“Um, I think they are in the New Age section.”
“Somewhere in the Cultural Studies section.”
“They are mixed in, it’s a tiny subsection.”
In this Manhattan Barnes & Noble, books on tattoos are not prominently displayed at the front, or anywhere, in the store. Employees, two of which have visible tattoos, make guesses and vaguely gesture in the general direction where they might be found.
It was easy to understand the confusion. The books were scattered in the “Cultural Studies” section (across from “New Age”), which in itself was an odd assortment of titles that didn’t deserve their own subheading. Titles like Tattoo Sourcebook, and 1000 Biker Tattoos, full of skulls and roses and images of generic tattoos one could find on the wall in any strip tattoo parlor in any city, were interspersed, seemingly at random, with books on food politics and urban voting and gangs and the big business of marijuana. There were personal memoirs of battles with drugs and some B-List celebrity work, like Kat von D’s Go Big or Go Home.
The book I sought, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide was not there. (If you have ever thought about getting your favorite literary quote tattooed on your body, this is a site and a book you should check out.) Overall it was not an impressive section for browsing or learning about tattoo history or current trends. It did give me a pretty good idea of how we tend to categorize someone who has tattoos: someone on the fringe; someone involved in gangs and crime and drugs; someone rebellious or political; a vegetarian; a locavore; and possibly a circus performer.
But I know from my time spent outside of this particular bookstore section that these characterizations are no longer true. Tattoos are everywhere. They are currently enjoying an artistic and pop culture renaissance, popping up on TV (A&E’s “Inked,” Spike TV’s “Ink Master,” TLC’s “Miami Ink,” and “LA Ink,” to name a few) in fashion spreads and on runways, on celebrities, moms, teens and even unwilling children.
If the runways of Paris are any indication, tattoos have even reached the pinnacle of inspiring some haute couture. The versatility of tattoos and the embrace of what once was the practice of sailors, pirates and bikers, was undeniable during the recent Paris fashion week. On January 22nd, Viktor and Rolf sent models with frizzed-out hair and covered faces in nude dresses with tattoo-inspired bows, birds, and cascades of fabric down the runway. The effect grounded and offered an edge to the otherwise ethereal ballerina feel of the collection. (Not so sure about that hairstyle, though.)
On another runway, bold graphics were seen in embroidered tops with detailed tattoo motifs in the Maison Martin Margiela show. The collection was wild and a very different approach to incorporating tattoos than Viktor and Rolf’s, but is regardless an affirmation of fashion’s embrace of the tattoo this season.
But what seemed hot and fresh on the runway is not a new trend. Tattoos are one of the oldest forms of self-embellishment. Otzi the Iceman, a natural mummy found in the Alps in 1991, who lived around 5300 BCE, is tattooed with 57 separate small dots that are believed to coincide with acupuncture points. (He is also the subject of one of Brad Pitt’s tattoos.) Some of the earliest tattoo traditions can be found in the South Pacific and Asia, where tattooing was common for both men and women for various reasons since ancient times. In Maori culture, warriors would tattoo their faces with their battle history to show their strength. In New Zealand, a matching pattern would be tattooed on both the head and body of soldiers, so that remains may be identified if the head were cut off during battle. But tattoos were not always a mark of strength or war. They could be a sign of matrimony or adulthood. In Fiji and in China, young women were often tattooed when they were married or reached puberty. Egyptians believed tattoos could protect women during their pregnancies and giving birth. And many cultures believed that tattoos would ensure a safe passage or better treatment in the afterlife. For more on the history of tattoos, check out Nicholas Efstathiou’s A Brief History of the Evolution of Tattoos.
And it really isn’t surprising that tattoos are experiencing such a resurgence and new level of artistic respect. The allure has long been there and technological advances in equipment and an increase in the number of tattoo artists with a background in fine art just mean that what once was an ancient and sometimes barbaric tradition, is better than ever. This is all despite what the sparse and stereotypical collection in Barnes & Noble may have you think. Fewer employers have rules against tattoos and many negative assumptions about tattooed individuals have decreased in the last twenty years. The people who get tattooed and their reasons for doing it are still just as varied as they have always been, maybe even more so now. It’s pretty clear we judge people more now for what they decide to get tattooed and where, than for the act itself. But there’s one thing that remains the same: tattoos are here to stay.
Viktor & Rolf Show: NY Magazine (http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/01/new-from-couture-valentino-viktor-rolf.html)
Maison Martin Margiela Show: Fashionista.com (http://fashionista.com/2014/01/margiela-couture-proves-that-fashions-obsession-with-tattoos-isnt-going-away/)
Cover Image: Viktor & Rolf show and BuzzFeed
Slaughterhouse-Five Tattoo: Tattolit