Along with being a working class symbol, tattoos have ostracized many foreign cultures from modern societies (Atkinson, 2004). For hundreds of years, continuing into today's world, scholarly views of tattooing have labeled the practice as deviant, abnormal, and anti-social, (Atkinson, 2004). Many Europeans and Americans frowned upon tattoos as being symbols of primitivism and heathenism. Also, tattoos have been used in prisons and in criminal organizations as marking devices. The Yakuza in Japan use full body pieces to identify gang members with their associations and accomplishments within the criminal underground. Prison tattoos have also been negatively associated with the process in Europe and the Americas. The prison tattoos of Russia are prime signifiers of criminal background and activity. American prison tattoos also represent a dark association, far outside the world of normal society.
However, despite the long standing negative associations with such ideas of tattooing, the practice has recently begun to make a comeback in the United States and in Europe. Margo Demello, in her amazing work Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, explores over twelve years of research within the tattoo world to describe the important changes which are bringing it back into mainstream accepted practice. Beginning in the 1980s, Demello has studied the tattoo community as it went through some of its most important changes. In her work, she explains that tattoos have transcended class divisions in the past twenty to thirty years. The original associations were with sailors, primitives, and prisoners; tattoos were widely associated with the lower and working classes. However, beginning in the 1970's and early 1980's, tattoos became increasingly popular with the white middle class. With this appropriation, the practice has become more socially acceptable in many countries all over the world.
Also in the 1970's, tattooing in the United States and in Europe became more of an artistic medium than the connotations of earlier generations. Fine artists became major figures within the tattoo community. With this development, artists looked back to the exotic roots of the practice, bringing in complex Eastern and tribal elements in designs and structure. This further distances the practice from its working class backgrounds. Also in the United States and Europe, due to the newfound complexity available, the narratives behind the act of tattooing have once again become more complex. Rather than simple symbols associated with the working class, designs have once again become representations of decoration, spirituality, and individual identification. Modern day society has a much better view of tattooing, thanks to its popularity. Tattooing can now be seen on weekly cable shows, such as "Miami Ink," and "LA Ink."
The past thirty years have seen a huge resurgence of tattoos within popular culture. In the context of believing that mind and body are inexorably connected, tattooing becomes a way of further linking the two. The body becomes a palate for the mind's ideas of beauty and fashion. It is a canvas, the physical expression of the mental characteristics which differentiate individuals from the rest of their community. However, today's world has seen a partial cheapening of the deeper meanings behind tattoos. Along with their complexity and return to spiritual roots, tattoos have also become analogous with modern fashion (Caroll, 2002). For many young Americans and Europeans, tattoos are a fashion accessory. Impulsiveness and immaturity have cause thousands of tattooees to regret and even remove their dated fashion accessory.
Despite modern negative connotations still associated with tattoos, they have made a remarkable comeback in the social structure of today's society. This is due mainly in response to the acceptance and appropriation of tattoos into white middle and upper class, which therefore abolished its strictly working class associations. With this association, tattooing has been aloud to hearken back to its ancient roots and motivations for tattooing oneself. Complexity, deeper meanings, and spirituality have once again emerged as the leading factors in the motivation for thousands of individuals to walk into the local tattoo parlor.
Atkinson, Michael. "Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self
Control." The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. Vol. 41. 2004.
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Britannica eds. Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 2003.
Caroll, Lynne. "Body Piercing, Tattooing, Self-Esteem, and Body Investment in Adolescent Girls." Adolescence. Vol. 37. 2002.
Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History…