Tattoos – from subcultural rebellion to a mark of high fashion

I haven’t written anything for a while – I’ve been busy! But I have had a few people ask about an essay that I wrote a few years back, exploring how we, as a society interact with tattoos and the tattoo industry so I thought that I would share it. Below is the essay – but keep in mind it was written about four years ago – hopefully you find it interesting though!

From a recognized sign of rebellion to a feature on the pages of Vogue- how has tattooing progressed to become socially acceptable and even fashionable in Western Society? In answering this, explore possible reasons why people may get a tattoo and the relationship between consumerism and fashion tattoos.

In contemporary western society tattooing is no longer the trademark of a subculture- it is now an accessory of the main stream. The industry is a multibillion dollar a year trade and the clientele are from all walks of life (Willett 2010, p271).
The word tattoo is rich in social connotations with a wealth of complex historic discourse surrounding the subject. In order to understand the transformation of this art form, these connotations and discourses will be further explored, as will the nature of the consumer driven aspects of the industry. The culture of tattooing and discourse surrounding it is vast and complex, so for the purpose of this essay mainstream societies use of and connection with tattooing will be the focus, with the concept of tattoo sub-cultures being used as a composite to mainstream consumption.


The art of tattooing and body adornment has a rich cultural history in the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and other regions, such as Africa and Central America but less is known about tattooing amongst the British aristocracy. The Aristocracy and even the Royals are said to have been amongst the very first in western society to embrace the art of tattooing (Currie-McGhee 2006, p6). In the late 19th Century the popularity of tattoos declined among the aristocracy in correlation with Samuel O’Reilly’s invention of a tattoo machine that made the acquisition of tattoos cheaper and quicker. As a result, both the British and American working class adapted the art as their own- making it less appealing to the upper-classes (Currie-McGhee 2006). At this point in history, the risk of needle related diseases and infections were also becoming more evident, contributing toward a fear of the art form (Fedorak, 2009 p75).

By the middle of the 20th century, tattooing was far from a positive fashion statement and was rather a symbol of rebellion, often taken up by groups such as bikers, gang members and criminals. These minority subcultures became the public face of the tattooing movement (Currie-McGhee 2006, p8). The negative discourses surrounding these groups as social deviants became associated with the art that adorned their skin.
Until the 1960s, states Currie-McGhee (2006, pp8-9), when the hippie movement and culture altered the perception of tattooing, it remained a deviant activity. Although popularity and perception of tattoos (and in conjunction, piercings) slowly began to be adapted by the mainstream- including celebrities. The advent of tattooing culture amongst celebrities coincides with tattoos crossing over to mainstream culture, (Levy 2009, p30) 1960s musician, Janis Joplin was one of the first celebrities publicly display tattoos.

In 1999 the world’s biggest toy company, Mattel confirmed the crossover of tattoos as a mainstream fashion item when they released the ‘Butterfly Art Tattoo Barbie Doll’. The doll featured a tattooed stomach and was accompanied by temporary tattoos for children to wear but parental concern accompanied this release and production of the ‘Butterfly Art Tattoo Barbie Doll’ was swiftly stopped- proving that although the trend was in fashion, parents were not ready to let their children be exposed to it (Currie-McGhee 2006, p15).

Health regulation of the tattoo industry has contributed to the increasing popularity and spread of tattooing, with the market now carefully managed, safer and more popular than ever (Willett 2010, p272). As of 2008, ten percent of Australians had tattoos (Brooks, 2008) a percentage that is steadily increasing. That figure is slightly higher in the US with approximately 14 percent of the population joining the trend (Levy 2009, p32). In both the US and Australia, women account for the majority of tattoo consumers, with three in five tattoos being inked on women (Levy 2009, p32) while Levy (2009, p32) found that the fastest growing market for tattoo consumption is upper-class white suburban women. It is undeniable that the industry is on the ascent, being the sixth fastest growing retail industry in the US in the 1990s and catering to the consumer in a way never before seen in the history of the art (Napoleon 2003, p46).

Celebrities, culture and tattoos-a degree of influence:

Today it is not un-common for celebrities to have tattoos. Celebrities are said to hold much influence over trends in contemporary society – as do advertisements and popular culture, so it is no surprise to see that prior to this recent rise in tattooing, body art began to appear first on celebrities and within film, television and various advertisements (Currie-McGhee 2006, p11-12). Now un-tattooed celebrities are in the minority, states Currie McGhee (2006, p12) while recently we have seen the emergence of tattoo artists as celebrities with reality television shows Miami Ink and LA Ink – about the day to day life of a tattoo studio- gaining popularity .

