The Advance of the Tattoo
In Pursuit of A Meaningful Existence
A cultural history of the meaning of tattoos and their recent mass adoption
Once considered a sign of primitivism, tattoos, sported by icons such as Janis Joplin, Ozzy Osborne and Memphis Depay, have undergone a radical change of image over the past century. Formerly the trademark of the prisoner, sailor or rebel, they are now popular across all walks of life. Beunders traces the cultural developments that led to the cult of body ink, arguing that this cult is synonymous with a society in which everyone becomes (briefly) famous and everything is art, even one’s own body.
Body ink was once seen as a characteristic of cultures without paper or books, an exotic adornment at the time of Thomas Cook. Cut to the present day — tattoos have long been out of fashion in the countries where we first came into contact with them; now they are more prevalent in the wealthy west. Spurred on by the global media, they are a sign of success and surplus and an increasing obsession with the body. As German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han noted, ‘The neo-liberal ideology of self-optimisation has gained religious, even fanatical features.’
Beunders argues that the First World War, which meant the death of ideals like the elite, truth and reality, was a pivotal point for rise of the tattoo. Reactionary futurism, Joseph Beuys’ idea of art as salvation and that every person was an artist, combined with Andy Warhol’s democratisation of art, led to their adoption. Tattoos are self-therapy and a message to the world. Whereas make up beautifies temporarily, permanent ink changes who you are. The individual becomes a curator and collector of their own body art. While body art, historically, has always connected man to nature and the gods, in our age of ‘turbo-capitalism’ the pain and symbolism that make getting a tattoo a spiritual and existential experience have come to represent our new expectations of life and the luxury to question its meaning.
Into his wide-ranging study, interspersed with brief interviews with tattoo-wearers, Beunders weaves a new history of popular culture. He delves into the world of the ‘illustrated person’, examining motives and explaining fashions. He considers individualism, collectivism, nihilism, status anxiety, fantasy, fetishes, the poison in inks, the risk of disease, addiction, and regret. As tattoos have become mainstream, the tattoo removal industry has seen exponential growth.
In essence, tattoos are a form of communication, an expression of love and commitment, or of belonging to a clan. Tattoos both conceal and reveal, reflecting both our need to hone our identities and our desire to tell stories.