Traditionally, the world of tattoos has been the reserve of societal outcasts. Bikers, runaways, criminal gangs and sailors all adopted this ancient art form as an important facet of their cultural identity.
However, the breakthrough into the mainstream has itself led to the rise of trends and themes within the world of tattoos. Many of the tattooed men and women on the streets of cities across the world use their bodies as a canvas for a particular style of body art. Despite a plethora of designs, is it really ever possible to obtain the individuality that a tattoo formerly offered when it was the reserve of societies underbelly?
FashionBeans sits in on the debate that has divided an industry…
A Brief History of Tattooing
The art of ink as we know it in the Western world has its roots in the freak show attended by spectators; eager to view tattooed natives brought back from the countries explorers had newly visited. Individuals such as Omai, the first Polynesian ambassador to England, amassed great wealth from being exhibited as a tattooed subset of men.
Soon the circus shows of the West started taking advantage of this opportunity; sailors began returning home from time spent in foreign lands with designs they had picked up from the natives. They told wild stories of captivity and forced tattooing at the hands of the natives, all to add to the mysticism of the tattoos on display.
Deckhands who showed proficiency with a needle would return to their home shores and set up shop tattooing the outcasts they used to belong to. In many ways, tattoos were the earliest example of a trend; and one that has survived for many hundreds of years – how many can claim that?
Tattoos in Popular Culture
It was at this time that the legendary Jerry Collins would start a revolution that would change the tattoo world forever. Sailor Jerry, as he was (and is) commonly known, strived for a higher professionalism amongst tattoo artists of the day. Jerry put measures in place to improve hygiene and safety standards, expanded the range of available colours and brought influences from the Orient to Western tattoo clientele.
Sailor Jerry was equally renowned for his exquisite artwork and, in particular, the clarity of his lines. In fact his designs are still used to this day on the clothes and designs of the now (in)famous Ed Hardy, Jerry’s protégé.
As techniques became safer (and less painful), tattoos began to spread through society. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that things really took off. Rock ‘n’ Roll was sweeping America and the emergent generations wanted to express itself and rebel against the establishment.
Tattoos were seen as a means of doing this, and when the great Janis Joplin revealed her first tattoo it gave fresh impetus to the tattoo revolution. Suddenly, young women felt they were able to go out and get tattoos, and it was no longer the reserve of sailors, criminals or even men.
Tattoos in Men’s Fashion
Since the days of Jerry, tattooing has gone from strength to strength, rising through the style ranks and growing in acceptability. Parlours are popping up across the high streets from north to south – no longer restricted to basements and alleyways – TV shows such as Miami Ink are making tattoos accessible to the general public, and punters are devouring them.
Even advertising and the world of fashion have embraced the tattoo revolution, with poster campaigns full of inked individuals splashed across billboards. A quick look at the latest lookbooks from the likes of Urban Outfitters, AllSaints, Zara and Topman reveals a plethora of tattooed models showing off the season’s latest trends.
H&M recently, and most famously, jumped on the bandwagon with their collaboration alongside football superstar David Beckham, making use of the tattooed body of a cultural and style icon for their new ‘bodywear’ line:
The Debate – Tattoos
Tattoos As A Form Of Individualism
A stroll down any high street today will reveal a multitude of different designs inked onto the skins of individuals from all walks of life. Our debate is no longer restricted to outsiders. With everyone from celebrities to stay-at-home mothers, doctors to bankers and beyond sporting tattoos both discreet and obvious; what has made the art of tattooing emerge from the darkness and become a mainstream form of self-expression?
Celebrities have been the driving force behind almost every significant development in fashion and culture over the past decade. The emergence of tattoos as a normative accessory hasn’t escaped this process. You would be hard pressed to switch on the TV or pick up a paper without seeing a celebrity flaunting their latest ‘tat’. Whether it be in the form of a star behind the ear or a full intricate sleeve, all manner of icons are going under the needle with the result of a shift in mainstream attitudes.
From Megan Fox to Rihanna, Johnny Depp to Justin Timberlake, it seems everyone is trying to get a piece of the action. And this very visual demonstration of successful individuals with ink has increased the acceptance of tattoos, as well as fuelling their popularity amongst us mere mortals.
