One day while watching the television program ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not,’ I saw an image of the most tattooed man in the world. For me it was not a pretty sight and I thought the man must be fanatical, rebellious and could not be taken seriously. It then dawned on me that I was judging the man based on his tattoos, which was merely a form of art. A myriad of questions then came to me. Is a tattoo an expression of someone’s personality, just like one’s clothes? Is tattooing a product of modern day civilization and savage impulses? How acceptable are tattoos in white collar jobs? How do people perceive those with tattoos? Does it matter the kind of tattoo one has? For example are people more receptive of an exquisite tattoo such as a butterfly or flower on a discrete part of the body, as opposed to a large snake on the back? Do people tattoo themselves to show off and attract attention or to merely express them?  All these questions made me realize that there is more that I could discover about tattoos. I then decided to learn more about the art and its advancement in the American culture. My goal in this paper is to trace the journey, or at least part of it, of tattoos and the art of tattooing.

            It is evident that most people today have tattoos of all sizes, shapes and colors. Jimmy Buffet, an American musician, sang about tattoos and partially described them as a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling. In this case, one can conclude that sometimes tattoos are drawn for the wrong reasons (Caplan 18). Some famous people have borne witness to this fact, whereby when one is deeply in love with another person, they get matching tattoos or a tattoo of that person’s name. This problem of permanent tattoos has however been solved by laser technology.  Another interesting fact is that it is believed that 35 out of the 44 United States presidents had tattoos. On the other hand, half of the population in prisons has tattoos. New York City had banned tattoos between 1961 and 1997 because they were believed to spread Hepatitis C and until 2006 tattooing was outlawed in Oklahoma (Fisher 98). DeKalb, Illinois also lifted its 19 year old ban on tattoos in 2009. . In an interview in 2008, with the Williamette Week, President Obama stated that he would not prefer to tattoo himself, but if a gun was put to his head, he would have a hidden tattoo of Michelle’s name (Levins 23).

The Historical Context of Tattoos in America

            We will now look at the development of the tattoo culture in American civilization, including the way in which perceptions have changed over the years. Some scholars have regarded the issue of tattoos as a subculture within the American culture, which does not attract much intellectual attention (Fisher 95). However much has been written on the art of tattooing. The history of tattoos dates as far back as bible times, where in the book of Leviticus it was prohibited for one to make tattoos on their body. In Western Civilization, the Greeks and Romans were among the first to use tattoos. There is little or no scholarly work on early tattooing in the United States from 1770-1860 (Punte 20). However in these years, it is speculated that sailors came back from their voyages having tattooed themselves. During the American civil war, soldiers were allowed to tattoo, especially tattoos that expressed their political affiliations. 

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            In the US, until the 1880s tattoos were mostly spotted by people in the working class, criminals and sailors (Puente 17). This was basically the lower class members of society. However things changed towards the end of the century and it became fashionable to have a tattoo. This is when the upper class embraced the practice. Despite this, tattoos among the lower class were still seen as a sign of deviant behavior, partly because tattoo designs were varied. The upper class drew ethnic tattoos, deeply influenced by Japanese tattoos. These ethnic tattoos were a show off of how someone was well travelled and how they had encountered different world cultures. The electronic tattoo machine was then patented in America in 1901 by inventor Sam O’Reilly (Caplan 34). This machine revolutionized the art of tattooing, making it easier and more diverse. The beginning of the 19th century saw tattoos become more popular in circus freak shows and among entertainers. This led to the decline in fascination by the upper class as tattoos once again became a symbol of deviant and vulgar behavior. However this did not last and by 1940 the tattooed entertainers were no longer a fascination (Fisher 95). The military also opposed tattooing due to vulgar images of tattoos and the fact that it was believed to be a public health hazard. During the Second World War the US Navy banned tattoos of naked women. In this case, sailors had to redo their tattoos to include clothes on the women. The 1950s came with the Return to Normalcy movement which was opposed to tattooing. At this point tattoos were used by rebellious teenagers (Puente 11), drunks and criminals. Levins (20) explains that the tattoo craze came back in the 60s and 70s with the rock and roll and the hippies subcultures. The trend pretty much picked from then up to date.   

            Tattoos are much more acceptable now but not to the extent of other bodily expressions such as fashion, which have been greatly embraced. Another aspect of the development of tattoos in the American culture is the tattoo artists or tattooists. Tattooists are getting more and more business with some charging as much as 350 dollars per hour. This seems like a profitable business but the truth of the matter is tattooists are also caught in a moral maze just like other professionals like lawyers. In an interview with a tattoo artist Sanders established that tattooists have sometimes to take on the role of counselors. They have to advise a client against getting a tattoo for the wrong reasons. This is against the background of losing a client and subsequently income, thus the moral dilemma.


            The subculture of tattooing has come a long way in the American culture. It has changed in both form and function. The perceptions of tattoos have also changed and so have the clients. This is because today 60% of those with tattoos are women (Fisher 97). Various people get tattoos for various reasons. The important thing is that one should have a valid reason not based on impulse. One could get a temporary tattoo to get the general feel of it, and after much consideration get a permanent one. One should also take into consideration the fact that general perceptions of tattoos are still not as liberal. 

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