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The Rise of Body Art

A rebellious artform becomes (almost) mainstream


"One must be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
-- Oscar Wilde

"A good tattoo isn't cheap, and a cheap tattoo isn't good."
-- Popular tattoo saying

That guy you see over there, the one with the arm chock full of Technicolor art that begs for a closer look? He's part of a tradition. So is that long-haired Harley fanatic, and, whether he knows it or not, the uptown banker with the Van Halen logo on his shoulder blade. Heck, throw in that NBA point guard, too.All of these folks are part of a tradition that goes back a lot farther than most people think -- the tradition of voluntary skin branding. In fact, tattoos are considered by some to be almost as old as mankind itself, or at least as far back as our oral and written traditions go. Most tattoo researchers believe that tattooing, like most discoveries, happened by accident, with someone tripping or stepping onto a sharp stick covered with berry juice or charcoal. Those same people may also be part of a larger, sub-cultural tradition, one that has communal, personal, and erotic aspects to it.

However, most people on the outside of the tattoo subculture don't have a clue of the history of "getting inked," and no idea of the meanings these markings carry to, say, the Samoan culture, or the Japanese. They haven't heard about the lucky amulets sailors and warriors have historically branded on their skins for strength, or the religious tattoos that numerous sects have given themselves as a right of passage.

Interestingly, this ignorance of tattoo history is happening at a time when the act of getting tattooed is at an all-time high. Catch an NBA game recently? If Dennis Rodman were to return to the league, he'd need to saw off an arm to get noticed. Indeed, many high school teams now have kids brandishing tattoos, despite the age restrictions enforced by any reputable tattoo artist. Web sites such as have page after page of listings of "celebrities" who've gotten tattooed, as well as links to historical figures who were said to have had their bodies decorated. Everywhere you look, it seems, people are tattooed -- some 30-50 million people, according to various estimates.

In Charlotte, tattooing has become so popular that a major tattoo convention is set to take place at the University Hilton on May 9, 10, and 11, featuring dozens of artists from all over the United States. (See info at end of story.)

Why, then, do so many people know so little about something so permanent? In the past, as far as polite society was concerned, having a tattoo usually meant you were a criminal, a prisoner, a sailor, or just not all that bright. Middle class people -- bankers, businessmen -- didn't have them. That kind of display of permanence was distasteful at best, an affront to God Almighty at worst.

Somewhere along the way -- the late 1960s, some say -- tattoos became something more: a sort of attainable, safe taboo, and to an empowered group of young people, a symbol of control over their own bodies. Post Roe v. Wade, more women began getting into the act, getting inked for many of the same reasons.

Soon, young celebrities and rock stars began to sport tattoos when they were photographed or appeared on television. Before long, tattoos were the last bastion of the American outlaw -- The Man could take your drugs, your job, and even your dignity, but damn it, they couldn't take something that was inside of you.

"I think celebrities with tattoos have helped to mainstream (the art)," says Margo DeMello, an anthropologist and lecturer at San Francisco State University. "Depending on the celebrity, (it) has also helped tattooing to retain its "rebellious' edge, particularly with hard rockers in years past, and rappers today.

"I think -- and this is a huge subject in my book, Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community -- that media representations of tattooing don't just represent tattooing; they also help to construct it and reconstruct it," she says. "I don't think the question is if they do so fairly or unfairly; it's more a question of how pervasive the representations are, how much they do to continue to push tattooing into the mainstream, and how common the messages in the media are."

As tattoos have become more respectable, so have the artists who created them. An American tattoo iconography that was once the sole domain of anchors, lucky amulets, pin-up girls and Mom soon became a three-dimensional, rainbow-like wonderland of any tattoo creation your mind could dream up.

Of course, immediately following this resurrection of the tattoo came the speculators, folks who opened what Joey Vernon of Charlotte's Fu's Custom Tattoos calls "Wal-Mart studios. . .stocked full of talentless hacks eager to make a buck."

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