Title Card: You have writ­ten about the notion of com­mu­ni­ty” amongst peo­ple with tat­toos, and that tat­too col­lec­tors often achieve a one­ness” through their tat­toos. How much do you think that is true today?

Margo DeMello: I think that that’s changed to some extent. I think part of the tat­too com­mu­ni­ty as I wrote about it in the 90s when I was doing my research was part­ly a func­tion of the white­wash­ing of tat­too­ing, and the main­stream­ing of tat­too­ing, and bring­ing it into the mid­dle class. So the tat­too com­mu­ni­ty sort of formed around the for­ma­tion of those tat­too con­ven­tions that you talked about attend­ing, which at that time were real­ly grow­ing. At that time the National Tattoo Association dom­i­nat­ed the tat­too con­ven­tions, still.

That is no longer the case. There are tat­too con­ven­tions every­where, all the time, and they are small and they are huge and the scene is so dif­fer­ent from what it was in the mid to ear­ly 90s when I was first doing my work. So the tat­too com­mu­ni­ty has changed, and even the notion of com­mu­ni­ty has real­ly changed. I think a lot about what are now the old-timers, back then those old-timers, a lot of them are dead. So what now are the old-timers, I think some of them still might have some sense of the com­mu­ni­ty any­more, but I think for the younger peo­ple who are involved in the move­ment that is just gone. I think a lot it it gone. I think where you find com­mu­ni­ty now, prob­a­bly, is (I hate the use the term extreme) in the more extreme ele­ments of the move­ment, which is the hard-core body mod­i­fi­ca­tion folks.

And even that, a lot of that has cropped not just into the main­stream tat­too com­mu­ni­ty or what­ev­er you want to call it now, but into main­stream soci­ety, of course. Because as tat­toos become more main­stream, then what is extreme has to become more extreme. You’re always going to find a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who take a sense of solace in each oth­er and in their shared activ­i­ties and find that sort of spir­i­tu­al sense in their activ­i­ties, but as more and more of those activ­i­ties become pulled into the main­stream and just become fash­ion, there’s less for them to choose from, and so then they have to engage in more hard-core activ­i­ties to have a sense of iden­ti­ty for them­selves, I think.

Title Card: Is cur­rent media cov­er­age of tat­toos still dom­i­nat­ed by arti­cles aimed at middle-class read­ers, and have arts exhi­bi­tions fea­tur­ing the work of tat­tooists changed the tat­too­ing land­scape that you described as com­pris­ing a major­i­ty of work­ing class males?

DeMello: I think that that’s still the case. Obviously the fine artists are dom­i­nat­ing more and more of the field. And I should­n’t say the fine artists, but tat­tooists who rep­re­sent them­selves as fine artists. Certainly it’s becom­ing more and more nor­ma­tive for us to expect that, and to not expect to go into a tat­too shop and to find bik­ers any­more, although obvi­ous­ly that’s still the case. You cer­tain­ly can still find that. You can find that all over the world today. 

But I think the media is still using that same nar­ra­tive because I still read these articles—because I’m still in these articles—where they still open their sto­ries in the same way. Even if they’re going to talk about a fine art show in Paris, they still fall back on those same old phras­es, which is, You’re not going to find sailors here!” And then they go on and then talk about what’s going on today. I think it’s going to be a while until we move away from that old-style dis­cus­sion of that, because we still have enough peo­ple alive today who remem­ber when tat­too­ing was dom­i­nat­ed by working-class peo­ple. And again, there are still plen­ty of working-class peo­ple who still clear­ly wear tat­toos and clear­ly still give tat­toos. So the field is clear­ly not one-dimensional. It is still full of a lot of dif­fer­ent things, and peo­ple are not quite ful­ly ready to accept that it is com­plete­ly main­stream and com­plete­ly middle-class.

Title Card: Do you think that peo­ple’s atti­tudes have changed towards tat­toos and tattooing?

DeMello: They have. The fact that we’ve got high-fashion mod­els who can wear their tat­toos open­ly, and not just small tat­toos but large tat­toos… Part of that is shock val­ue, part of that is design­ers and mod­el­ing agen­cies and mar­keters being edgy, and part of that is because we are used to it, and we aren’t used to see­ing it. We have changed our atti­tudes, but we haven’t changed them ful­ly yet. We real­ly are talk­ing about a change that has hap­pened with­in the last thir­ty years, and that’s not a huge amount of time to com­plete­ly change social atti­tudes. It’s about the same amount of time that we’ve seen the wom­en’s move­ment, the gay and les­bian move­ment, which is only now (if we want to com­pare it to the gay and les­bian move­ment) real­ly get­ting trac­tion in terms of things like mar­riage equal­i­ty and that kind of thing. So it’s a rel­a­tive­ly new move­ment. It’s new­er than the civ­il rights move­ment, not that I’m try­ing to com­pare it to some­thing major like that. But it’s new, rel­a­tive­ly speaking.

Title Card: In the 1990s you wrote about tat­toos allow­ing women to access their inner fem­i­nine strength” and about men draw­ing upon the men’s move­ment to pro­vide a mean­ing for tat­toos. How rel­e­vant is that today?

