The needles hum like worn electric clippers in a barbershop. A steady drum of hip-hop drones in the background beneath conversations but above second thoughts. Artwork adorns the wooden walls like a teenager’s bedroom, and in fact, many of the patrons aren’t far removed from their teenage years.

Some of the artwork is numbered, like menu items at a Chinese restaurant. Others are proud,  but dimly lit, pictures of flesh as living canvas. Tattoos for the people in the pictures — those patiently sitting in the chairs and diligently holding the needles — aren’t an accessory, they’re a lifestyle.

Once reserved for mostly sailors, infantrymen and societal outsiders, tattoos are on a 20-year popularity boom that doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are tattooed almost twice as often as the general populace. Four in 10 millennials have a tattoo, and those that do typically have more than one. More than 45 million Americans said they had tattoos. More than half who said they had tattoos had more than one, and nearly 20 percent had six or more tattoos. In 2011, tattooing was a $1.6 billion industry in America, with nearly twice as many operating tattoo parlors as Starbucks.

Self expression isn’t a new idea: Children rebelling against their folks are as predictable as death and taxes. But what isn’t clear is why a generation of Americans revived a turn-of-the-century practice to make it their own. Is it expression of personality? Or expression of adulthood and the exercise of free will?

“I think there’s both sides of the coin,” says Ryan Johnson, a tattoo artist for nearly a decade. “There’s a lot of people who see it through social media. There’s just a shit load of people who are tattooed, and there’s more of it now than there’s ever been. It’s a trend, I hate to say it. There are some people who use their body as art too.”

According to the National Institute of Health, 73 percent of people who have tattoos get their first tattoo between the ages of 18 and 22 years old. Only a small number, 14 percent, report that they regret getting their tattoos and fewer, 11 percent, attempt to remove their tattoos, although laser removal stations are becoming more popular in tattoo shops themselves.

To be fair, tattoos have been around for a while. The modern tattoo gun, patented in 1891, is basically the same concept artists use today. A needle pokes the skin between 50 and 3,000 times a second and leaves ink in a skin layer that won’t wash — but may fade — away. In the century or so since modern tattooing has been around, not much has changed with the method, but the motivation certainly has.

An elective or nonelective identifying mark became an art form. Sophisticated tattooing machines allow for deeper inks, darker applications and unique patterns. More often than not, patrons have a design picked out well before they ever set foot in a tattoo parlor, even if it’s someone else’s design that they just liked.

“I used to get really frustrated when people would come in with the same stuff, but I don’t really anymore. Now I’m just stoked to give people what they want,” Johnson says. “(But) I get satisfaction from when I get to draw something from the ground up. That’s when I’m the most (creatively) satisfied. Especially with how difficult tattooing is, it’s definitely a challenge.”

Though more accepted among millennials especially, tattoos still serve as a lightning rod for debate. Nearly 50 percent of people who don’t have tattoos view tattoos unfavorably, although that the number isn’t higher could signal larger acceptance just around the corner. A recent poll of employers, conducted by CareerBuilder, showed 31 percent of employers said visible tattoos would have a negative impact on a hiring decision, and of course, hidden tattoos may not have much impact, if at all.

Conversely, the Army amended its policy on tattoos then reportedly began considering their positioning when accepting or denying new recruits. A few of the nation’s police departments prohibit officers from getting tattoos visible in uniform.

Women are more likely than men to get inked than men, with nearly half of women younger than 35 reporting they have a tattoo, almost double the number of men in the same age category. Military members have the most ink, more than one-third of military and former military members have some ink, according to a Fox News poll.

The reasons may range from an affinity to a specific idea from childhood to exerting an modicum of self-control over one of the few things we actually can claim as our very own and no one else’s property: our bodies. Shifting views from millennials on a range of topics, from success in life to home ownership, show this generation stands significantly different from its parents in many respects, ink included.

“I don’t think it has to be the expression of a grand ideal or closely guarded secret, but I don’t think you can consciously alter your appearance and not call it expression,” said heavily tattooed restaurant chef Benjamin Freemole. “Is it different from buying a pair of LeBron sneakers over a pair of Birkenstocks, having a mole removed, getting a ‘bro-zilian,’ breast implants or an overly expensive hair do? I say no.”

And because it’s more available and approachable now, Johnson says he thinks the trend may last longer than just this tattoo-loving generation. How the next generation decides to rebel is up to it, but he doesn’t think tattoos are going anywhere.

“I wonder about that. It’s definitely, but I think it’s probably here to stay,” Johnson says. “I think you’re always going to have that trend, where the next generation tries to steer clear of what their parents did. But tattoos have come so far and the community is growing so fast. You never know how it turns out.


Contact the writer for this article, Michael Cole, at