To understand the current popularity of tattoo art in the US and Europe, it is important to know a little bit about its past.
Tattooing is one of the oldest art forms known to exist. The oldest preserved human skin ever found is decorated with tattoos that were done during life. It is used as a form of expression in the majority of the world’s cultures, and has been used for many purposes throughout history. In the last century in the West, it has been less common than in other parts of the world and in previous times. Recently, there has been a resurgence in its popularity.
During the early twentieth century in the United States, tattoos were difficult and sometimes dangerous to apply. Inks were made of materials that were reactive to sunlight and bodily fluids, and were placed into the skin by bare hands with dull, dirty, and usually re-used needles.
During this time, even surgeons often used unwashed hands and equipment, and death from bacterial infection was far more common due to the lack of antibiotic therapy. This made getting a tattoo a risky behavior- and getting one became a way to express rebellion or anti-social beliefs. For many years, circus sideshows, hobo camps, and port-of-call navy towns were the only places where tattoos could be obtained. The perception of tattoos as seedy, self-destructive, or rebellious acts became entrenched in the american culture.This enabled many heavily tattooed men and women to make a decent living in sideshows by simply exposing their tattooed skin to shocked strangers.
The invention and growing popularity of the electric tattoo machine changed the way tattoos were applied; a tattoo that would take hours to do by hand became a fifteen-minute process. Tattoo art itself became less crude and rudimentary, and tattoo shops began to open in which the new “sanitary, electric” tattoos were sold from flash sets the artist had drawn and hung on the wall. During the second World War, many american servicemen, notably sailors in the US navy, came home wearing Japanese tattoos. These were often done in full color, something which had not been done in the US, and inspired many tattoo artists to begin honing their artistic skills. During this time Sailor Jerry was known as an innovator in the field, and his artwork is still nostalgically popular to this day.
After the war, tattoo artists began to communicate with each other more fluently about equipment and technique. Paul Rogers was an early innovator in machinery and technical knowledge. This opened the field to many new artists, and newly-opened supply companies began marketing “learn to tattoo” booklets and offering supplies for sale to a wider public. During the late sixties, tattooist Lyle Tuttle’s work was even featured on the cover of “Rolling Stone” magazine, on the singer Janis Joplin. As the counter-culture grew, so did the popularity of tattoo art.
It is from this era that tattooing’s modern resurgence begins. In 1976 the National Tattoo Association was founded, and became a group which encouraged members to share information with each other. This helped a whole generation of people who had become involved in tattooing; many of whom came from a fine art background. Ed Hardy, Vyvyn Lazonga, and Gil Montie were all working at this time. Montie, working in Hollywood, tattooed many celebrities, including Johnny Depp, prompting a new style trend in L.A.
As the years passed, tattoo art became more refined. Non-reactive and hypoallergenic pigments, more specific techniques in shading, the introduction of one-use needles and disposable equipment, modern hospital-grade disinfectants and surfactants, and more proficiency in draftsmanship all contributed to a shift in the perception of tattoos. As the artwork itself became more refined, tattoos became a style accessory, a status symbol, or a personal artistic or spiritual statement. In the last ten years tattoo conventions have become commonplace; the money to be made by promoters has encouraged many smaller venues to host them. Television shows have also dispelled many doubts and fears in the public’s mind about the safety of the modern tattooing procedure. With modern sterilization methods, disposable equipment, and health and safety training required by law in most states, tattooing has become safer and therefore, less rebellious.
Many people now see tattoos as simply another means of expression; as a vital addition to their personal style. Tattoos have always been used to commemorate the dead, express rank and status, decorate and entice- but their current popularity takes away their threat and mute rebellion, and makes them another part of the common currency of artistic expression.