Newly Inked Narratives: The Significance of Tattoos in the 21st Century

One of civilization’s most enduring practices is tattooing, originating over five-thousand years ago, it is curious then that tattooing is also one of society’s largest contradictions; a practice that has been both revered and stigmatized, even within the same culture. Tattoos are fascinating because they’re permanent markings that are always changing, their popularity and significance always in flux. ‘Modern tattoos’ (those ‘inked’ in the 21st century) especially stand in stark contrast with their counter-culture counterpart from the late 20th century. The catalyst for this change being that at the start of the 21st century, Western society experienced the death of its dominant narratives, leaving little in its place. A tattoo’s context shifts with each generation, and the only constant is that they become prevalent when society needs those bold, permanent markings; modern tattoos are bastions of stability and meaning in a society that has experienced a cataclysmic narrative collapse.

Originally written as part of my university degree in 2014, I have made some modifications and would like to post this essay now that the class has concluded, with my final grade confirmed.

Update – March 27th, 2015: This paper was featured at Ryerson University’s ARTeries 2015 conference. Making the work I do here slightly more legit, or at least noted. I’m considering posting my speech script (adapted so that it was more suitable for a talk) and PowerPoint. It was really nice to be chosen for that, as this is one of my favourite essays. The conference was a lot of fun, and it was nice to do something a bit more personal with what I do.

This essay will explain how the modern tattoo is neither counter-culture nor mainstream (as discussed by Heath and Potter in The Rebel Sell (2004)), and how it has become a way for a society that has never been so lost, to reclaim (as Taylor describes in The Malaise of Modernity (1991)) an authentic identity. While old stigmas remain, the symbolic act of tattooing has transformed to return stories, legacies, and even trust and community to people’s lives. Generation-Y (those born roughly between the early 1980’s to early 2000’s, which includes myself) in particular use tattoos as a way to cope with our social dysphoria.

To understand the tattoo’s current context, we must understand its basic history. The earliest known tattoos were worn somewhere between 7000 and 5000 BCE where they likely indicated group membership, and/ or done as a rite of passage (Isaacs 1051). In the beginning, tattoos were a way society denoted its members, and helped symbolically transition them through the key stages of life; effectively tattoos were part of that culture’s narrative (Lobell & Powell 41). A stark contrast to the Victorian-era’s relationship with tattoos, where they still denoted social status (to an extent), but not the stage of an individual’s life. They were a fad among the nobility, an expensive fashion accessory that could be easily concealed (Roberts 154). The reason why Victorian tattoos are rarely discussed (aside from that era’s impressive ability to masque its practices) is because the scarcity of tattoos ended abruptly. As Heath and Potter argue, the scarcity (real or artificial) of an item or practice makes it desirable (191). The electric needle created towards the end of the Victorian-era made tattooing easy and affordable, thus quickly becoming popular among soldiers, sailors, and other members of the lower-class (Roberts 154). Thereby immediately associating tattoos with people the ruling elite had no interest in being linked to. This caused the nobility to not only abandon the practice, but view tattoos as sign of deviance to the point where merely receiving one immediately made you deviant (154). This perception persists (largely) to this day as tattoos became not only associated with the lower-class, but also criminals and outlaws.

Late 1950’s counter-culture romanticised that outlaw element, and thus tattoos became a perfect form of anti-establishment rebellion (Heath & Potter 143). This is unfortunate, in that sociological research already associated tattoos with criminals and the mentally ill, and their use by counter-cultural revolutionaries did little to help that perception (Roberts 154). However by the 1980’s tattoos were viewed more as an artistic expression. “[Popular among] teenagers and college students, who have altered the reputation of tattooed people from that of criminals and labourers to that or artists and free thinkers.” (Kang & Jones 43). This makes sense in the context of Heath and Potter’s thesis, tattooing’s context changed with the counter-culture’s ideology. Tattoos were perfectly positioned to do so as they are creative, expressionist, and individualistic.  This is largely common knowledge and hardly worth discussing; except that as Generation-Y came of age and as we entered the 21st century, the tattoo’s social context radically changed independent of counter-cultural ideology. Arriving at a bizarre state where modern tattoos are neither counter-cultural, nor mainstream, and therefore cannot be explained as such.

