Note: This article is the second of a two-part series discussing tattoos. The first article took a micro-perspective and engaged more directly with the tattoo. This second article will take a macro-perspective and discuss the tattoo as a subject of wider cultural phenomena. It is the hope of the author that the articles give you a better understanding of how the tattoo is positioned both as a personal and cultural symbol.
During the tattoo renaissance in the later half of the 20th century, tattoos went through an artification process that transformed not just tattoo aesthetics but also how they were viewed. The process of artification refers to the “dynamic process of social change, through which new objects and practices emerge, by which relationships and institutions are transformed” (Shapiro & Heinich, 2012, p. 3). The artification of tattoos saw the adoption of modern styles and aesthetics, and contributed to the shift towards viewing tattoos as a form of art. It is thus unsurprising that tattoos have become more popular.
However, the tattoo as a product is a unique and even self-contradictory one. At first glance, tattoos tend not to resemble most others as consumers’ interaction with tattoos are not merely transactional. Unlike most shelf items, getting a tattoo involves the tattooee to varying degrees during the stages of planning, pre-session preparation and the tattooing itself. Tattoos hence resist commodification – but not all. Given the popularity of tattoos, it is also inevitable that tattoos have become a fashionable trend and can also be commodified products that are “cool” to get. These tattoos, while involving the tattooee at least during the session itself, do not feature the other stages of the process as heavily. In that light, these tattoos begin to take on the transactional nature of shelf items. This article aims to explicate these phenomena.
Tattoos as Art
The proliferation of contemporary tattoo culture can largely be traced back to the “tattoo renaissance” of the 1960s to 1970s. During that time, new styles of tattooing were brought into the tattoo world by the entrance of artists who were trained in the fine arts and/or had connections within fine art circles (Irwin, 2003; Kosut, 2014). Tattoo culture thus became increasingly popular in Western societies as the import of new techniques and aesthetics over the subsequent decades allowed the practice to appeal to a wider clientele. By the turn of the 20th-century, contemporary tattoo culture had become more prominent around the world (Irwin, 2003).
However, accruing cultural legitimacy would take more than popularity amongst the masses. That is, the cultural value of tattoos would benefit from recognition beyond the masses for its status as an art form to be cemented. Kosut (2014) explicates the development of tattoo artification through the involvement of particular cultural agents: cultural art institutions like museums, the media, and even tattooists themselves. Kosut argues that the tattoo-related exhibitions by institutions such as galleries and museums “inscribe the culture and practice with legitimacy, and new meanings begin to infuse the public imagination” (p. 143). Examples include Soho’s Drawing Centre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If a museum says it is art, then it must be art, right? Furthermore, following the popularity of tattoos post-renaissance, mainstream media introduced and popularised the ‘skin-as-canvas’ rhetoric, a process that positions tattoos as a form of “permanent art that adorns the ‘human canvas’” (p. 143), a clear shift away from the historical connection to crime and deviance. Thus, tattoos’ status as art comprise not only its cultural significance (recognised by museums) but also its aesthetic appeal (sought after by the public).
As highlighted by Skutlin (2019), elevation of tattoos as a form of art injected the “body-as-canvas” rhetoric in the media. Even today, the media accords tattoos high levels of visibility as many celebrities such as Rihanna and Angelina Jolie own them. Between bearing art and bearing deviance, the body has been clearly positioned as the former. This was further complemented by the adoption of new nomenclature within the industry. Tattoo “shops” became referred to as “tattoo studios” or “tattoo parlours”. In discussions between tattooist and client on tattoo design, one might also hear terms such as “line work”, “fine line”, “shading”, etc. Tattooists today are also “deliberate[ly] self-positioning” themselves as “tattoo artists” instead of just “tattooists” (Kosut, 2014, p. 146). Many are also unwilling to render an image that they had no creative role in producing (e.g. the client provides an image to be outlined), repeat designs they have done in the past, replicate or add on to another artist’s work; many also “specialise” in one or a few styles of tattoo design. These show that tattoo artists do not see themselves as mere suppliers of a tattoo service and take artistic pride in the work they produce.
The confluence of the above factors – the cultural legitimacy of institutions like museums, the influence of the media, and the tattoo artists’ self-positioning – resulted in the artification of tattoos that has distanced the practice from its historical associations.
The Tattoo Product
Tattoos as a product differ from most others as tattoos involve the client intimately in the process of construction. According to Kosut (2006), tattoos “invite a level of engagement because they become permanent additions to the self/body”. Involvement is split into three main stages: discussion on design, the actual tattooing, and post-session care. Hence, the tattoo as a product cannot be reduced to a shelf item and must instead be understood as a process. Realise that no one ever says that they want to buy a tattoo. To decide to get one is to commit to a long process of deliberation (over artist and design), prior preparation (alcohol and blood-thinning foods have to be avoided before the session), execution (enduring the pain), and caution (a fresh tattoo is technically a wound that is healing and can be easily damaged). This is in contrast to “commercialized and standardized products [that] usurp all creativity and individuality from the production and consumption process, resulting in a type of collective consumer alienation” (Kosut, 2006, p. 1042). Hence, the highly personal aspect of tattoos and their commitment requirement remove the homogenising nature of fashion cultures by transferring agency to consumers when involving them in creation and production. As Kosut puts it, the tattooee is “witness, participant, and life-long bearer” (p. 1041). (This noted, there are tattoos that are “commercialized and standardized products”. As the next subsection will illustrate in greater detail, these commodified tattoos deploy extremely conventional aesthetics/symbols/imagery such as tribal aesthetics, a tattoo of an idol’s face, or Mandarin characters.)
