Those who don’t know tattoo history are happy to repeat it

Once edgy, now commonplace, tattoos are returning to their roots.

John Dyer By John Dyer

A Buddhist monk in Thailand with a sacred protective tattoo on his head. (Reuters)

Sailors do it. Polynesians do it. Hipsters from Los Angeles to Stockholm do it.

They all get tattoos.

But, of course, they all get tattoos for different reasons. And today those reasons reflect a mix of trends stemming from globalization: respect as well as ignorance of other cultures, a class-conscious sense of fashion and, overseas, a resurgence of interest in native traditions.

Latitude News decided to dig into the topic out of bald curiosity. We wondered if tattoos were as common elsewhere as in the U.S. and, if so, what people thought of them. They were questions people we interviewed in Allston, a Boston neighborhood (that’s affectionately called a student slum), were happy to address:

After some reporting, we discovered that lots of foreigners, like Americans, enjoy sitting for hours in a chair as someone pricks at their skin, painfully, with an inky needle. And their motivations are as muddled as ours.

From punk to professional

In the United States and Europe, a tattooing subculture developed in the 1970s as part of an alternative scene that took its cue from punk rock and other forms of pseudo-rebellion. Here’s a video that explains the history:

Since then, nearly everywhere, tattoos have become downright commonplace.

The Pew Center for the People and the Press a few years ago found that approximately 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 sported tattoos and that 70 percent of Millennials, or teenagers and young twentysomethings, have tattoos. (Evidently it’s becoming more common for the young not to listen to their parents.)

Internationally, body ink aficionados could circumnavigate the globe visiting tattoo conventions. Gatherings were scheduled in April throughout the U.S. and Europe in addition to Australia, Brazil, Canada and Nepal.

In the fad’s initial stages, which in the developed world coincided with the rise of so-called “me culture,” tattoo enthusiasts shirked the old-school anchors, mermaids and arrow-pierced-hearts that were once a mainstay of American working-class communities, said Margo DeMello, a tattoo scholar at Central New Mexico Community College who spoke to Latitude News.

Manhattan lawyers and Silicon Valley techies needed to distance themselves from longshoremen by rationalizing that they were getting tribal tattoos or Japanese yakuza symbols because they appreciated diversity. Many had no clue about the design’s origins, DeMello said.

“We construct these elaborate tattoo narratives to provide meaning to our tattoos, to make them seem acceptable, to make them seem deep and thought-out,” she said. “The irony of course is that the tattoos they were taking had already been wiped out in their native culture because of colonialism.”

In the former Soviet Union, DeMello said a similar phenomenon developed where tattoos become increasingly popular only so long as they didn’t resemble “prison tats,” a tradition among Russian inmates — documented in the film “The Mark of Cain” — that unsurprisingly signified a lower social status outside the region’s gulags. The Belarusian woman we met in Allston echoed this idea.

Today, the blockbuster film “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” has highlighted Sweden’s tattoo culture. The popular American reality television show “LA Ink” has birthed spin offs in Miami and New York. And, in perhaps the greatest sign of an alt-culture gone mainstream, there’s the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum that opened last year. The museum’s website notes that fans can donate their skin to the institution after they pass away. Yuck.

Back to the future via Tonga and Thailand

Now the future of tattoos appears to be…the past. In Asia, tattoo artists are springing up to reclaim ancient signs that have been stifled for more than a century. Writing in, Rodney Powell of Tonga explains how he’s resurrecting the art in the land where the word “tattoo” originates.

I began asking my parents, aunts and uncles, and other family members. The more I asked the more I realized that many of them knew traditional tattooing was once practiced, but preferred it not be resurrected because of Christian values. However, in my early days of tattooing I also encountered many Tongans eager to get tattooed and delve into that part of their history.

In Thailand, Buddhist monks draw protective tattoos on the bodies of the faithful at popular annual events, Reuters reported. The monks use 18-inch-long needles dabbed in snake venom, herbs and cigarette ash — a concoction that might put off American hipsters in skinny jeans, though the ceremonies are becoming increasingly popular among tourists. The tattoos often protect people from the animals they depict:

Crowds seethed through the temple grounds, with men roaring, hissing and screaming while imitating the creatures tattooed on their bodies, as if they had been possessed by them. One pecked towards the ground as if he was a chicken, others flung up their arms and danced.

In the US, we’re also hearkening back. These days, tribal tats are out of style. As an Allston passerby noted, updated versions of “classic American tattoos” — think anchors and mermaids — are now really, really cool.

DeMello the scholar, a 48-year-old who said her body is covered by tattoos, had a name for the trend: New School. “A lot people,” she said, “are finally moving away from the feeling that you need to get something non-Western.”

The voices you heard above belonged to Caroline Juhlin (44), Zac Burlingame (25), Patricia Bird (62), Anya Smolnikova (24) and John (26), who asked us not to use his last name. Audio produced by Jack Rodolico.

  • LMM77

    Great research, but “LA Ink” was a spin-off of “Miami Ink”