The tattooist is. on the one hand. a commercial artist. a worker involved in
exercising (ideally) a unique skill while creating (again. ideally) for profit
a product that contains elements of beauty-however that is defined by the
various interactants in the commercial exchange. Understanding the problems and
rewards encountered by the tattooist as he or she moves through the career
process aids in understanding the experience of commercial artists generally.
At the same time. the tattooist is involved in proViding a decorative service;
his or her occupational activity is. to a large degree. shaped by subordination
to the demands of a particular clientele. The tattooist's ability to ascertain
client characteristics. define client needs. develop viable commercial
relationships. and control clients' demands is similar to that encountered in a
Wide variety of service work from providing medical care to supplying
While examining the work and experience
of the tattooist helps to enlarge our general understanding of commercial art
activities and service work. the unique features of tattooing imbue it with a
special sociological interest. Tattooing is. in Hughes's (l971c) term. a
«bastard institution» supplying what is still a semi-legitimate service/product
to a limited but increasingly diverse «taste public:' A diachronic analysis of
tattooing demonstrates that services and products have social careers. Distinct
stages and factors can be identified-alterations in the cultural context. the
incursion of producers with established social legitimacy. changes in the
status of the members of the consuming group. and so forth-that characterize
and shape the product's career. In its movement from being Widely regarded as a
tarnished good (Shover. 1975) to becoming a marginally accepted form of
artistic decoration. the tattoo and the social world that surrounds its
creation and consumption have undergone significant change. Support personnel
have arisen. technological innovations have been made. practioner/merchants
have organized. various aesthetic perspectives and related schools have
coalesced. and agents of social control have altered or. in some cases.
abandoned their regulatory efforts.
This change in the cultural and organizational context has been paralleled
by significant alterations in the careers and occupational experience of
tattooists. An enlarged and diversified client pool has increased tattooists'
occupational opportunities and enhanced their financial security. As tattooing
has begun to enjoy a modest level of legitimacy within the larger art world.
tattooists' positive self-definitions as creative artists and/or skilled
technicians have been bolstered and enhanced. In turn. the technical and
artistic quality of the tattoos being produced has risen significantly.
The previous chapter examined the tattoo experience of the consumer while
this discussion has focused on the career and occupational experience of the
tattoo practioner. We turn now to enter the tattoo studio. the immediate
interactional setting in which the major actors meet and the tattoo encounter
takes place. It is here that the tattooist employs his or her acquired social
skills. places customers into definitional categories. and attempts to exercise
control over the commercial and creative exchange. In turn. the tattooee
attempts to communicate his or her desires and construct an understanding of
the unfamiliar and often anxiety-producing situation. Like all social settings
in which the collective action of cultural production is played out in a
structure of unequal power and knowledge. the situated interaction of the
tattoo event displays as much conflict as it does cooperation. This is what
makes it especially interesting and sOCiologically significant.