The 21st century ‘modern tattoo’ is simultaneously too taboo to be mainstream, and too prevalent to be counter-cultural. A survey in 1989 reported that three percent of Americans had at least one tattoo, whereas a 2012 surveys reported that number has jumped to between ten and twenty percent (Roberts 159). When a recent survey polled only people under the age of twenty-five, twenty-eight percent of respondents said they had at least one tattoo (Kang & Jones 42). This trend is neither masculine nor feminine, a 2003 survey showed that men and women have tattoos in approximately the same proportion (43-44). The significance of these statistics is that as members of Generation-Y entered their teens and twenties, the prevalence of tattoos spiked to the point where they should be mainstream. Someone from Generation-Y cannot argue that having a tattoo is counter-cultural when one-in-four of their peers, and one-in-five members of the general public have one.

Yet despite their prevalence the social stigma remains, one which still holds significant weight. There is currently no legislation within the United States which prevents someone from being fired solely because they have a tattoo (Clark 68). The United States Supreme Court has rejected arguments that tattoos are protected under the First Amendment, not on religious or ethnic grounds (68-69). Companies often fire employees with tattoos because they conflict with the dress code, or are not appropriate to their corporate image (68). At the turn of the century studies showed that: “90 percent of campus recruiters looked negatively on tattoos. Despite evidence to the contrary, teenagers with tattoos are more likely to be perceived as gang members, drug users, dropouts, and troublemakers.” (Kang & Jones 46). People who have/ want tattoos are very aware of this, the vast majority of tattoos are still placed on easily-hidden parts of the body (Roberts 153). The stigma is even present within people with easily concealed tattoos (approximately 90 percent of tattooed people) who have chastised people with very visible tattoos; viewing the practice as deviant even while engaging with it themselves (163). This is despite the fact that tattoos are no longer primarily prevalent with the working class, the practice is most common among educated often-affluent middle-class people (153). At this point we must remember that due to their prevalence among the middle-class, tattoos are long past the point of being ‘positional goods’ (Heath & Potter 191).  The trend should have terminated long ago after the tattoo’s ‘exclusivity’ or at least the illusion of it has worn off, something which explains the rise and fall of other popular products. This is why modern tattoos are so important, because they cannot be explained as part of either a counter-cultural statement, or mainstream fad. Why then are tattoos so popular when they confer little to no social status, may actively hurt a person’s economic prospects, and are generally kept covered/ secret?

Taylor (inadvertently) explains why tattoos are important when he stated that the debate regarding the rise of subjectivist individuality (which would include tattoos) should not ask whether it is right or wrong, but instead interrogate why the debate exists in the first place. He argues that we should be asking what it means to have an ‘authentic identity’, one with meaning (79-80). One which recognizes that an identity cannot exist in a vacuum, you cannot shut out the world in order to ‘find yourself’ because the world’s impact on your being cannot be ignored. Where your identity is consistent with a clear set of values and desires, rather than fashionable trends. Taylor describes the ‘authentic self’ as one who has interrogated what truly makes them ‘tick’, not only as individuals, but how one needs to engage with those around them, and to perhaps retrieve a bit of ‘what was lost’ in an increasingly disassociated society.

This is where the modern tattoo gives us great insight, because they are in fact the product of a society that has lost its way. Tattooing’s history, effect, and process have transformed it into something unique. The modern tattoo is simultaneously a symptom of and coping-mechanism for individuals in search of their ‘authentic self’ in a ‘post-narrative society’.

The term ‘post-narrative’ refers to a state where the stories which traditionally governed and/ or guided our lives have collapsed from media saturation, the loss of tradition, and major events at the start of the 21st century. A post-narrative society loses the ability to wield its dominant narrative to move forward, and instead becomes trapped in the present; experiencing what Douglas Rushkoff (2013) refers to as ‘Present Shock’. The idea is worthy of an essay of its own, but the key points will be explained here because modern tattoos are closely entwined with the concept. Rushkoff’s thesis on post-narrativisim is that until the early 2000’s society was always looking ahead, while holding a sense of purpose and still experiencing closure. The world was never black and white, but there was a sense of purpose to our actions. “Today’s war was tomorrow’s liberation. Today’s suffering was tomorrow’s salvation. Today’s work was tomorrow’s reward.” (12). While the American Dream was never concrete, its presence gave society a sustained purpose and direction (13). We had our dominant narrative, we had our traditions, and we had generations that were born, grew, went to school, got a job, worked hard, got married, and reproduced to repeat the cycle.

