From exotic to mainstream: The evolution of tattooing

by Abby Riese

“There is no known culture in which people do not paint, pierce, tattoo, reshape, or simply adorn their bodies” according to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). While some body adornment is temporary – such as wearing jewelry or changing a hairstyle – some is permanent, such as tattooing.

Body modification can range from genital mutilation to a haircut. It’s a historical cultural practice that Americans often only attribute to tattooing.

“Tattoo art is pretty much in the middle of the road in terms of body modification,” said Joy Armstrong, Assistant Curator at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and former Kent State art history M.A. student. “All of your readers perform body modification rituals on a daily basis, whether they realize it or not. From more extreme measures such as plastic surgery…to the clothes we choose and hair styling and weight loss/gain on the run-of-the-mill end, we all perform and experiment with changing our physical bodies.”

According to the AMNH, the body is a canvas and always has been. “Body art is also a way for people to challenge social values and cultural assumptions about beauty, identity, and the body itself.”

In certain cultures, body modification has been and is still considered a coming-of-age ritual, Dr. Richard Feinberg, Kent State anthropology professor said. “In certain communities you are not recognized as an adult without abiding to the tradition set in place for scarring or tattooing.”

Body art, namely tattooing, is also a way to distinguish oneself within a community, according to Ridgely Dunn in his Master’s thesis entitled “Challenging Appropriation: Modern Moko and Western Subculture.” “Human beings by nature strive to make distinctions between themselves and others, even within a culture group,” he wrote.

As we know it in the western world, tattooing began in ancient Polynesia, Feinberg said. The Polynesians used some kind of bird bone and made the dye from charcoal mixed with some kind of oil, likely coconut oil, Feinberg said.

Tattooing was widespread in Polynesian societies until the arrival of Christian missionaries who viewed tattooing as unholy, according to Public Broadcasting Service (view PBS documentary “Skin stories: the art and culture of Polynesian tattoo”).

But over the last few decades, Feinberg said, it has been making a comeback. Sailors and others who experienced foreign, exotic cultures began receiving tattoos and exposed that practice to the western world, he said.

In mid-20th century, a “tattoo renaissance” occurred, Armstrong said. “The art became more refined and the audience more broad,” she said, “moving from fringe subcultures to members of the general population.” Eventually, “[this practice] develop[ed] from an exotic practice to a more common one, crossing boundaries of sex and class.”

Dunn wrote about the evolution of tattooing.

“In indigenous communities, the act of ritual reinforces shared values and beliefs,” Dunn wrote. “Characteristically, Western rituals place emphasis on individual growth and development as opposed to contributions the individual makes to the society.” In other words, tattooing has evolved into an expression of personal identity.

This expression of personal identity exploded when women began entering shops, Jay Miller, owner of Crucible Tattoo, said. “All of a sudden all the hot girls started coming in wanting their belly buttons pierced,” he said. “When the girls came in and started getting pierced, it didn’t take long for skulls and dragons to come off the walls and flowers and butterflies to go up. And that seemed to have the greatest impact because women tend to pick better designs; they listen better.”

It wasn’t long before body modification became mainstream, said Armstrong. “By the 1990s, body modification was so popularized and common in celebrity culture that it exploded as an almost routine activity,” she said. “People were…willing to make public statements of what they were all about.”

Armstrong believes tattoos are a roadmap to one’s life. “As with clothing [and] hairstyles, tattoo choices are rooted in personal taste, but that is one of the greatest things about them,” Armstrong said. “It can be a public exclamation or very private, but either way, there is an experience and a memory behind it, and a tattoo is just one of the many ways in which we can record our lives.”

Whereas Feinberg calls tattooing a “fad” that “in another decade or two will be a thing of the past,” Armstrong disagrees.

“I think that there has always been and continues to be a message of strength that goes along with body modification,” said Armstrong. “Everyone has a different experience with it and does it for different reasons, but let’s face it, it is a procedure that requires a degree of toughness to endure.  I think that’s why tattooed people may be frightening to some and continue to carry some degree of stigma, although that preconception is falling away more all the time.”