Why Has the Popularity of Tattoos Grown?

woman with tattoos sitting outside during the day

 Joao Silas/Unsplash

It feels like tattoos are everywhere these days, but they've actually been around for ages—so how did they become so popular? Dating back to the Neolithic period and indigenous tribes, tattooing was originally practiced for myriad reasons, including during religious ceremonies and as a rite of passage. While we don't have an exact date for the first tattoos, Dr. David Lane, an assistant professor at Illinois State University who has done extensive research on tattooing, tells us that tattooing has been around for at least 5000 years. "The oldest human remains we've recovered have tattoos on them," he says.

Today, slow and steady, social acceptance has helped the tattooing industry grow larger and larger. From the talent behind today's top tattooists to the ink and the tools that make their artwork possible, the sky is the limit for people who want their bodies to be a canvas.

In the Beginning...

Funny enough, explorer Captain James Cook is credited for both the words "taboo" and "tattoo." His sailing voyage around the world led him to the Tahitian and Polynesian islands where tattooing was openly practiced. Inscribing the language into his diary, he introduced both words to the English language after his travels in 1769. The word "tattoo," specifically, has been used ever since to define a permanent mark made by either ingraining pigments or creating scars. In modern days, however, "scarification" is used for the latter instead of the word tattoo.

Despite the common narrative, tattoos were not always considered so taboo. Lane says, "when we think of this stigma, we also have to remember that there's also a long history of 'elites' getting tattooed," pointing out that a tattoo shop existed as early as the late 1800s on Jermyn Street in London, the heart of the high-end fashion district, and that Winston Churchill and his mother were both inked (yes, really).

Different cultures have different dominating ideas around tattooing that influence how body art is perceived. For example, Lane points out that, during Japan's Edo Period, "tattooing was used almost exclusively for criminals and prisoners, and it was intentionally designed to mark people as outsiders." In America, several factors contributed to the stigma against tattoos. According to Lane, the Nazis use of tattoos during World War II to "put numbers on bodies for bureaucratic record-keeping," the dominating force of the Protestant Ethic with its ideas about "purity of the body," and the portrayal of tattooed criminals in both scientific research and media all helped influenced the overarching attitude. Fear of disease became another major factor: "In the 1950s we became increasingly medicalized, and this created a couple tattoo bans in states as well as cities in the United States," says Lane.

Changing Times

Given the rich history, perhaps it's not surprising that tattoos have become more and more popular once again. In part, this is because they are being worn by public figures such as celebrities, athletes, and people within the fashion industry. But another important aspect to acknowledge is the activism and awareness-building done by the community of tattoo artists. According to Lane, tattooers with art degrees such as Cliff Raven and Ed Hardy, "were largely responsible for revamping some of the public imagery of tattooing in the '60s and '70s. In fact, initial tattoo conventions were actually about trying to create a kind of professional image." Later, tattooers would be at the forefront of the movement to legalize tattooing where it had been outlawed decades earlier, pushing for regulation that would make the practice safe once again. "[Tattooers were like] we need licenses, we need this to be a safe practice, we need some oversight. They were key in that conversation as a group of stakeholders, getting it to be legal again."

"The 1970s was really a time period when we started seeing celebrities that were visibly tattooed," Lane says, citing major stars such as Cher, Peter Fonda, and Janis Joplin as among the first to display their ink. "In a sense I think we were seeing more of it or more different kinds of bodies; NFL players started getting tattooed on their arms, basketball players, baseball players. As a public, we can see more and more kinds of people with them."

We know now that not everyone who has them is a criminal or someone with a shady moral compass, which unfortunately, used to be a common stereotype. Tattoos are finally being recognized as a form of self-expression, and design styles have expanded from American traditional tattoos to custom Japanese sleeves, to full body works of elaborate art that could tempt even those most wary of the machine into getting tattooed.

Before You Leap

Planning your next, or even first tattoo is always fun. For some, it's even difficult to look at a tattoo magazine without getting inspired for another design. Since tattoos are so addictive, it's even more important that you have a plan after you start getting tattooed. Otherwise, you may end up with more than you really want, or designs you later regret.

It goes without saying, but it's also wise to consider your future before opting for a hand or face tattoo, as it could otherwise prohibit employment should a prospective employer have a policy regarding visible tattoos.

When carefully considered, tattoos can be a wonderful tool of self-expression. "We live in a world where when you go from city to city or town to town or state to state, the kind of consumption that's out there is increasingly similar. There's a McDonald's, a Best Buy, a Michael's Arts and Crafts, and so on. Tattooing isn't like that, there aren't big chains of tattooing, and it provides us with an opportunity to create individuality, it's a way to challenge the fact that the places we visit and consume things are increasingly becoming similar," says Lane.

Up next, check out these tattoo ideas as inspiration for your next ink session.

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