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Is the Tattoo Over? AskMen Investigates

As Nick Kyrgios rather grumpily collected his runner-up trophy at Wimbledon this summer, style watchers must have been paying close attention — not to his reversed baseball cap or the basketball shirt, those gentle rebuffs to the All England Lawn Tennis Club, but to his arms, covered in tattoos. If every other sport has embraced some ink, tennis — with its etiquette, propriety and dress codes — has long fought back. But now it’s slowly catching up: if 34% of FIFA World Cup football players in 2018 had visible tattoos, now 9% of the top 100 tennis players do too, up from virtually nothing a decade before.

But then some one in five of the UK population now has a tattoo, according to research by Statista. That’s 30% of all 25 to 39-year-olds; over one in five 40 to 59-year-olds do too; and close to one in 10 over 60s, the older generation most likely to still associate tattoos with the criminal and outcast stereotypes. A 2019 IPSOS poll recorded that almost one in three Americans now have at least one tattoo.

Another survey from the same year even suggests that in some professions — fashion design, beauty, hairdressing — there is a strong preference among employers that their employees do have a tattoo rather than don’t (unlike medicine, law, politics and, surprisingly, the military). Aspirational fashion magazine covers are replete with body ink. The likes of Chaim Macklev, the tattoo artist behind the Dots To Lines studio in Berlin (dotstolines.com), now collaborates with corporate giants like Mercedes and Jagermeister. And it’s got to mean something that companies like Cynosure and Palomar are being tipped as great investment opportunities. They’re tattoo removal systems.

Have We Reached Peak Tattoo?

“It’s remarkable how tattooing has changed since I started out in the late 90s. Both in terms of the levels of interest from all sorts of people through to the type of work you see now. From super fine lines to photo-realism, it’s of a kind you wouldn’t have thought possible on skin just a few years ago,” says Bodie O’Leary, artist/owner at High Society Tattoo in Margate, UK (highsocietytattoo.co.uk). “Tattoos are everywhere and the industry has become very commercial — you have tattooists engraving cars for Lexus now, so it’s all obviously crossed over in the mainstream. Of course, from my point of view I can never have too much work.”

So has the tattoo become just another consumer choice, shorn of their one-time exciting association with rebellion, with the underworld and individuality? Have, perhaps, we reached peak tattoo? Those who led the tattoo’s renaissance are hitting 50 in the middle of this decade. Has the pendulum swung, with their children looking on perplexed and somewhat out of love with the idea of tattoos themselves? Even those who fell for a certain type of tattoo at the peak of its popularity — Chinese symbols, Celtic bands, 50s retro — may be regretful now.

“Sure there will definitely be generational cycles — our kids most likely will not be drawn to tattoos. And people who treat tattoos as a wearable, or fashion, represent perhaps the least ‘sustainable’ way to look at tattoos. But really tattoos aren’t going anywhere. After all, tattooing pre-dates mono-atheism,” argues Morgan English, archivist and founder of Tattrx.com, a digital gallery exploring avant-garde tattooing, and board member of the Center for Tattoo History and Culture.

“What we’re seeing is more people happy to express themselves using tattoos and there being fewer barriers to them doing so — in terms of employment, for example,” she adds. “Really, their long history considered, tattoos have only really been de-stigmatised very recently. They’ve been roped off for most people for a few hundred years. And that process of de-stigmatisation is still on-going. Yes, the market is incredibly saturated now, but that’s good because tattoos should be for everyone who wants one.”

A Change of Attitude

Indeed, tattoos have been creeping into the mainstream in western society for longer than popular culture suggests, even if they tended to be inked where clothes would cover them. Within a century of Captain James Cook’s 18th century voyages to the South Pacific and the discovery of tattooed Polynesian islanders — ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ — getting inked had become something that appealed to those enjoying the higher stations in life: King Edward VII, George V and Tsar Nicholas all had tattoos. Winston Churchill had a tattoo. So did his mother. ‘The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine’ wrote of “queer stories of a queer craze” for tattoos, and that was in 1898. It was later that tattoos went more underground as they came to be embraced by the working classes, soldiers, sailors and prisoners. The dithering-in-the-middle classes somewhat shunned them.

But if claims that getting inked is an act of individualism seem increasingly fragile, where there is still a shift is towards more individualistic, progressive tattoo choices. Tattoo ubiquity has given rise to a new confidence, reckons Macklev, a self-described computer guy who didn’t get his own first tattoo until he was 30 and then spent a few years getting his head around the idea of being “a tattooed person.”

“What we’re finding is not that tattoos have peaked but that because they’re much more visible people are more open-minded about them,” he argues. “You’re not only seeing more people who have never had tattoos committing to really big pieces, but also people who you might never expect to get a tattoo — not the typical ‘rebels’, but people who are settled and more conservative in the rest of their lives — get one too. People who never wanted one are now more ready to see tattoos in the light of art, as contemporary and modern, rather than the traditional styles [of tattoo] that have dominated for so long.”

Morgan notes increased interest in more esoteric tattoo techniques — the revival of almost extinct tattoo practices like stick and poke, for example — but also of ingenious tattoo styles that borrow the texture and aesthetic from other forms of media, such as painting or cross-stitching, or those that glow under ultraviolet light. More tattooists now come not from the traditional apprentice background but from one of formal training in art and design. Peak tattoo might be better understood as prominent or prevailing tattoo, with demand sufficient to sustain an estimated 10% growth in the industry year on year for the last 20 years.

Take, for example, the tattoos that adorn the body of the industrial design superstar Karim Rashid — 23 in all. They’re highly graphic, to his own design, and rather “like luggage or passport stamps,” he laughs. “I developed the language of my [tattoo] icons over a period of 35 years. It was a way of marking my work, of denoting my creative input [such that] they started to become an integrated part of my life, even to the point of tattooing myself twice a year with them, each different symbol done in a different city.”

The Future of the Tattoo

Ever the futurist, Rashid reckons that, far from appearing old hat, tattooing will continue to evolve, through art and into technology. He’s looking forward to the advent of what he dubs the ‘smartoo’, a genome chip-implanted intelligent tattoo that will store personal information, passport, banking info and so on, give medical diagnostics, serve as your house-keys and even talk to other ‘smartoos’ within a certain range. These may be some years away — and some will be thankful for that — but Rashid says they point to the ability of an ancient tradition to be relevant to the times.

“No, I just don’t get the sense that tattoos are about to tip over some edge into being uncool. Some scenes might give up on them, in the way hipsters gave up on their beards and started growing mullets, but the world of tattooing is just too broad now,” says Bodie O’Leary. “People get caught up in this idea that a tattoo has to ‘make sense’ or have meaning, or that it singles you out in some way. But it’s just imagery. It’s just something you like, for you."

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