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In the past century or so, tattoos have gone from being a mark of the outsider to a more socially accepted expression of self.


In today’s highly individualistic society, tattoos are an increasingly common mode of self-expression. In recent years they’ve moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream. Although their wider acceptance is a recent phenomenon, tattoos themselves are by no means novel. The oldest tattoos on record belong to a five and a half thousand year-old man discovered in the Alps. Anthropologists believe these tattoos, which consist of a series of dots and lines, were for healing because they were found on parts of the body afflicted with arthritis. Although using permanent ink as a remedy may seem far removed from artistic adornment, director of the Penn Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, Julian Siggers, says that this only hints at the wide range of purposes tattoos have served.

Julian Siggers: If you think of the body, it’s our first walking canvas, you know. It’s an obvious thing to decorate. For the Greeks and the Romans tattoos were a sign of slavery or a mark of punishment, but Herodotus, our first historian, also notes that many of Rome’s enemies like the Picts, the Gauls, the Celts, they were a source of enormous pride and a source of identity and prestige as well. So, it varies hugely across time and space.

Tim Pangburn: Yeah, at one point the term artist wasn’t used with tattooing.

Though he’s also a fine artist, Tim Pangburn makes his living running his own tattoo studio.

Pangburn: It kind of became a movement in the ’90s. Like, that was the thing to do. A hundred years ago it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t classically trained artists doing tattoos. It was like a craft. You would learn it and you would try to make a quick buck with it and that was the whole point of it. So, a hundred years ago? Yeah, I probably would’ve been painting ’cause I don’t think the lifestyle of tattooing back then would’ve appealed to me. It was a lot rougher in the old days.

And though tattoos used to be reserved for prisoners, sailors, and other social outcasts, they’re now so commonplace as to render them impotent as signals of rebellion.

Siggers: So many people were trying to do the same thing at the same time and actually in effect become the mainstream. I mean, it’s probably now more unusual for a 20 year-old not to have a tattoo than to have one.

And though many of today’s tattooed generation choose deeply meaningful designs, a growing number of the inked are interested solely in the aesthetic value of these permanent accessories.

Client: I am from Connecticut. I am not by any means trouble or really like a juvenile or anything so it was kind of like a tongue in cheek, funny thing and I just liked the design.

Client 2: So I just kind of like them ’cause I like, you know, kind of pretty looking art. It’s just a way of expressing yourself. It’s a way of kind of owning your own body in a sense.

Pangburn: I started getting tattooed just because I liked the imagery and I wanted a lot. I just wanted to have a lot of tattoos. You start kinda collecting after a while. Especially when you get a lot of tattoos you’ll start being like, “Oh, I have a piece from this guy and I have a piece from so and so.” Then it’s not just tattoo artists that do that. There’s a whole, like, culture of collectors that travel around and get tattooed by people.

AJC: You’re a gallery.

Jasmine Morrell: Yeah, you’re a walking gallery.

For tattoo shop owner Jasmine Morrell, tattooing is as satisfying as any fine art endeavor.

Morrell: I think part of it is intention. This is a beautifully crafted tattoo that I’m creating and I don’t want people to just look at the technical aspects of it. I want them to look at it, step back, and see that it’s not just another tattoo, but it’s a piece of art on this person’s body and that it belongs to that person’s body. It was for their body for that spot to be part of them.

Pangburn: Your body has kind of a natural movement to the way your muscles are positioned that kind of lends layout of a tattoo to a specific body part. Japanese tattooing is completely based in that. It’s completely based in form and flow and position on a body so it accents the natural contours of the body.

Morrell: I think studying anatomy is important for someone who wants to be a serious tattoo artist. I think it’s good to know how the body works and how the muscles work and also acknowledge that it’s not everyone’s body and you have to take into consideration that each person is going to have a different arm, different leg, a different back, so you need to get acquainted with that person and not just anatomy as we know it.

But locating the right position isn’t the only difficulty presented by a human canvas.

Pangburn: The biggest challenge with working on skin as a medium is the fact that over time it’s going to age and the pigment under the skin is gonna spread out and blur. That’s why when you see, like a, you know, 80 year-old guy with a bunch of tattoos, they’re all just like blobs. It’s because they were probably nice crisp tattoos when he was 22. Every tattoo at some point is gonna look like that. And, you know, when you get tattooed, you’re just kind of accepting of that.

But the nostalgia for a youthful tattoo is not confined to its bearer.

Morrell: It’s their tattoo, but it still reminds me of a time in my life. So, I could see someone else’s tattoo that I’ve done five years ago and remember where I was mentally, physically, how I was going about my practice. What are the things I’d change? What are the things I would never, never do again? I’m never unhappy with things I’ve seen in the past, I just see how I’ve changed or how I’ve improved or how things have come along.

Pangburn: As far as me needing that artistic growth, that’s absolutely necessary and any tattoo artist will say the same thing. Everybody wants to grow. Everybody wants to be better and that’s one of the reasons most people work in several mediums because when you switch back and forth between artistic mediums, it kinda brings a new perspective to the other ones when you go back to them.

Morrell: I do a lot of water coloring and I find a lot of similarities with technique and how I carry that out.

Tatooists are artists with a range of creative skills who, like all commissioned artists throughout history, must find a balance between the wishes of their client and their own personal artistic expression.

Pangburn: It’s not a hundred percent my artistic vision because I’m doing something for someone else. So it’s like they’re commissioning me for work. I work in a style that we call new school and it’s heavily based in illustration influenced by cartoons, comic books. It’s a kind of silly, a lot of times there’s, you know, goofy stuff going on, animals doing people things. It’s very lighthearted, fun imagery.

Morrell: A lot of people come to me with a basic idea and then they give me some sort of direction and tell me to just kinda do what feels right. I mean, they trust me. That’s always something that is very nice, but something that is very earned. And I never wanna break that bond.

And though the bond between tattooist and client may be transient, the results of their interaction become a uniquely permanent and poignant possession.

Siggers: There’s an interesting story of an anthropologist who actually was working in Borneo and had some traditional tattoos done on him and he comes back to the States and his house burns down. And he basically comes out of this house and he’s just wearing, you know, a pair of jeans and he suddenly realized the only possession he can really take with him is actually his tattoos, which is a really interesting way of looking at it. It’s a form of modification that is yours forever and grows old with you. It’s almost comforting.