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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.

"It's not just a kid thing anymore," she said. "We see middle-class suburban women, doctors, lawyers. It's not specific to one group of people; it's everybody now. You see a lot of celebrities, rock stars, athletes with tattoos—and that kind of media really can drive our society."

Fauble notes that, in her experience, women are enjoying at least their fair share of tattoos. "If I had to guess," she said, "I would say maybe 60 percent of the tattoos being done are being done on women."

Myrna Armstrong's first tattoo study was on women, a group that included teachers, nurses, social workers, engineers, and business people. Armstrong called them "a wonderful group of people," who shared a fondness for their tattoos. "Most of them placed them in an area that they could control," Armstrong said, "so that if they didn't want to tell anybody they didn't have to. They knew that they had it and they could show to whomever they choose. They usually chose a design because it meant something to them, and most of them, a very high percentage, really liked them and have thought about doing another one."

Tattoos and Health—Buyer Beware?

The word tattoo evolved from the traditional process of applying ink to the body. A sharp object carries the ink on its pointed surface, and the artist uses an implement to hammer it repeatedly into the skin, driving in the ink. The noise made by this repeated tapping was heard as "tatu." This traditional process can be quite painful, and can involve health risks like hepatitis.

The image of the seedy tattoo parlor probably added to the stigma body art has traditionally faced. But as the tattoo clientele grows and evolves the facilities are changing, and some are more like art studios than the stereotypical seedy parlors. With so many shops opening, there are concerns that many are not meeting health standards.

The Alliance of Professional Tattooists is primarily an educational organization for artists, concerned with promoting safe health practices within the profession for both artists and consumers. "We're trying to work with authorities and put together a standardized test," Fauble said. "Anybody who wants to tattoo would have to pass the test, which would set nationwide standards for health and safety. We're trying to keep the industry clean and safe."

Myrna Armstrong agreed that such standards are needed, and long overdue. She points out the long hours of training required in Texas to become a nail technician or a hair stylist, both professions that require completion of a standards test. "Those procedures aren't invasive," Armstrong said, "why don't we require body artists, tattooists or piercers to have a body of knowledge? You can buy a kit for under 300 in Texas and you are in business. Anybody can pick it up, and we are not the exception."

Her advice: If you decide a tattoo is for you, by all means go for it—but be sure to do your homework as a consumer and patronize a reputable artist.