However towards the turn of the century our obsession with the future became unwittingly fragile. We began to forsake and exploit the present in order to build tomorrow, and that worked so long as there was a tomorrow to build towards. “Business became strategy, career became a route to retirement, and global collaboration became brinksmanship. This all worked as long as we could focus on those charts where everything pointed up. But then the millennium actually came [without incident or fanfare]. And then the stock market crashed. And then down came the World Trade Centers, and the story really and truly broke.” (Rushkoff 17). Today’s war became uncertain, unclear, and unwinnable. Today’s suffering persisted. Today’s work was met with the loss of investment, retirement savings, and likely one’s job. On a smaller scale, social media and the 24/7 news cycle meant there were no more endings. Whereas the nightly news summarized the day’s important points and then ended, today’s news streams are literally present at our fingertips at all times (44). On the individual scale, Generation-Y has grown up without the benefit of any certainty that past generations were granted. Fifty percent will/ have seen their parents divorce (Ignatieff 93). Many members of Generation-Y finish college only to move back to their childhood homes; not only losing an important rite of passage, but regressing when they should be entering adulthood. The jobs Generation-Y holds today are not likely to last the rest of their lives, never mind last them through the end of next year. Their debt is at an all-time high, and as the middle-class shrinks fewer and fewer will own the space they live in.

The effects of this narrative collapse cannot be underestimated, as it impacts the fundamental way that we make sense of our lives. Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth (1988) warned that we were losing our cultural narratives, and the myths which taught generations upon generations. “It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, you can see its relevance to something in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you.” (2). Humans learn by applying new information to old; narratives are a tree upon which we graft new branches. This is not merely a poetic statement, but a cognitive fact (and a possible way to explain why people interpret objective facts in radically subjective ways). Neuroscience research explains that our reasoning capabilities require narratives. “It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and explaining.” (Rushkoff 13). This explains why mnemonic devices are so useful in remembering new information, we use our current memories to make sense of new ones. Narratives must be present if we are to make sense of the world, from the dominant cultural ones, to how we explain/ process what happens to us.

In the ancient world, tattoos accomplished several things: they were a sign of community membership, their application was ceremonious and significant, and often marked the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Campbell notes that our lost rites of passage have made it difficult for younger generations to understand how they fit into society (9). Curiously, he references some tribal rites of passage: “In primal societies, there are teeth knocked out, there are scarifications, there are circumcisions, there are all kinds of things done. So you don’t have your little baby body anymore, you’re something else completely.” (9) Campbell’s own account of growing up was a more painless change in trouser size, but consider his words and it becomes clear why people have turned to tattoos en masse. “Tattoos are now a symbol of belonging, or even a new Western rite of passage, rather than of rebellion.” (Isaacs 1052). Many young adults long for the old rites of passage, their tattoos inspired by that desire to break from the distanced culture of today and connect with a past ideal (Kang & Jones 45). A tattoo changes you, marks you, and helps you claim a moment in your life.

Some might argue that it’s narcissistic and/ or status-seeking to spend hundreds (if not thousands) on a marking to proclaim your individuality (Twenge and T. Campbell, 2009), but that argument ignores the important fact that all tattoos are symbols, and no symbol exists without context. A context bestowed by the society it exists within. This interplay is described by sociologist Michael Foucault as ‘discourse’, the act of our selves engaging with and articulating the world as it engages us in return (Armstrong 1). I have three tattoos, and each one requires the acknowledgement of a ‘significant other’ (Taylor 33) in order to convey their meaning. Alone they might be seen as interesting designs, but when someone recognizes them, my tattoos instantly make a statement about who I am, what I enjoy, and (to an extent) what I have endured. I have made friends who introduced themselves to me, solely because they recognized one. Taylor emphasizes that ‘authentic identity’ and ‘meaningful choice’ cannot exist without discourse, otherwise there is no point to having/ making them (37-38, 40-41). A tattoo’s design is laboured over, debated, and very deliberate. Tattoos have ‘real meaning’, they are ‘real choice’ because they are always engaged in and require discourse to exist.

The modern tattoo is a narrative, and its discourse valued even as society shifts. People are fully aware that they will change, that their tattoos they have might gradually seem irrelevant, but that is often the point. Tattoos are mementos of important eras in one’s life. During an interview one woman said she has a tattoo to commemorate her marriage. She knows it might end, but wants to remember that stage in her life (Kang & Jones 45). The value she places in that union remains with her tattoo, even if that union dissolves. Tattoos are sometimes a way of someone “reclaiming lost or violated parts of themselves – an especially important process for women healing from abuse or trauma.” (44-45). Even when tattoos carry traumatic narratives, the act of marking one’s body in a bold and permanent fashion is a statement. The trauma happened, the healing was long and difficult, and the tattoo becomes a marker of when you acknowledged that, honoured the struggle, and then pressed on. The history of the world’s impact on one’s self is carried within the modern tattoo.

