Tattoos Move from Taboo to Trendy, Oct 04 | Tattoos Move from Taboo to Trendy


Rebecca Barjonah’s back tattoo, Robert Schenk’s shoulder tattoos. Photographs by Mark Paul Petrick © 2004.

Tattoos aren’t just for burly bikers anymore. You see them everywhere these days. On hip teen icons like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, on supermodels Gisele and Stephanie Seymour, on the buff bodies of athletes David Beckham and Dennis Rodman, on Hollywood sweethearts Jennifer Anniston and Drew Barrymore, and peeking from the tops of scores of college kids’ low-rise Gap jeans.

“While tattoos were once the domain of sailors and ne’er do wells, you’re now likely to see a tattooed bride or altar boy,” says Rachel Weingarten, a noted beauty/trends and pop culture expert in New York City and the president of GTK Marketing Group. Weingarten notes that the once taboo beauty marks are becoming increasingly accepted—and coveted—as style symbols by mainstream America.

Indeed, according to the Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT), an estimated 39 million Americans currently sport at least one tattoo. Of those, reports a 2003 Harris poll, 13 percent are between the ages of 18 to 24, 36 percent are between ages 25 to 29, and 28 percent are between ages 30 to 39. An estimated 60 percent of the tattooed are women. Even “Butterfly Art Barbie” bared her belly to the latest beauty trend (that is, until enraged parents demanded the precocious doll be recalled from shelves).

So why are the young, hip and, lately, female in such a rush to get inked?

“I’d say a lot of it is media exposure,” says Steve Barjonah, of Crossroads Tattoo in Coralville. Barjonah has 17 years of professional experience under his tattoo gun, and he’s witnessed the societal shift firsthand.

He’s got a point (pardon the pun). With an entire Hollywood alphabet of tattooed stars, from Christina Aguilera to Rob Zombie, the students of style reading their primers—Glamour, Rolling Stone, GQ, etc.—can’t help but be influenced by sleek-looking photos of superstars with signature body art.

But Barjonah feels the trend is—pardon another pun—more than just skin-deep. “I also think our society is becoming more accepting of people’s individualities and uniqueness, “ he says, “and tattoos are a good way to express that. Most people who come in just want some kind of decoration for themselves, and it’s usually a very personal statement.”

Personal statement is certainly what motivated Erin Skipper, 26, of Fairfield, who owns five tattoos. “I never understood people that just walked into a tattoo parlor and picked something from the wall,” says Skipper. “For me, it’s more of an intimate expression, an artistic expression. Plus I’m part Native American [Tlingit tribe], and it was standard for our tribe to have tattoos for personal totems and tribal clan.”

Skipper also hails from the West Coast, where body art permeates the culture. “It’s sort of standard there,” says Skipper, “Even some of my teachers in high school had tattoos. They’re pretty common.”

Donna O’Sullivan, 45, of Fairfield, also touts personal statement as the impetus that led to her own “dancing sun” tattoo. “I wanted it to be a personal expression,” she said. “It really had to mean something to me on some level.”

O’Sullivan got her tattoo on a lark four years ago, when she and her then 15-year-old daughter peeked inside a body art parlor in Puerto Rico. O’Sullivan felt an immediate resonance with a design on the wall and had the image inked in. To this day, she’s pleased with the decision. “When I look at it and see it, I feel happy,” she says.

Another reason tattoos have grown from taboo to trendy is that they’re just plain safer to get these days. “The quality of the artistry has improved dramatically,” says Barjonah, “as has the safety of it. Walking into a shop years ago, you were lucky if the person knew anything about safety and sanitation procedures. Now they’re to be expected.”

Barjonah recommends that tattoo-shoppers look for studios that are state-inspected and that use approved methods of sterilization, as Crossroads does. “All the instruments should be autoclave sterilized,” says Barjonah, referring to the sterilizing procedure that combines steam heat and pressure to kill living organisms and bacteria on tattoo instruments. “And when you start up to do a new procedure, everything [from needles to the color pigment caps] should be brand new.”

An old tattoo proverb reads: “Good work ain’t cheap, and cheap work ain’t good.” Skipper was fortunate enough to receive most of her ink work as gifts from friends skilled in the artistry of tattooing, but for the rest of us, it’s going to cost a little more.

“If you average it out, most of ours run anywhere from 60 to 150 dollars,” says Barjonah, depending upon size, intricacy, coloring, etc. In general, the cost of getting a tattoo varies from parlor to parlor. Popular artists will charge more, while inexperienced artists will be cheaper. Artists usually charge a flat rate for their stock designs—the “flash” pieces you see hanging on the walls—whereas custom work tends to be charged on a per hour basis, anywhere from $50 to $300/hour, depending upon the artist.

You could also spend a fair amount of time, if you’re investing in a large or highly intricate piece. “A full back piece can take 35 to 60 or more hours with multiple sessions,” says Barjonah. On the other hand, smaller pieces can take as little as five minutes. On average, a tattoo will take 30 minutes to one and a half hours.

Then there’s that pesky pain factor. Tattoos are created by injecting color pigments into small holes made in the dermis, a deep layer of the skin. The procedure is typically performed with an electric tattoo machine with needles that puncture the skin by rapidly moving up and down, almost like a sewing machine.

But most body art fans are willing to suffer a little for fashion. “Relatively speaking, I didn’t mind it at all,” says O’Sullivan, whose tattoo is at the base of her spine, an area filled with many sensitive nerve endings close to the skin. “There’s an intensity to it, but I kind of went into a meditative state. There’s definitely a prickling sensation, but it’s nothing unbearable.”

Others aren’t so eager to go under the gun. Says Weingarten, “I’m the kind of person who can’t get through a bottle of shampoo till the end, since I lose interest, so I can’t imagine inking anything of permanence into my flesh.” Indeed, tattoo-removal can be a painful and arduous process—and, according to Weingarten, one that may produce less than desirable results.

“[Actors] Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie both disguised their inked remembrances to lost loves to bizarre effect,” says Weingarten. “Depp’s former ode to Winona now reads ‘Wino forever’ and Angelina’s dragon now sits atop slightly puckered flesh. My advice to young celebs in love? Say it with flowers!”

Fortunately, for the epidermically and/or financially squeamish, there are “temp-toos,” temporary designs that, when applied to the skin, convincingly mimic the appearance of genuine tattoos. Temp-toos can be purchased for as little as 25 cents at bubble gum machines across the nation. They not only provide wearers with an inexpensive, pain-free means to wear body art, but they also allow commitment-phobes to swap designs frequently.

To tattoo or not to tattoo? Whether ’tis nobler to wear a cheap but pretty peel-and-stick, to invest in a glorious, inked-in design that has personal meaning for you, or to forgo the trend altogether and revel in your God-given, gleaming skin—that seems to be the question.

I wonder if Shakespeare had an inked-in quill beneath his smock?