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.


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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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