Another unique aspect of the tattoo product is its resistance towards the transitory nature of fashion styles. Kosut posits that consumerism encourages short-lived novelty in products. As a particular fad becomes fashionable, it is subsequently picked up by a majority of society (or at least the group it is targeted at), at which point it quickly loses its ‘cool factor’ and is made obsolete by yet another new fad. Thus, to Kosut, the permanence of tattoos, coupled with the involvement of the tattooee, renders it an “ironic fad” quite unlike the fleeting fads that come and go so easily. This permanence is somewhat a double-edged sword; it is the reason some find tattoos appealing and yet is also a deterrent factor for those who are unsure about making that commitment.
However, tattoos as an “ironic fad” are ironic in more than one way. While tattoos differ from other products in the ways mentioned above, that analysis represents only one group of tattooees: those who get tattoos with thorough meanings. Skin is a medium that lends itself easily to commercialisation of bodily or cultural wants. Furthermore, conventional symbols, aesthetics or even inspirations are easily replicated. As Kosut notes, the visibility of tattoos in popular culture, mediated by the embracement of tattoos by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Rihanna, has marketed them as “cool” products. The result – a desire to get tattoos that is derived from idolisation or simply for novelty reasons – is ironic as tattoos become a sign of “trendiness and conformity, rather than rebellion and transgression” (p. 1038). Furthermore, many tattoo studios offer ‘flash’ designs – small simple designs that customers can choose from a catalogue and which tattooists can do in under half an hour. Some tattoo shops even offer these exclusively. According to Pritchard (2001), getting tattoos for superficial reasons brings into question the “definition and ‘control’ of cultural objects and knowledge” as it “submits that ‘form’ to a more general economy of meaning and exchange,” and thus “[makes] it amenable to appropriation” (p. 28). Classic examples of this are tribal patterns during the 90s, or even the plethora of floral patterns of today. The uniqueness of an aesthetic (and most things generally) diminishes when it becomes common. In that vein, popularity is but a stepping stone to passé and being overrated.
Beyond mainstream tattoo culture, commodification also dilutes the cultural significance of traditional tattoo forms. A clear example of this is the Māori tā moko tattoo. Many tourists flock to New Zealand to get authentic versions of tā moko, which has prompted the creation of alternative designs. While arguably still inspired by the original traditional aesthetics, these revamped designs represent a commodification of a cultural practice (Bell, 2014).
From the perspective of a wider cultural phenomenon, two distinct yet perhaps inter-linked discourses about tattoos have developed over the years. Tattoos today are becoming more visible across various platforms and hence are becoming increasingly recognised as an art form. As they become more appealing and more accessible, they can also be viewed as unique economic products. They are unique as they tend to defy the transactional nature of most on-the-shelf products, instead involving the tattooee (i.e. the consumer) intimately in a deliberate process. That said, we cannot paint all tattoos with the same brush (or in this case might I say needle?) as ‘flash’ designs are also extremely popular and easily replicated, thus possibly situating tattoos as commodified products as well.
Header and feature image by Kina on Unsplash.
About the author:
Sven is a second-year sociology major from FASS who will one day find the value in his degree.
Bell, C. (2014). Cultural memory inscribed in the skin: Symbols of nation as tattoo art in New Zealand. Kultura (Skopje), 4(6), 43-50. http://journals.cultcenter.net/index.php/culture/article/view/47
Irwin, K. (2003). Saints and sinners: Elite tattoo collectors and tattooists as positive and negative deviants. Sociological Spectrum, 23(1), 27-57. https://doi.org/10.1080/02732170309206
Kosut, M. (2006). An ironic fad: The commodification and consumption of tattoos. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39(6), 1035-1048. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00333.x
Kosut, M. (2014). The Artification of tattoo: Transformations within a cultural Field. Cultural Sociology, 8(2), 142-158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1749975513494877
Pritchard, S. (2001). An Essential Marking: Maori Tattooing and the Properties of Identity. Theory, Culture & Society, 18(4), 27-45. https://doi.org/10.1177/02632760122051869
Shapiro, R., & Heinich, N. (2012). When is Artifification? Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive). Vol. 0, Article 9. https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/liberalarts_contempaesthetics/vol0/iss4/9/
Skutlin, J. (2019). Fashioning Tattooed Bodies: An Exploration of Japan’s Tattoo Stigma. Asia Pacific Perspectives, 16(1), 4-33. https://www.usfca.edu/center-asia-pacific/perspectives/v16n1/skutlin