People always say the same thing about tattoos

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News just in – tattooing is no longer the preserve of bikers, sailors and convicts. More than that, celebrities are getting tattoos. And women too. But hang on, haven’t we heard all this before?

“Tattooing is on increase: habit not confined to seamen only,” proclaims one headline, while a second article declares: “Tattoos are no longer the trophies of rockers, sailors, bikers…”

The first appeared in the New York Times in 1908, the second appeared on this website two years ago.

New York Times, 1908

The story – that tattooing has “entered the mainstream” – is just one of a number of tattoo tropes recycled relentlessly over the decades, suggests Dr Matt Lodder, art historian and tattoo expert at the University of Essex.

Others include:

  • Everybody seems to be getting tattooed, should we not be concerned?
  • Surprise at women, the young or the old getting a tattoo
  • The pain during a tattoo
  • The issue of regret at having a tattoo

In the late 19th Century, Princess Waldemar of Denmark’s tattoo was big news. As was the inked skin of Queen Olga of Greece, King Oscar of Sweden and the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. These were the celebrity figures of their day.

Modern day equivalents might include David Beckham, Cheryl Cole or David Dimbleby. Although the names, faces and places might change, the stories remain largely the same.

Tattooing is not uncommon - New York Times, 1893

Almost 20 years after the New York Times reported in 1876 how tattooing had taken hold and how women were amongst those getting tattooed, the same title reported how tattooing was no longer uncommon and how a number of aristocrats were getting “marked”.

Jump forward another two decades and the British title The Graphic was reporting, in 1917, how tattooing had entered society at large, via the sailor.

“Today,” says the author, “it is in full force.”

Tattooing is rage in London society - Milwaukee Sentinel, 1933

In 1933, the Milwaukee Sentinel broke the news that tattooing was all the rage in London. Conversations among the “smart set”, the Sentinel explained, ran thus: “How gorgeously divine my dear! Now you must really give me the address of your tattooer.”

The author notes such conversations were once heard about “the new hairdresser, or the new milliner”.

And then comes that now familiar line that “smart young women have taken up tattooing”.

Times 1958

A piece in The Times in 1958 reported how tattooing was “a fine art” for people “not excluding the ladies”.

A similar theme was taken up in 1964 by a magazine called Men in Danger, which again expressed surprise not only that women were getting tattoos but were making “men look like pikers (a gambler who only places small bets)”. The eyes of any doubters were drawn to an image of a young woman, and a tattoo which read “I love Elvis”.

Show to get under the skin - The Oregonian, 1979

In 1979, The Oregonian told readers how tattooing had leapt beyond the realms of “bikers, gangs and prisoners” and on to the skin of an “entirely different clientele”.

The Oregonian went on to tread familiar ground in 2013 with a report that “getting inked has become increasingly common in the western world in the past decade“.

Modern fashions in tattooing - Vanity Fair, 1926

“Once the mark of sailors and bikers, body art is now sought after by the fashion-hungry,” said the Observer in January 2011.

This line might ring a bell with (very) long-time readers of Vanity Fair, which told the world in 1926 that: “Tattooing has passed from the savage to the sailor, from the sailor to the landsman. It has since percolated through the entire social stratum; tattooing has received its credentials, and may now be found beneath many a tailored shirt.”

The Observer piece said the “burgeoning” tattoo scene was a “a long way from the stereotype of tattooing as the preserve of sailors and soldiers”. The article was keen to point out, however, that “tattoos were once popular with Victorian aristocrats and even, it was rumoured, the royal family”.

More than a rumour, in fact, as the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, was one of many European royals to be tattooed.

So what are we to make of all this?

The stories leave Dr Matt Lodder with a wry smile. Lodder compares media representations of tattooing with the film Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again.

“Sure, tattoos are not confined to sailors, bikers or convicts. My point is that they never have been. And strictly speaking, when the media says tattoos were ‘once associated with bikers and sailors’, that’s true – they have been associated, but by the media.

“It is like same old, same old,” says Lodder. “It is like, ‘Wow tattooing is the new big thing, it used to be like this but now it is like this.’

“But what I can’t quite work out is why that is the case, and why these myths persist. My working hypothesis is simply that if people can’t empathise with somebody who has a desire to mark their body then it comes as a surprise and they go, ‘Wow, that’s weird and strange and people are actually doing that.’

For Lodder it was strange when Cheryl Cole got a tattoo that the reaction was very similar to the tone of the New York Times in 1876.

Tattooing in NY. A visit paid to the artist - New York Times 1876

“It has to be pointed out that even though tattooing is popular, it is still kind of ‘dangerous’ in a way. There is a frisson of the counter-cultural, that tattooing is not hegemonic or sanctioned. It has never been morally safe, normative or accepted. It involves breaking the skin, of being touched by a stranger and of course there’s the permanence factor. If it was true that tattooing was everywhere, and staid and boring, there would be no articles about it.”

Established tattooists are happy to admit there is nothing particularly new in the phenomenon.

“Tattooing is not the new big thing,” says Naomi Reed, manager at London’s Frith Street Tattoos. “It has been around since the earliest civilisations. Everyone from all walks have life have been getting tattooed as long as we have tattoos recorded, from tribal leaders to the monarchy.

“Obviously tattooing was prevalent amongst sailors and the working classes but tattoos can be seen on different social groups the world over. Surprise at women getting tattooed is akin to being surprised at women wearing trousers or demanding an equal wage.”

But there are still those who argue that someone getting a tattoo can be an event worthy of remark, says Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and author of Skin: A Natural History.

“Tattooing is a subject of fascination because it was, for all intents and purposes, forbidden for centuries,” she says. “Added to the weight of the apparent biblical injunction against tattooing was the Victorian attitude that associated tattooing with the under-classes.

“So now tattooing still titillates because celebrities, sorority girls and accountants are now engaging in something that was previously forbidden and the province of gangsters and prostitutes.”

Originally published by the BBC News Magazine

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