As in any industry, the world is evolving and changing. In the tattoo realm, it is no different. The art form has been practiced in many cultures for centuries but has undergone sociogenesis, the evolution of societies or a particular society, community, or social unit. Of course, the traditions have changed over the centuries, but now the phenomenon is prevalent with more and more Americans finding themselves under the needle, and it’s not to disappoint mom or dad.
A brief history for you; tattoos were brought to Western civilization between the 16th and 18th centuries, from European voyages to Polynesia and other countries. At that time, tattooing was unknown, misunderstood, and seemed savage. Around the 1920s, things changed a bit. Tattooing was adopted by American servicemen, who literally wore their patriotism on their sleeve. At this time, there wasn’t much stigma about tattoos, harsh judgments came through and tattoo reputation was critically tarnished by the 1950s. At this time, criminals began using tattoos as a means of relaying their crimes and antipathy to society. Flash to the 1970s, tattooing had a sort of rebirth. Bikers and gang members found an affinity for the art. Women in the 70s began tattooing themselves in power and solidarity, seeking equality and strength, while supporting art. Eventually, band members we all love started showing off their tattoos, and society chilled out a bit...Thank you, Janis Joplin. And, it wasn’t until 1976 that tattooing culture took another revolutionary change with the emergence of the first prominent African-American Tattoo artist- Jacci Gresham. Then, the 80s and 90s were sort of a renaissance for tattoo culture. In 1982, Don Ed Hardy released the first tattoo publication which kicked off a wave of publications and meetups. In time this turned into conventions that culminated in the 90s, with tattooing becoming more of a pop fad and the art becoming a bit wilder, year after year. In 2005, shows like “Inked” and “Ink Masters” started to air, giving the public an eye into what began as a tattoo drama, but nowadays, these shows portray a correct level of what tattooing is.
According to a 2019 poll, 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo. The art form has kept its original values intact but has adapted to the high demand in society for beautiful, permanent art. People are expressing inner emotion, thought, love for culture, support for artists, and so many different ideas in their ink. Tattoos draw the attention of others, not only through expressive colors and pictures, but also leave spectators questioning who someone might be or why they chose the art on their bodies. As we know, some tattoos have some deeper meaning, but some are just beautiful pieces of artwork on someone's skin to admire and show off forever. It’s not rebellion Mom, it’s art!
Today, tattoo artists are much more specialized in specific types of art, which makes their work unique and frequently pricey, but worth the wait and every cent. With the emergence of social media, clients can research artists all over the world who specialize in the art they seek. Social media provides both negative and positive sides to tattoo culture. To stay busy booking clients, artists must use outlets such as Instagram and Facebook. Instagram can bring the exact right client and tattoo artist together, but on the flip side, clients see tattoos on Instagram that have been embellished with filters, they see someone doing “the same thing as you” but cheaper…
This begs the question, how do cultural developments in media and social media affect Tattoo artists today? Well, we asked the owner of Logan Square Tattoo, Tattooer, Gifford Kasen and he said…
"I began my career as a tattoo artist in the fall of 2004, apprenticing before the first tattoo reality show aired in early 2005. It seemed to me that everything that I knew changed after shows like Miami Ink and Ink Master aired. The biggest change was who was beginning to be tattooed. The reality shows opened a door for new guests, high school-aged, college-aged to working-class adults, and soccer moms. I’ll admit, I never took the time to watch many of these shows because they were drama-based. It was set up as a reality TV drama. What’s the drama in this tattoo shop? The drama isn’t really what I care about. I care mostly about the ecosystem of the tattoo world. It was strange to me that they took a really dope shop (Miami Ink) that is very highly regarded in the tattoo industry and still is, but they didn't focus on that in the show and to me, it trivialized the work they were doing. These shows opened doors to tattooing being accessible, which is great, but didn’t convey the correct level of what tattooing actually is.
Nowadays, tv shows like Ink Master focus on the skill set of really great artists. It’s still entertainment but there is more of a push for next-level stuff with a realistic portrayal of what it is like to get a tattoo. Instead of guests coming into the studio thinking they can get a tattoo sleeve for 300 bucks in twenty minutes, guests understand they may need to wait for two years for the artist and sleeve they want, so that’s been a game changer.
It's certainly a big shift! It’s not always easy for me to talk to clients about the process, but the media and social media have made it clear that it's going to be expensive and getting a tattoo is going to take some time. Now, clients are excited to be on the books for someone totally booked up. It used to be that guests would come into a shop asking for something “off the wall of flash” and it would be up to the artist to talk the guest into getting a custom tattoo. Now, because of social media and apps like Instagram, it is expected by the client that everyone is a custom tattooer who specializes in at least one thing; they don’t understand that many artists are multifaceted. The expectation from the average client is higher and more demanding, which can be complicated when marketing and running a studio. I can do a wide variety of tattoo styles and I absolutely don’t mind doing walk-in tattoos, or providing a service for the studio when I have an hour free; however, I don't post most of those tattoos on Instagram. I care more on Instagram about portraying a truthful story about the artistic vision I have as a tattooer.
I find that a handful of tattooers are now more specialized in one thing rather than being multifaceted artists; i.e, a tattooer who only learned to tattoo blackwork and no color. I wouldn’t say all of these "specialized" tattooers aren't necessarily at a disadvantage, it depends on the tattooer and their actual artistic ability. The tattooer that learns only what is currently popular may be at a real disadvantage when there is a social shift and they have only established themselves in a unique fad. They may be scrounging for work if or when that fad goes away. The artist who has their own unique vision and has built a clientele off of that vision, is probably used to struggling and that hard work will make it easier in the future to keep or even re-gain a steady clientele. They learned how to build a clientele and put their work in front of people who want it and now, because of Instagram, it's simpler to get your art into the hands of those clients who want it. I do not worry.
When it comes to Instagram, it’s a wild game changer. Now I have to consider what photos to post on Instagram, what will get followers to my page and my studio’s page, and work on making all the images look great (without enhancements) amongst many other things. As a studio owner I provide the team with a professional camera, a ring light, and a Macbook Pro to take upscale photos for Instagram and to keep our Instagram page looking professional; as well as the artist's personal pages. I’m not one who worries much about how many likes I get and the Instagram algorithm is constantly changing, but some clients care to only go to artists with the most likes. It is challenging to keep up with the normal things tattooers and studio owners have to keep up with (drawing, tattooing, scheduling, supply ordering, consulting, booking, events) while now keeping social media in the mix; it can be exhausting.
I suppose we will see what the future of the tattoo industry holds. For now, I’m focusing on my values as a tattooer, studio owner, and the ecosystem of my studio; I look forward to the next challenge that comes my way."