Pierre Bourdieu’s theories about cultural capital apply to the fashion industry- and tattoos are not exempt from this. Cultural capital can be knowledge that gives an individual higher status in society. There are three sub-types of cultural capital, two of which can be applied to the fashion industry and tattoos; embodied cultural capital which is developed as a part of an individual’s habitus- in that an individual develops a refined taste for the finer things (Bourdieu 1986, p 241) – such as a unique piece from a top designer rather than a mass produced piece. Similarly those with knowledge about particular designs and artists may recognize the pieces of particular artists- and these may be viewed in higher regard than tattoos by unknown artists. The second sub-type of cultural capital which applies here is objectified cultural capital; when an object owned by an individual projects a certain level of cultural capital through its symbolism- but the individual must own the object to have this level of cultural superiority (Bourdieu 1986, p 241) – they can not merely view or consume it. In this manner artists become sought after to create the highly regarded works of art, for example, star of LA Ink Kat Von D has become a celebrity in her own right and is sought after for both her talent and fame.

Art and Fashion

The fact that tattooing is currently considered by both the tattooists and consumers to be a form of art is a strong indicator as to the change of discourse surrounding the subject in recent decades (Kjeldgaard 2005, p2). This said, a divide between tattoos as either art or fashion does exist- even though fashion too is often considered to be art. The discourse surrounding the body art of heavily tattooed individuals, argues Kjeldgaard (2005, p2) is vastly different to that surrounding those with only a few- who are considered to be the ones consuming tattoos as a fashion statement. Consumers of fashion tattoos tend not to relate to the artistic aspect of tattoos or the tattooing subcultures that exist and merely wear their tattoo as an accessory rather than a piece of art (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p2). Fashion tattoos, states Kjeldgaard et al. (2005, p4) tend to be less about the imagery and meaning behind them and more about merely adorning the body- the choice of the imagery tends to be based more upon aesthetic choice than anything else.
Tattoos have traditionally been viewed by cultural theorists as anti-fashion due to their deviant connotations and the mere fact that permanence is in stark contrast to the ethos of the fashion industry (Kjeldgaard 2005, p5). The appearance of temporary tattoos on the pages of influential fashion magazine Vogue within the 2010 Chanel collection confirmed that the aesthetic of tattoos was in vogue, but as the permanence goes against the ethos of the ever changing industry are consumers ready for the fad to turn on them?

Tattooist Alex Binnie (Cole 2006) stated in a 2006 interview that the mentality and motivation of the heavily tattooed is vastly different to consumers of what we call ‘fashion tattoos’. Binnie stated that heavily tattooed individuals tend to have complex psychological reasons for getting inked, while consumers of fashion tattoos- while considering the design and decision carefully- tend to make this choice with more influence from the opinions of society that from within their personal belief system (Cole 2006). – So perhaps consumers of tattoos as a fashion trend are not ready- so why do they get inked and what influence does consumerism – and it’s weapon, marketing- have on individuals choices?

Why get ‘inked’?

In recent years, the human body has begun to be viewed as something that has the potential to be modified and improved, and as such can be a site for self expression (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p1). When designing an individual tattoo, the experience gives the consumer the chance to express themself and when the tattoo relates to a life event it can act as specific memory as well as a part of the story of a person (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p3). Velliquette et al. (1998, p464) found that “using the tattoo to express the inner self” was the most commonly stated reason for acquiring a tattoo. When selected for this reason, the tattoo becomes a part of the system of signs that help to create the public persona of an individual (Velliquette et al. 1998, p464).

In contemporary society, as tattoos are broadly accepted, the mentality of getting inked in order to offend and stand in opposition to the rest of society is not generally reason enough to get a tattoo. Napoleon (2003, p43) states that in order for this social tactic to succeed the surrounding culture must be of the opinion that this is indeed anti-cultural behaviour, a belief that contemporary western society does not subscribe to.
Napoleon offers one reason that women-uniquely young women who are the biggest consumers of tattoos- especially get tattooed is because they feel the need to “garner attention and feel special” (2003p 46). He states that being “sexy” simply isn’t enough to stand out in today’s society in which we are bombarded with images of beautiful people 24/7- but he argues that this motive is generally combined with other motives.

There are of course a myriad of reasons as to why individuals choose to tattoo their skin indeed they may choose to use the experience its self as reason enough (Kjeldgaard 2005, p5) and this may create the meaning behind the tattoo. Heavily tattooed individuals may use the opportunity as an act of play (Kjeldgaard 2005, p5) while the pain felt may constitute for reason enough to experience tattooing (Levy 2009, p 36). When analysing the inclusion of tattoos in fashion magazines, including Vogue, Emily Hill stated “I am tattooed, therefore I am”- a play on a philosophical theory- implying that many who do choose fashion tattoos do not select them for the above reason, but merely as a flippant fashion statement.

Alex Binnie (Cole 2006, p4) ponders the same notion as Hill, stating that tattooing is “more about cultural expression” than individual expression- a statement which makes for interesting consideration- as there has been a cultural move to accept tattooing this has created a cultural environment in which tattooing is more normalized than ever before. Only recently, Binnie (Cole 2006, p8) states, has tattooing even considered the individual (as a result of becoming a consumer driven venture)- previously it was considered a cultural expectation when being a part of a cultural group- i.e. sailors and criminals were expected to use the art form to express their belonging to their particular groups- but this begs the question; if tattooing becomes a part of the fashion discourse and culture will it be an expectation of the culture the of hip and fashionable to be tattooed?

