The largest and most inescapable fashion trend of the past decade is the growing ubiquity of the tattoo. Once thought of as an untouchable and grotesque reality of tribesman, wayward sailors or anti-social marauders, tattoos have quickly become one of the most ironic statements from generations requiring deceptive individuality.
And people everywhere are pissing all over its historical legacy to be part of the unified mob.
One of the earliest known humans found to be inked out is named Ötzi the Iceman. Per administered carbon dating he is guessed to have lived around 5,300 years ago. Some say his age is about half of the time it would take for a fast food cheeseburger to be fully digested through a healthy adult’s tract, though as of right now that rumor is still unconfirmed.
What historians do know for sure is thousands of years ago humans were tough as nails. Getting tattooed even then, biologists would guess, still hurt like a somomabitch. Research also reinforces the act was highly regarded by individual adoration and was considered to be mainly for those with lifelong purpose to exemplify their hardships, tribulations and courage.
Multiple mummified bodies like Ötzi’s have also surfaced from other past eras with righteously adorned skin. It was a worldwide phenomenon. The prevalence of it supports all conclusive efforts to present the traditions as history defines it to be. The art of tattooing is old. The art of tattooing is significant.
When I received my first tattoo I was only 12 hours into my 18th birthday. I had made a promise to myself years before to get a tattoo when I could. It stemmed from a childhood love affair with the counter-cultural aspect of the trade. Becoming an adult meant I was going to read a bunch of store-bought porn, smoke a ridiculous amount of dimly-flavored tube cigars and get a tattoo loosely based off of a forearm piece I’d seen on Eminem. Because I could.
It was going to be a grand ol’ birthday indeed.
Finding the right tattoo shop at the time was a fairly hefty inconvenience. It was a few months after the turn of the century and there were only a handful of reputable shops in Denver and the surrounding area. I happened upon a place called Mr. Chills, a now-defunct studio off of East Colfax near The Bluebird Theater. I’d heard its name once before on the bus, that was the extent of my research.
I showed up to the basic shop with a general plan of attack, no real reference to the art itself and a head full of mango-tinged cigar smoke. I was a walk-in client – something mostly unheard of in the current culture of custom tattooing and schedule making – and met with an apprentice named Shyne, or Rain, or something to that effect. I asked her for a piece of vertical barbed wire running from my scrawny wrist bone to an even scrawnier elbow knob; she hated the ridiculous idea.
After a brief 5-minute conversation, so did I.
So we both perused the books of flash and the cards adoring every wall in the shop. There were fancy and naked fairy elves, wood textured gnomes, fire-blasted cartoon characters and a million abstract armbands. It was as close to the ‘90s as one could get. Most of the horrendous choosings were still in style.
I settled on a vertical tribal armband on my forearm. Why? Because I’m fucking stupid, but also because I'm the shit and I wanted people to know it, that’s why. 18-year-olds know everything and I wanted people to recognize and know who they were experiencing when talking to me!
So there I sat, rebellious, impulsive, shortsighted and getting my first tattoo.
Two weeks later I got a mirrored image of the same tribal on my other forearm – because I’m a badass, and that’s exactly what badasses do, is get two tribals instead of one. “By this time next year I’m going to be sleeved out to the max riding motorcycles, I can feel it,” I thought to myself.
I’m almost 33 now and have yet to see the backside of those often dreamed about handlebars. What a dipshit year being 18 was; I’m glad that episode of my life is long gone.
But what remains are the inked in choices of my impulsiveness. I’ve got two highly visible tribals and neither of them make any sense. I’m not any kind of indigenous warrior or healing tribesman. I’m just a product of the ‘90s and conveniently latched on to a rising style with little forethought towards the inevitable future.
The event of going through the tattooing process, however, altered my perception of the industry, and made me appreciate it in ways long forgotten. My respect for it has grown through the years having conversations with older artists and historians. I’ve even picked up a few books; remember those?
Now though, I see very little, if any, respectability offerings toward tattooing and it’s counter-cultural history. The industry has TV to blame, and TV to blame solely, on the demise of the accountability of artists and the flagrant misuse of the craft.