One of my tattoos is from Square-Enix’s roleplaying game Final Fantasy XIII (2009). The marking is called a ‘l’Cie brand’, and is forced on people whose bodies and fate have been altered by the gods to serve their ends and complete a task. It evolves over time (mine is in the second-to-last stage) and upon completion punishes those who fail/ ignore that task with a fate worse than death. Final Fantasy XIII is about people who are branded, but learn to resist the gods who violated them, and ultimately use their brands against those oppressors to reclaim their bodies and decide their fate. That story helped me cope during one of the most difficult times in my life. To explain it briefly: seeing those characters face absolute violation, trauma, and despair, but find the strength to press on and reclaim their lives, saved mine. The tattoo on my back is modeled after Phèdre no Delaunay’s, a character in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart (2001). Phèdre became my first role model, because she taught me that you can be strong, and have dignity, while still embracing your (very powerful and complex) masochism. That tattoo marks the first time I ever felt that it was okay to be me. The phoenix on my chest? A metaphor for bipolar disorder. A reminder to my depressed self (who will see it every time she looks in the mirror) that the state is temporary; that we will rise again. The tattoos I hold derive from narratives created by others, which have helped me articulate and uncover aspects of my authentic self.

Born from the ashes of our past, they are forever a part of us. When Taylor wrote about our search for ‘authentic identity’ he stated: “… just because we no longer believe in the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being… We still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us.” (89). The common theme of every tattoo discussed thus far has not only commemorated a part of one’s history, but exists in relation to a place in society. Whether it be wife, survivor, masochist, media and myth enthusiast/ nerd, etc. Some view tattoos as a way to re-establish a sense of higher purpose, to resist the “spiritual emptiness” of modern society (Kang & Jones 45). People belonging to both mainstream and sub-cultural religions have tattoos based on their faith, marking their place within a ‘larger order’. The very act of being tattooed is to surrender your being, allowing society and that ‘higher order’ to mark and claim you. It is no coincidence that many practitioners of lifestyle BDSM view tattoos “as a lasting symbol of ownership.” (G. Brame, W. Brame, and Jacobs 325). An ultimate mark of submission.. “I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter… Only if I exist in a world in which [history, nature, others, citizenship, God] or something else matters crucially, can I define for myself an identity that is not trivial.” (Taylor 40-41). Every single example you have read does not exist in a vacuum. A tattoo does not shun the world around us; on the contrary- it grabs hold and makes it a part of our being.

They accomplish even more than that. A tattoo requires us to engage with the physical world in a way we usually do not. Receiving a tattoo is a painful process (even if the level of pain varies depending on where it is placed), and involves piercing the skin, which itself has a symbolic meaning. Patterson and Schroeder (2010) in their exploration of modern tattoo culture argue: “While we imagine skin as a definitive boundary between ourselves and the world outside, it is more a crossing point between various conditions. Skin is both inside and outside, facilitating movement between internal and external worlds.” (254). Tattoo ink rests just under the first few layers of skin, but not beneath it entirely. As the needle enters and deposits a small well of ink, it draws blood and produces an intense scratching sensation (G. Brame, W. Brame, and Jacobs 325). You hold your breath and lay still as the needle enters, breathe when the artist stops to wipe off blood and excess ink, and experience hours of pure physical pain and pleasure; as your skin is repeatedly punctured while your body pumps endorphins and adrenaline into your veins to compensate. One cannot help but feel alive as an abstract symbol is made real, as a machine brings pure ‘mechanical order’ to an ‘electric idea’ (McLuhan, 1964). More than that everyone is always aware of both a tattoo’s medium (inked flesh) and message (symbolism), a connection McLuhan argues has been lost in the present day (3). To see a tattoo is not only see its symbolism, but know that the subject chose to carry it with them always through a complex and painful process; the medium is the message, and tattooed flesh speaks volumes.