Consumerism and Tattoos:

In contemporary western culture- unlike other cultures previously mentioned, such as Pacific Islander culture- markings tend not to designate specifically shared cultural meanings- unless cultural symbols are used, which as Willett (2010,p271) states is becoming less common. This allows for more variation, choice, and individuality- which are ultimately what consumers are after when making an identity related purchase. The dominant characteristic of the current era of tattooing, is choice-in terms of both deigns and artists (Atkinson 2003, p46). “Consumers embody a simple modern logic, the right to choose” (Gabriel et al. 1995, p1) and the variety of designs and artists now available embody this sentiment. Atkinson’s (2003, p47) research found that a common declaration amongst the tattooists of Canada is “If you can think it up, I can do it”, this statement represents the artists’ commitment to broad cultural attitudes, demonstrating a sentiment that is essential to the survival of free market economy- being that the customer is always right (Atkinson 2003, p47).
Tattoo artists are setting up shop in communities that are overrun by “young, hip affluent adolescents and professionals, quiet simply the business is going where the demand and money exists” (Atkinson 2003, p47). Understanding this phenomenon has become an important focus- marketers know that it is essential for them to understand the signs (such as tattoos) that consumers use and the corresponding social capital of such signs (Velliquette et al. 1998, p461). It has been argued, states Kjeldgaard et al. (2005, p1) that in mainstream society tattoos have become such a consumer phenomenon that in fact to some extent tattoos are almost considered passé. Some argue that tattooing has become comparable to other consumer practises that are merely utilized as practises to beatify one’s body in line with current fashion norms (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p1).
Consumers are difficult to predict and as a collective can contradict themselves, being rational and irrational, individualistic and driven by social norms (Gabriel et al. 1995) but it is clear from the nature of the tattoo industry that it is attempting to adapt to a consumer driven society. Tattooing however does not conform to the norms of consumerism, as it is finite in that individuals seeking fashion tattoos tend not to be heavy consumers- visiting a tattoo parlour maybe only once or twice. A consumer driven economy depends upon regular and repeat consumption to continue, so to participate in this the tattoo industry must depend upon attracting more new clients constantly. Acceptance in society is assisting in this occurring and the industry growing.

Perceptions in Society:

In contrast to those with multiple tattoos, consumers of fashion tattoos tend to have a more modest view and understand and even sympathise with the views of those who still consider tattoos to be a deviant activity (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p4). These people consider themselves a part of the mainstream culture- and not separate to it (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p4). Often these tattoos can be hidden so the negative stigma sometimes (although rarely) attached may not be constant (Kjeldgaard et al. 2005, p4).

Atkinson (2003, p61) touches on the subject of media representations of tattooing in western society and states that the theme underlying a majority of the current media stories about tattooing is that of the practises new found popularity. Producers of various forms of media- including magazines, newspapers and television documentaries- have recognized the popularity and used this to attract consumers of their information. In this case the media discourse is both a reflection of the culture and an integral part of it (Atkinson 2003, p65).
Previously media discourse surrounding the topic predominantly described deviant behaviour amongst consumers and focussed heavily upon the negative aspects of tattoos- such as the permanency and risk of illness- and although these media articles are still circulated, Atkinson found that they were in the decline (Atkinson, 2003, p62).
The marketing sector have also recognized the popularity of tattooing and have used this knowledge to their advantage, in the last decade aligning products that are directed at a youthful market with the “hip looking, skin flashing” generation of new consumers by including images of them in their campaigns (Atkinson 2003, p62). The inclusion of these images in advertising campaigns plays on the old discourses of deviance and the new discourses of tattoos as fashion items to position their products as cutting edge, chic and rebellious (Atkinson 2003, p62). This use within the advertising industry is a reflection of the general social discourse surrounding the topic- a mix of old and new opinions of body art, mixing together to represent an aspect of why tattoos are so popular today- they are chic because they are still slightly risqué and rebellious.

In Conclusion:

Historical summaries help us to recognize the points in history at which change occurs and an understanding of the broader social context of the time helps to explain why these things occur. Some things however cannot be fully or simply explained- tattooing is one of these things. We have found some explanation for the popularity of tattoos, in recognizing the influence of celebrities and pop culture, and the ability of the industry to adapt to consumers needs. We have established some reasons for consumers to make the decision to get ‘inked’ but these are much more complex than can easily be explained. Fashion trends often baffle the mainstream at first, and then become naturalized before they become passé. Perhaps tattoos in the mainstream will do just this, but only time will tell.



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Cole, A 2006, ‘Interview with Alex Binnie, Into You, Farringdon, London, November 14, 2001 and June 15, 2005’, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 10, 3, pp. 351-359, viewed online May 7th 2011,

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