Why Tattoos Are So Popular

For many, it seems the body you're born with is no more than a blank canvas in need of decoration.

A bearded man with wrist tattoos fixes his bowtie.

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If it seems to you that you’ve lately been seeing tattoos everywhere and on nearly everyone, you’re not hallucinating. One of the best experts to ask about the flourishing trend may be Friday Jones, a prominent American tattoo artist with an elite worldwide clientele (“I love my oligarchs, here and in Europe — but we don’t talk politics.”) and a visceral passion for her art.

“Oh, the money is so easy these days. I feel guilty,” Jones gushed by phone when I found her in New Orleans, which is currently her American base. “I’ve been doing tattoos for 26 years. It’s amazing, watching the whole arc of the business.”

Me, I’m confused and conflicted, the blazing arc notwithstanding. Our as-they-come-into-this-world bodies are not beautiful enough? They need embellishment? Colorful drawings of capuchin monkeys, F-15 fighter jets, stern-faced moms?

For an increasing number of folks, the answer is yes. But why? To deal with depression, for one. Tattoos “remind us of what we’ve already been through … as well as the continued strength and hope that the future brings,” writes Sloane Solomon, who studied the subject for a report in Your Tango last year.

Tattoos are popular among those “who work in the gig economy, entrepreneurs.” It’s a statement about independence.

Inked magazine has likewise confirmed the link between depression and tattoos. But people also buy them just to be fashionable, Inked acknowledged. And to express creativity and to spread a message. I’m all in for creativity and messaging. On the other hand, the magazine has said that some people become ink addicts, in part because they enjoy the pain of the administering needles. I repeat: because they crave the pain. (And you wonder why I’m conflicted?)

My feeling — and to be fair, I plainly do not represent the millennial generation who, according to Friday Jones, sport tattoos as a sort of obligatory signage — I think it’s possible to marvel at the exquisite artistry of tattoos spread across a fleshy canvas while simultaneously recoiling at some of the more blatantly provocative imagery.

If you want to honor your favorite cousin or bird of prey or sports franchise, or even a disgraced former pol, aren’t there better ways? Ways you won’t regret when you’re 70 and can’t remember what it was about cousin Joey that once seemed so worth memorializing with an ode on your torso?

And another thing: Tattoos can be inconvenient, socially speaking. Even just a couple of naked wrestlers up on your neck might be thought, you know, unseemly in some neighborhoods. Deborah Rosenthal, a retired L.A. attorney now living in Nashville, is heavily inked in what is known as tribal style. “It was all very carefully placed so nobody could ever see it” in the workplace, she told me. “It’s a beautiful art form. But do you always want your choice of clothing impacted by your ink?”

One key caution: You must choose your “artist” carefully. When we spoke, Friday Jones emphasized that “scratchers” — minimally trained tattooists — can blunder badly. Her work, of course, is top-notch. Up to $5,000 for a major commission. (Among her celebrity clientele: Angelina Jolie, Aaron Neville, Penelope Cruz.) But maybe you’d be surprised by her more typical patron. “Today, tattoos are a luxury item,” she said. It’s popular among those “who work in the gig economy, entrepreneurs” who score big paychecks. Almost all have ink. It’s a statement about independence. It’s mainstream and upscale.

For millennials and others who may value innovation, there’s excitement around a new company called Endeavor Life Sciences that recently secured a patent for marrying DNA to tattoo ink. The upshot: body art that permanently bears the genetic code of another human, dead or alive. The product, called Everence, sells for $650 per kit. Imagine — someone else’s DNA forever writ onto your skin. It’s more than just about the head-spinning technology, the company’s founder told The New York Times. “It’s about the emotion.”

In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about trendspotters.

This article is featured in the March/April 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. Tattoos are basically advertisements that the wearer is mentally screwed up. Period.

    Think about those people who are heavily tattoo’ed:

    Bikers.
    Convicts.
    Porn Stars.
    UFC fighters.
    Poor people.
    Heavy Metal Rockers.

    Basically: Poor White Trash.

    The plus side, is that it helps me avoid people I wouldn’t want to know, do business with, or become friends with, in the same way that I would never date or even approach a woman who has freaky looking green or purple hair, or multiple piercings.

    And by the way, tattoos and piercings often go hand in hand. If I see a guy with a pierced earring, I know he’s messed up, and likely never held a normal job. But it’s fine by me if all these people want to irreversibly destroy their skin. It simply gives me a “heads-up” that they’re unstable and to stay away.

  2. I perceive all tattoos as ugly eyesores. No matter how skilled the artist who does them.

    That is my opinion, and we all have one, too. To anyone who labels me as “judgemental”, or”close-minded”, i would say the same of you for judging my choices.

