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Why Is Tattooing a Mainstream Form of Self-Expression?


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 street 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?

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.  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.  In many ways, tattoos were the earliest of trends; and one that has survived for many hundreds of years - how many can claim that?  As techniques became safer and less painful over time, tattoos began to spread through society.  However, it wasn't until the 1960's 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.

Tattooing has gone from strength to strength, rising through the style ranks and growing in acceptability.  Parlors 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 seasons latest trends.  Even H&M gives a prime example having jumped on the bandwagon with their collaboration alongside football superstar David Beckham.


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.  My 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 normative accessory hasn't escaped this process.  This visual demonstration of successful individuals with ink has increased the acceptance of tattoos, as well as fueling 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 the underground begins to lose its charm and the individuality is diminished.  Even the custom artwork being inked in tattoo parlors around the world has often been inspired by the other tattoos seen in the media, or in the depths of internet forums.  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.  Picking trending tattoos can also have adverse effect on your look and personal style.  The key, much like fashion, to a great piece of body art, is developing a piece that truly represents you, your style and personality. 


The other trap people 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 worlds 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 stereo-typically 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 cuffs mean that you can never fully pull off true formal attire or a professional look?  The modern male or female with an open mind would probably instantly disagree, but convention argues otherwise.


It should be noted that the progression and interest in men's fashion have evolved to such an extent that a once individual look is now easily mimicked.  With every Tom, Dick and Harry walking down the street in their custom sneakers and personalized 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 seen artwork just for the purpose of being inked onto the skin of their latest client.  These designers are limited only by the imagination of the artist and the customer in a similarly methodical process to a designer embarking on anew menswear collection.  If you can, my advice would be to imagine a design in your head and there will be a tattoo artist out there ready to put your dream onto your skin.  So, I leave you with this question: Is this the only true way to ever be individual with your ink?

Mark