However, the surge in popularity and acceptability of tattoos does come with its drawbacks. By becoming increasingly mainstream, this ancient art form of the underground begins to lose its charm and the individuality is diminished. Even the custom artwork being inked in tattoo parlours up and down the country has often been inspired by other tattoos seen in the media, or in the depths of Internet forums.
“If you want to be an individual, don’t get a tattoo. Every bugger’s got one these days.”
It could be argued that with so many going under the needle in order to achieve an individual look, the nonconformists are becoming the conformed. By following the latest tattoo trends in the glossy magazines, or being ‘inspired’ by a design you saw on your favourite artist/footballer/icon, the tattoo being crafted to demonstrate your unique outlook on life is in fact just making you look like all the other bodies modified by the power of ink.
Not only that, even though you wouldn’t necessarily associate such a personal art form with ‘trends’, there have been prominent themes develop within the tattoo industry over the past few decades. First came the Chinese symbols and tribal artwork, then the religion inspired/Jesus pieces à la Beckham, which have since moved on to half or full arm sleeves – again, perhaps something to do with Mr Beckham, and maybe even the popular TV show: Prison Break.
Currently, more traditional rockabilly and indie-type designs seem to be experiencing a resurgence. Swallows on your chest, stars, colourful neck/hand tattoos and the like have begun to ‘trend’ as well – ironic, as this is the antithesis of true rockabillies, whose beliefs and values are so ingrained into their very being that it is a way of life, NOT a style to which they adhere.
With all this in mind, much like blindly following fashion trends can ensure you instantly look like a Topman mannequin or a clone of every other guy walking down the street, picking trending tattoo styles can also have an adverse effect on your ‘look’ and personal style. Therefore the key, much like in fashion, to a great piece of body art, is developing a piece that truly represents you, your style and personality.
Pigeonholing Your Style
The other trap men can fall into is allowing their body art to pigeonhole their personal style. Once you have that swallow tattooed on the side of your neck, are you destined to forever be viewed as just another rockabilly yearning for the rock ‘n’ roll of yesteryear? Will Love and Hate scrawled across your knuckles just be seen as a move to intimidate like all the other bikers, rather than an expression of admiration for one of the world’s oldest art forms?
How will this mindset influence your personal style – whether consciously or sub-consciously? If you do have traditional indie-inspired tattoos, will you naturally gravitate towards pieces that society stereotypically associates with them, such as leather, Chelsea boots, black jeans etc? If you are not careful, you could completely narrow your perspective and be against trying anything new, which is a sure-fire way to ensure your personal style becomes stagnant.
Finally, on the subject of pigeonholing; does having body art peeking out from your shirt collar and/or cuffs mean that you can never fully pull off true formal attire or a professional look? The modern male with an open mind would probably instantly disagree, but convention argues otherwise:
The Final Word
While the ever expanding client base presents vast opportunities to the tattoo artists creating masterpieces, it also presents an opportunity for bad artists to exploit the naive first-timer. If you are looking to take the ultimate step in self-expression, make sure that you are getting your ink from the right artist, and remember, the unique design you choose today might be the standard outfit for everyone tomorrow, so pick something that truly represents YOU.
It should also be noted that the progression and interest in men’s fashion has evolved to such an extent that a once individual look is now easily mimicked (just take a look at our style icons series). With every Tom, Dick and Harry walking down the street in their custom sneakers and personalised up-cycled jeans, the world of tattoos provides the everyday male an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. People are now looking to the power of ink to express their individuality, with custom designs fashioned from the unique personality of the person going under the needle.
Tattoo artists around the world no longer restrain themselves to the flash artwork adorning the walls of their studios. They are now commonly seen drawing up never before seen artwork just for the purpose of being inked onto the skin of their latest client. These designs are limited only by the imagination of the artist and the customer in a similarly methodical process to a designer embarking on a new menswear collection.
If you can imagine the design in your head then there will be a tattoo artist out there ready to put your dream onto your skin. So, is this the only true way to ever be individual with your ink?
We want to hear your thoughts on everything to do with tattoos in the comments section below…