A tattoo requires us to reclaim something else that many argue has been lost: trust. Specifically trust in the tattoo artist. While you choose the tattoo’s placement and design (although often artists have their own input), you are required to trust the artist to an absolutely frightening degree. While receiving a tattoo is usually a paid exchange, it goes beyond handing money to a clerk in purchasing a pair of jeans. You not only engage in discourse with the artist (as you exchange ideas and discuss meaning), but physically present yourself to them. Someone you likely do not know very well, and trust them absolute with your being, as they penetrate and mark your flesh. Berman argues that modern society has eroded “reciprocity and trust” (44), while receiving a tattoo is the purest form of it. It is a terrifying process, to the point where many people bring friends for moral support not only when they receive the tattoo, but also to the consultation/s regarding it (Roberts 158). However your social circle cannot complete the process. Receiving a tattoo requires you to trust an ‘other’ with what we are encouraged to see as purely our own (Taylor 44). This is inspiring because while the fear you feel in trusting a relatively unknown person is present, so is the ability and willingness to take the risk regardless.

That is not to say that everyone within 21st Century Western society has tattoos for this reason, there are plenty of people whose tattoos are done on a whim, without much thought, and because they are trendy. With any practice, individuals will have their own reasons for engaging with it. However, those individual reasons would not make tattooing so prevalent; when 20% of a population has a tattoo there is some cultural force in play.

This force is ever-changing, and tattoos have represented everything from entering adulthood to being a vaguely-scandalous fashion accessory. Tattoos have meant many things to many people across many cultures. The only common theme is that tattoos surface when a culture needs them, and they reflect the inner-desires of those eras. Tattoos were recently a sign of counter-culture, but in mere decades their prevalence has increased to the point where it is impossible to consider them such today. Modern tattooing practice exploded in popularity as Generation-Y came of age, a generation that contends with unprecedented uncertainty and change within the personal, social, and global realms. Many are quick to judge this generation as embracing narcissism and superficiality, yet the modern tattoo tells a different story; in fact, it tells a million different stories. Stories of love and loss, trauma and triumph, of honouring the past as we make sense of our future. “To live is to be marked, to acquire the words of a story.” (Kingsolver, 1999). Tattoos are cultural symbols which do not exist in an individualistic vacuum, but instead help us engage with the world around us.

The mere act of receiving one is both a symbolic and physical process of breaking barriers we have built so strong, of placing trust in another and allowing them to help us articulate our authentic selves. So many have written about our malaise, our disenfranchisement, our loss of narrative- and in so doing have inadvertently argued what makes our tattoos so significant. Modern tattoos are not the solution, but they are what a tattoo will always be: a symbol. A sign that we have not forsaken our past, or each other. They say so much at a glance, at a time when the noise of modern life drowns out even our loudest voices. Tattoos are one thread of resistance among many against the effects of our post-narrative society. Even Rushkoff believes there is hope for Generation-Y, because while we have lost (or have never known) our cultural narrative, we are “improvising” new narratives and narrative forms (67). To put it another way: If we have lost the stories we need then we will become the new storytellers, and we are already inking our new narratives.

Works Cited

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Berman, Morris. Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. New York: WW Norton, 2007. Print.

Brame, Gloria, William Brame, and Jon Jacobs. Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance & Submission. Toronto: Villard Books, 1993. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1991. Print.

Carey, Jacqueline. Kushiel’s Dart. New York: Tor Fantasy, 2001. Print.

Clark, John R. “Tattoo You.” Air Medical Journal. 31.2 (2012): 68-69. Print.

Heath, Joseph, and Andrew Potter. The Rebel Sell: Why Culture Can’t be Jammed. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.

Ignatieff, Michael. The Rights Revolution. 2nd ed. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007. Print.

Isaacs, David. “Tattoos.” Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health. 48.1 (2012): 1051-1052. Print.

Miliann, Kang, and Katherine Jones. “Why do people get tattoos?” Contexts. 6.1 (2007): 42-47. Print.

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. Print.

Lobell, Jarrett, and Eric Powell. “Ancient Tattoos.” Archaeology Nov-Dec. 2013: 41-46. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Understanding Media.” The Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zigrone. 1964. New York: Basic Books, 1994. 149-179. Print.

Patterson, Maurice, and Schroeder, Jonathan. “Borderlines: Skin, tattoos, and consumer culture theory.” Marketing Theory. 10.3 (2010): 253-267. Print.

Roberts, Derek John. “Secret Ink: Tattoo’s Place in Contemporary American Culture.” The Journal of American Culture. 35.2 (2012): 153-165. Print.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Present Shock: When everything happens now. New York: Penguin Group, 2013. Print.

Square-Enix. Final Fantasy XIII. Square-Enix, 2009. Playstation 3.

Taylor, Charles. The Malaise of Modernity. 1999. Toronto: House of Amansi Press, 2003. Print.

Twenge, Jean M., and W. Keith Campbell. The Narcissism Epidemic. New York: Atria Paperback, 2013. Print.

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