Tattoos—From Taboo to Mainstream

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 11, 2002

Tattooing has been around for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest forms of art, laden with as many different meanings as there are global cultures.

In some societies, tattoos are indelible marks of tribe or of status. They can signify a difficult passage to adulthood, or identify the owner's skills. One of the most popular reasons must surely be one of the oldest—body art adds to the beauty of the wearer.

In the West, tattoos are generally regarded as forms of individual expression and creativity. While they celebrate individuality, they still identify their wearers as members of a tribe—the community of those who celebrate body art.

That community continues to grow in size and social acceptance.

Skin art is the subject of Taboo: Tattoo airing on the National Geographic Channel in the United States on Monday, October 14.

It's difficult to quantify the rapid evolution of the tattoo industry, but everyone seems to agree that the last decade has seen explosive growth. The evidence is in plain view on any city street or televised sporting event. Myrna Armstrong, a professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, offers a few figures. Armstrong has been studying tattoos for over a decade. "In Texas," she said, "we began tattoo studio registrations in 1994. Over the first ten months we registered 137 studios. Eight years later, the number of studios registered is well over 600."

In the United States, tattoos once identified their owners as perhaps a bit unsavory. The art was often associated with rowdy sailors or prisoners, but has now become a part of mainstream American culture.

"I did an adolescent study in a high school," said Armstrong, "60 percent of the tattooed were 'A' and 'B' students. I said, 'hey, this isn't something being done by a deviant group. It's broad, it's mainstream.'"

"From my perspective it's gone through such a renaissance of popularity," Armstrong continued, "from sort of a taboo thing to what I would call mainstream society as far as prevalence. Part of it is the social support. It's not only tattooed people supporting tattooed friends; in a college study we found a lot of support for body art and piercing, even among those who did not have it. So people say to us, 'why not?'"

Diane Bell, an anthropologist at George Washington University, has also seen attitudes towards skin art change on that campus. Featured on the National Geographic Television documentary Taboo: Tattoos, she said, "When I see students with these designs on their bodies I think what it would have been like 20 years ago. For a woman to have done that, it would have marked her out as a 'bad girl.' Somehow or other we've shifted right out of that. Now it's 'my body, my choice.'"

Who is Getting Tattooed?

Erin Fauble, of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, is quick to point out that not only young people are feeding the tattoo boom.

Continued on Next Page >>


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