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The Tattoo Movement: From Subculture to Pop Culture

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January 20, 2017 in Offbeat


Tattoos now seem to be all the rage in the vivid media landscape, but it was not always so. In the past, the act of decorating one’s body was scrutinized by the mainstream, shrouded in the veil of taboo. And if we take a trip down memory lane, and descend into the primordial mists of recorded history, we will find that tattoos existed even then. It is safe to say that it has been an integral part of human culture and rituals for thousands of years. But how did tattoos manage to break the shackles of condemnation and become the norm?

A thin skin

If you have any doubts that tattoos bursting into popular culture, look around you. The signs of obsession are visible in many places: TV shows about tattoo industry, Facebook groups with millions of followers, and inked people who parade themselves in the street. Go to any beach and pool, and you will see a whole parade of individuals who showcase their adorned bodies. Today, it is not unheard of for a salesman or an accountant to sport a tattoo beneath their fancy clothes.

On the other hand, a few decades ago, tattoos were common, but only among certain groups which did not have an overly good reputation or were straight out notorious: motorcycle gangs, inmates, sailors, and others. In 2005, the mainstream culture still held prejudices against tattoos, but then, a sudden change took place. Many people argue that “Miami Ink”, the first popular tattoo TV show, shifted the prevailing notions forever.

People finally had the chance to see the inside a tattoo studio on a major TV network, and the reality show spread like wildfire across the globe. It aired in 160 countries and apart from a plethora of spin-offs, it also paved the way for a whole new perception of tattoos.  They were not seen as a spawn of infamy subculture, an alien, or defiling presence in the immaculate garden of pop culture. 

Girl with tattoo on her arm

Inky omens

Pop culture was soon all over tattoos and realized that this underworld was not that scary after all. It was seen in a more favorable light, as a fresh way to express yourself. Tattoo artists became celebrities and everyone wanted to get marked by them. And when mainstream media icons proudly displayed their tattoos in public, the revolution was complete, or so people thought. Namely, their popularity has reached new heights with a surge in social media.

The buzz-generating machinery has launched tattoos into the stratosphere and with armies measured in millions of followers, there could be no stopping the new masters of the universe. They have attained access to the immortal pantheon of our culture and tattoos have been transformed into a truly global phenomenon, a cultural norm. Hence, getting tattoos in Sydney, where I am from, is no longer an uphill battle, and you can easily find an amazing artist to do your sleeve.

Many studios have become places of legend, where even the wildest of dreams come true. Consequently, it is estimated that around one-third of American adults possess at least one tattoo. Not surprisingly, the tattoo industry itself is one of the fastest-growing retail sectors today.  At the same time, with the omnipresence of this cultural leviathan, the gap between a tattoo artist and a fan has been narrowed. We have yet to see where this road will take us, but it will likely be full of exciting twists and turns.

The big bang

Tattoos have gained a huge momentum and have indeed exploded onto the pop culture scene, and the fuse was lit by TV shows and social media. They were game-changers for the tattoo industry, and as a result, tattoos can now be found on both the mummified remains of prehistoric humans and your neighbors next door. This unlikely story once again shows the initial wariness of mainstream culture to accept trends outside its comfort zone, and the radical shift that occurs after a breakthrough moment. Fueled by the internet, the tattoo movement will continue to evolve and undoubtedly surprise us.

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