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The Rise of the Tattoo Culture

By Sean Mahon

Posted: 26th November 2014 15:03

Tattoos have been a part of human civilisation for centuries.  In 1991, the five thousand year old frozen body of ‘Itzi the Ice Man’ was found in the mountains between Austria and Italy.  Not only is he the best preserved corpse from this time period ever to be discovered, but his skin is inscribed with a total of 57 tattoos.

In ancient societies, tattoos were seen as symbols of strength, courage, and accomplishment, and often had spiritual connotations.  Polynesian tattooing is generally considered to be the most intricate and skilful of the ancient world.  In New Zealand, ‘moko’ reflect the refined artistry and woodcarving skills of the Maori people.  The ‘kakau’ of Hawaii are thought to not just to be for ornamental purposes, but to guard the health and the spiritual well-being of the tattooed person.  Samoan tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs were a key part of their ascendance to leadership positions in their tribes.  There have been examples of tattooing seen in Ancient Egyptian culture, as well as China, Japan, India, Central, and South America, for spiritual or cultural purposes.  Essentially, tattoos have been a part of human society throughout all our records of civilisation, and in virtually every society can be found evidence of ancient skin art.

In modern Western civilisation, though, the practice of tattooing was actively discouraged and even forbidden by most Christian churches – the arrival of Christian missionaries in many Polynesian nations resulted in a decline of the ancient art form.  And in many cases, modern society still views tattooing with a lingering negativity, prompted by the associations of tattoos with the working classes, sailors, criminals, and gang culture.  However, perceptions are undergoing a revolution, and tattoos are steadily becoming more mainstream and acceptable.

One of the most traditional and recognisable styles of tattoo are the ‘old school’ images originally favoured by sailors.  Maritime tattoos have developed a language of their own; swallows on either side of the chest are said to represent the number of nautical miles the sailor has travelled, or – for the more suspicious among the ranks – that the sailor was to return home safely, as the swallow always returns to the same place to nest.  Perhaps the most well known of the artists creating these sailor tattoos was Sailor Jerry (also the name behind the delicious rum).  And his protégée?  Ed Hardy.

Large scale tattoo artist and name behind the clothing and accessories brand, Ed Hardy may have retired from tattooing, but his legacy lives on in everything from t-shirts to hair accessories.  His characteristic style combines American old school Sailor Jerry style images with Japanese aesthetics.  His tattoos might not be for everyone but undoubtedly Hardy’s prominence in popular culture exposes even the most sceptical members of society to tattoo as an art form in more ways than just skin.

Models – for the sake of argument – can be considered at the epitome of a society obsessed by looks.  Theoretically, the images in magazines are aspirational pillars of what we consider to be beautiful.  And look at any clothing website – perhaps those with a little ‘edge,’ but nothing less mainstream than Topshop or Urban Outfitters – and you will see models with tattoos.  If the fashion industry has foregone unblemished, perfect skin in favour of tattooed models, then perhaps we can consider that tattoos have began to rise beyond the level of just acceptable, and into that of the norm. 

When NOT to get a tattoo

The normalisation of tattoos in our culture will necessarily lead to more people deciding to permanently adorn their skin with images and artistry.  Some people choose a tattoo because it is meaningful to them.  Others consider it art, and that to have a tattoo is to have their own personal masterpiece to always carry around with them.  And some get tattoos as a joke, or because all their mates have got one – and if that makes you happy every time you look at it, then why not.  There are plenty of reasons why someone would choose to get a tattoo, and as long as it doesn’t offend anyone, who is anyone to judge.  That being said, there are certain times that it really is a bad idea to get a tattoo, no matter how well accepted they might have become in modern society.

When you’re drunk

Most reputable artists won’t tattoo you if you’ve even had one drink – not only is it illegal in a lot of places, but your blood thins when you’ve been drinking. More bleeding equals more scabbing, which leads to the colour fading and potentially messing up the tattoo.  Add to this the fact that your judgement is impaired when you’ve had a few too many, and you’re more likely to get something that you’ll regret for the rest of your life. 

When you’re on holiday

Now, this one comes with a few provisos; it really does entirely depend on where you are.  Getting a tattoo on your travels could be an exciting memento of your trip!  But there are a few things you need to watch out for. 

If you don’t speak the language, then be really careful when getting a tattoo.  Can the artist understand you well enough to know what you want?  Second goes for getting a word or phrase in a language you don’t understand.  It’s been said many times but finding out you’ve got ‘for free’ instead of ‘freedom’ on your back might change how you feel about your new ink...

Consider the hygiene of the shop that you’re getting the tattoo from.  Watch the artist break out the fresh needles from their packaging, use disposable gloves and cups for the ink, and make sure they sanitise their equipment in an autoclave.  Of course, cleanliness can be an issue anywhere in the world, but be particularly aware when you’re away from home. 

Fresh tattoos take a lot of babying, you’ve got to be careful you don’t knock, pick, or scratch them, and keep them very clean, which might be difficult if you end up in the middle of nowhere with no running water! Swimming and sunbathing is also a big no-no with a new tattoo, so be aware of what you’re planning to do.

When it’s cheap

We all like a bargain, but particularly in the world of tattooing, price is quite often directly proportional to quality.  We’re not saying you have to spend thousands on that tiny love heart – in fact you’re probably getting scammed if you do – but if your mates brother’s friend is willing to tattoo you in his garage for a fiver, you’re probably not going to end up with something you’re happy with.  

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