TV fucking ruined the tattoo.
Arguably one of the first television shows to bring about the demise of the art of tattooing aired in the summer of 2005 when TLC first aired the series Miami Ink. It was a long running reality show based loosely on the comings and goings of life as a tattoo artist and the drama associated with the shop in Miami, FL. To most it was a laughable parade of manufactured spectacles, but the popularity of it would eventually place it as one of TLC’s most successful shows to date.
It’s the reason Kat Von D is a present day fashion icon and why acceptance of the counter-cultural form would clamber to be an everyday enterprise. Miami Ink was the morsel of lit tinder flying out of the fireplace grate. When it sparked the neighboring pile of wood, shit went crazy. And crazy went downhill, fast.
Dozens of shows would eventually follow suit, each more pathetic and mind numbing than the next. Artists would reach out to producers in hopes of building a name behind their physical image – like rock stars do – rather than working themselves up in the underground arena of respect and admiration. Suddenly it was the bizzarity of a character people looked towards for artistic validation and not the actual work at hand.
It drove most self-respecting artists into the shadows with a certain kind of madness one only achieves when a whole balance of history lies in the hands of profiteering television types. Instances like those are frightening to creatives who live and breathe their art. It was cultural genocide brought on by a hungry mob of self-proclaimed rebels with an insatiable craving for brainless drama.
Not surprising then was when Miami Ink attraction Ami James came out in 2009 to Inked Magazine about his hatred for the way unscrupulous events unfolded.
“You can’t have control over everything unless you produce your own fucking show,” James said. “Miami Ink was 99 percent fake and I’m sorry people have to know that. If it was real, I wouldn’t have to walk through the door three fucking times so you can capture the scene.”
“Being in there shooting for four years destroyed me mentally and artistically,” he continues. “It made me hate tattooing. I was associating tattoos with sad stories and tragedy. I can’t go out at night without having some poor bastard coming up to me and telling me that he wants a tattoo for his dad who died yesterday. It just made it so fucking horrible.“
The emotional racket the show’s producers highlighted was a turning point for the relationship between artist and client. James says the idea of getting a tattoo just for the hell of it was lost, and suddenly everyone had to find meaning behind a piece of work, even if the meaning was bullshit.
“Everybody wanted to invent a story about what their tattoo meant,” he says. “They forgot that some people just love the art. For me, it wasn’t about having a great story or meaning. I really fucking liked dragons. I wanted to get a dragon. I don’t need no fucking story. I love dragons, I love Asian art, and I love black and gray. The whole thing snowballed to where these poor motherfuckers were forcing themselves to come up with stories to get tattoos. Some of them weren’t even fucking true. People would fucking lie just to get on the show… You can only hear so many people talk about running over their daughters or their dead dog. I’m not a therapist.“
If people have tattoos, want a tattoo, like tattoos or even acknowledge that tattoos are now an indelible mark on society, they should do the effort of incorporating the significance of the industry into a general thought catalog. Know important names the likes of Lyle Tuttle, Jack Rudy, Norman Collins, Samuel O'reilly, Maud Wagner, Cindy Ray et al. Understand why the Russian prison system is such an important part of the lineage, or why Maori tribesman adorn their faces in one of the most crucially painful ways possible.
Retail stores can’t switch around shelving units fast enough to keep up with current trends, but cutting off jeans or throwing on a tube scarf because a neighbor had one has no real significance. Those grabbed-for trends are weeds without roots.
Tattooing on the other hand has history, it has relevance, and it has integrity. Before opting to go out and get another greenish outline tattoo of a bird representing some arbitrary quote found on a buzzy website, consider for a moment the trade and those who’ve built it in the face of rampant dissent.
Consider for once something bigger than a pan-flash. Consider there are tradesmen and women who had existence built around an undying statement of counter-culture long before trendy-culture unrecognizably destroyed it. Consider for once getting something meaningful and permanent has purpose, and it deserves the respect of knowing the history of why they’re so important and valuable to humans in the first place.
To contact the writer of this article or get sent a sick pic of his tribal tats, Brian Frederick's email is: Brian@TheRooster.com