. As a teenager Kaylee Logsdon was a fan of most of the tattoo reality shows. “I grew up on tattoos. I watched people get tattoos on TV. Kat Von D had tattoos on her face and they were cool. I always wanted a tattoo and I got one when I was 18. Now I have five, one on my back, two on my arm, one on my ankle, and one on my foot.” Kaylee intends to get more tattoos and has already selected the next three designs.

Not everyone has embraced the tattoo revolution. For many, tattoos still carry a negative connotation. Todd Whatley, a 36-year old former member of the United States Navy never felt the desire to get a tattoo. “Sailors get tattooed; in the Navy tattoos are considered a rite of passage, but I never wanted one. Now I am glad my flesh is free of ink. Not having a tattoo makes me stand out from my peers, and gives me more respectable appearance. I think that the girls and guys who have tattoos all over their bodies look sleazy. As the owner of a small business, I am hesitant to hire a person with multiple visible tattoos because they do not represent the wholesome image that I am trying to maintain.” Most people who get tattoos are not concerned about projecting a wholesome image. In fact they do not seem to consider tattoos as anything but normal, and do not believe that tattoos portray a negative image. Despite the popularity of tattoos, neck, face and hand tattoos are still frowned by most of society.

Regardless of how one views tattoos and the tattooed, people will continue to permanently change the surface of their skin with inks of different colors. Although this trend may someday die, the reminders of the tattoo phase will remain on the flesh of the tattoo fans forever; unless tattoo removal clinics are able to someday gain the same level of popularity as tattoo studios.

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