    While its true that a high percent of millennials are getting them (along with a few GenX and Boomers desperately trying to appear as being still with it) the Zoomers are eshewing them in droves. So the another joke on the millennials in a another decade — when they just look old and stupid.

  3. For crying out loud, they’re tattoos, not brands. I have 4 tattoos and will have 5. Every single one has meaning to me; one isn’t a deep meaning, but still. I have one big one that’s at the bottoms of my back all the way up to the middle; it’s my first initial and my very best friend drew it for me, so it’s special. My second tattoo is the gastrointestinal cancer ribbon with the birthday and day of death of my dad(just recently); the third is a nod to the semicolon project, as I was hospitalized for suicidal plans and thoughts three years ago. My most recent is goofy; it’s a green gummy bear…they’re my favorite flavor. My last one will be the fibromyalgia ribbon, as I was diagnosed 2 years ago.
    Despite a lot of commenters thinking people get tattoos to impress other people, I think you really should know most of us couldn’t give a flying f$&k what you think about our tattoos. We didn’t get them for other people’s approval.

  4. Tattoos went away with the rise of civility. They were most popular among the savages. It is quite telling that they have reemerged just as Western Society has become decadent and entered a steep and obvious steep decline. The Roman Empire was brought down by barbarian invaders. Western culture will be undone by homegrown miscreants.

  5. Martha. When your situation with life changes you may find once very cool tattoos … with your own words “pretty freaking cool” ones wake up bad memories about past. So. It may be wise to take small ones, so that one can cover them. It may also be that one might not want to live the whole life in “artistic” way, or tell other people how expressive or creative one is with tattoos – the work speaks for itself.

  6. I do have a small tattoo on my deltoid of my arm. It is something that I have drawn and it is a representation of my life and spirit. I can appreciate the artistry put into tattoos. I do think small tattoos are acceptable and most definitely acceptable to hide scars. I think today’s society has gotten way out of control and much more shallow in a need of self expression, looking for acceptance, the look at me problem. The human body is a beautiful landscape that should not be littered with advertising and billboards like the highway is. I have seen some beautiful people that an abundance of ink have taken away from the true beauty. Keep it simple, keep it small, keep your beautiful skin.

  7. If one wants a tattoo have at it. Just remember as your lifestyle changes,
    so will your personal taste. Those who put tattoos on the back of the neck that they can’t see but make me look, think they’re cool. In reality, they won’t put it where they can see it, cause someone may criticize it and they might get their precious feelings hurt.

  8. To the above commenters,
    I myself am a millennial as you all call me. I am obviously not a millinial. But you wouldn’t know the difference. Personally, tattoos aren’t what you think they are. They are more than just “silly, skin ruining, taking my godly looks” things. They are a form of art, self-expression, and honestly pretty freaking cool.
    I have saved and spoken about the tattoos I would like to get. Both with my friends and family. My father views tattoos as trashy on women. As most men do. But he really can’t say much, he has tattooed himself but he also isn’t a good person so. And I really disagree with that. Honestly, women are hot. Tattoos make them more attractive. I encourage my friends, family, and girlfriend to be themselves and get tattoos if they’d like.

    So please, think again before you comment such sexist and invalid opinions. I’m sure you’re all old white guys so you’re probably quaking at the idea of a woman degrading you. Well, get over it and get used to it. Women are he future. And we all have tattoos.

  9. I do not understand tattoos at all. Why paint on the skin that God gave you. If you came into this world looking that way, you would be depressed for the rest of your life. Your parents made this beautiful baby and you decide to destroy this beautiful human with expensive ink?? I am disappointed in what this generation is doing to theselves. They are beginning to look freakish. Adam Levine is not helping.

  10. Tattoos on a person make no sense in my opinion. People with visible tattoos on their arms, neck, etc.., really looks bad. A full arm of tattoos looks ridiculous. Makes no sense,
    Now a young person or younger person in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s do look ojkay with tattoos. Once that person gets older or shows their age viable tattoos on someone look really bad.
    A man looks okay with tattoos. Same as above about age.
    Now a women Lois worse with tattoos. A good looking lady it ruins their looks. A average looking lady it ruins their look. Visible tattoos on a lady ruins them.
    Thing to note. A lots of jobs don’t want you having visible tattoos. You either need to wear long sleeves all year or don’t work there. Some businesses won’t hire you.
    No person should have any visible tattoos. Some tattoos that aren’t visible are fine but I don’t see the point

  11. IMO, tattoos take away from a person’s natural beauty; a deal breaker for me. I would not date nor marry a tattooed person.

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