Since the mid-nineteenth century western tattooing was practiced entirely
outSide the institutional constraints of a professional art world. Tattoo
images tended to be relatively crude and highly conventionalized with death
symbols (skulls. grim reapers, and so forth). certain animals (especially
panthers. eagles. and snakes). pinup styled women. and military designs
predominant. The traditional clientele consisted of young men from
working-class backgrounds who tended to acqUire a number of small. unrelated.
badge-like designs with little thought to continuity of body
Practitioners were commonly from the same social
background as their clients. unassociated with the larger art world and
primarily motivated by economic gain. The basic skills involved in the tattoo
craft were typically acqUired through apprenticeship with established
tattooists and the dominant occupational values emphasized technical skill
rather than aesthetic qualities.
By the mid-twentieth century, tattooing was firmly established as a
definedly deViant practice in the public mind. Despite the short-lived
flirtation of European and American elites with tattooing. members of the
middle class saw it as a decorative cultural product dispensed by largely
unskilled and unhygienic practitioners from dingy shops in urban slums. Tattoo
consumers. in turn, were typically seen as being drawn from marginal. rootless.
and dangerously unconventional social groups. The tattoo was a symbolic
poke-in-the-eye directed at those who were law-abiding. hard-working.
family-oriented. and stable.
Since the mid-1960s. however. tattooing has undergone what some have
called a «renaissance.» Although a commercially-oriented craft structure
continues to dominate contemporary tattooing and the general public continues
to define it as a deviant activity. significant changes have been occurring
during the last two decades. Younger tattooists. frequently with university or
art school backgrounds and experience in traditional artistic media. have begun
to explore tattooing as a form of expression. For many. this exploration has
been motivated by dissatisfaction with the substance of conventional fine art
forms and the career limitations presented by the insular socio-occupational
world of artistic production.
Unlike the traditional tattooist. the younger artists emphasize creative
over economic values. speCialize in custom designedcommonly large-scale-tattoos
and are selective about the images they create and the clients withlon whom
they will work. Congruent with their background and aesthetic orientations. the
new tattoo artists draw images from diverse artistic sources. Fantasy/ science
fiction illustration. traditional Japanese styles. tribal designs. portraiture.
and abstract expressionism are major influences on contemporary. fine art
tattooing. The new tattooists are also involved in technical innovation.
experimenting with an expanded color spectrum. moving away from the traditional
hard-edged black outline and employing single-needle techniques which produce
highly detailed and fragile images.
As tattoo practitioners who define themselves as «artists» and present their
products as «art» have become more prominent. the larger art world has begun to
take notice of the medium. Tattooing is increasingly legitimated as the work is
shown in museums and gallery shows and subjected to critical discussion
byacademics and critics/agents of the traditional art world. The tattooists. as
a consequence. profit as their work comes to look like art. is displayed like
art, is discussed like art, and is bought and sold asart. Their social and
occupational status is enhanced. they enjoy greater control over their
worklives. and they encounter a new client pool with sophisticated aesthetic
tastes and sufficient disposable income to purchase extensive custom-designed
Similarly. the traditional designs of tribal cultures have had some impact
on contemporary western tattoo style. Drawn largely from the tattoo tradition
of Hawaiian. Maori, Samoan. and other Pacific Island cultures. this
«neo-tribal» stylistic form consists of solid black. commonly abstract, designs
that closely follow body contours.