DeMello: I think the men’s move­ment not so much, though I think again that was part of that change in the move­ment. But I think for women it’s still absolute­ly the case. I think a lot of women con­tin­ue to use tat­toos, espe­cial­ly women that wear larg­er tat­toos and women that wear tat­toos on more vis­i­ble areas of their bod­ies, I think a lot of women are doing it in a way that they’re reclaim­ing their bod­ies. Because as much as things…you know, just talk about the wom­en’s move­ment. The wom­en’s move­ment again is rel­a­tive­ly the same age as what we’re talk­ing about, and we’re still liv­ing in a time in which women are raped, and women are beat­en, and women are slut-shamed. So there’s a lot of things that have not changed for women, so wom­en’s bod­ies in par­tic­u­lar are large­ly not of their own prop­er­ty. So I think tat­toos still oper­ate as some­thing that women can do to make them their own in some ways.

It’s a tricky thing to do, because there’s still a lot of ways in which tat­toos are a way to beau­ti­fy the female body, and have been since women began get­ting tat­tooed. But a lot of women are not doing that, and are doing some­thing much more rad­i­cal with their tat­toos. So I think that’s still very much the case today. What I wrote it in the ear­ly 90s, I think it’s still the case today for a lot of women.

Title Card: How much [did] the vari­ety of designs avail­able, the acces­si­bil­i­ty of tat­tooists and open­ness of tat­too stu­dios influ­ence the increase in num­bers of peo­ple get­ting tattooed?

DeMello: It clear­ly all has. It cer­tain­ly all has. The fact that there are so many more designs and art forms to choose from, and cer­tain­ly I talk about that in my book. The fact that it was­n’t the tra­di­tion­al American bik­er or sailor design that brought middle-class peo­ple into tat­too­ing. It was the non-Western design that brought peo­ple into tat­too­ing, because it had a dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ic, a dif­fer­ent use of the body. It seems more artis­tic because it was more exot­ic. It was the fine art peo­ple who were attract­ed to that, both in the artist as well as in the clien­tele. And I think that’s still the case today, although of course we have this new—not new, it’s been around now for quite some time—the peo­ple who are very inter­est­ed in the resur­gence in the Americana style. All of the new retro types of tat­too­ing but with all the twists that’s so much more inter­est­ing now to a younger generation. 

But we’re talk­ing also about younger peo­ple who did­n’t grow up in a time where they saw bik­er tat­too­ing and sailor tat­too­ing as the dom­i­nant type of tat­too­ing in the West. So they’re now exposed to all of these dif­fer­ent forms of tat­too­ing, and in some ways don’t have that con­text. So in some ways it’s just a big can­dy shop for them of tat­too styles that are large­ly stripped of con­text. So I think that the younger gen­er­a­tions today, Y and X—not even X any­more. Y and Z, what­ev­er we’re look­ing at today, it’s a very dif­fer­ent world that they have to choose from, both in terms of designs and in terms of dis­course. Sure they have to tell their par­ents about their tat­too and that’s always a bit of a nego­ti­a­tion, but they them­selves aren’t mak­ing deci­sions based on a con­nec­tion between a design and a cul­ture, or a design and a stig­ma, they’re just pick­ing designs.

Title Card: Are tat­toos with more chal­leng­ing designs being sought out by peo­ple want­i­ng to be dif­fer­ent to main­stream trends?

DeMello: Sure. And the inter­est­ing thing is there’s still a lit­tle bit of a feed­back, too. The rea­son we have one of the more pop­u­lar styles today, which is the black and gray style of tat­too­ing is because a cou­ple of the ear­li­est artists who pio­neered that stuff came out of prison. So they brought that style out with them and their clien­tele want­ed it. And because they did­n’t have the tools on the out­side to do it, because the tools were avail­able on the inside, they had to mod­i­fy the mod­ern tat­too machine to mim­ic the way that the tat­too machines in the inside worked, and they cre­at­ed this new style which of course allows us now to do so much more beau­ti­ful and detailed work than was pos­si­ble with the ear­ly machines with the mul­ti­ple needles.

There’s still a lit­tle bit of a back and forth. You’ve got middle-class guys walk­ing around with a loca” on their chest or on their back. I mean, where did that come from? That came from the gangs. So you still have this can­ni­bal­iz­ing of styles that come from a place that’s so dif­fer­ent from us, from the pris­ons and from the streets, just like we did from Polynesia, just like we did from Japan. We’re still doing that a lit­tle but, but that does­n’t mean that those styles are still there now. Of course iron­i­cal­ly a lot of the styles in Polynesia did dis­ap­pear, although again we do have a resur­gence, thank­ful­ly. There are artists there that are bring­ing it back. But it nev­er ever went away in our prison sys­tem, just like it did­n’t in prison sys­tems around the world. Again, there’s a rea­son that it’s been there since the Romans. Because it’s super effec­tive, and it’s not going to go away there. It’s just not some­thing that is on our radar unless you went to prison or saw a TV show or movie or some­thing like that. It’s just not real­ly on our radar. 

So that part of it is always going to be a lit­tle bit— as main­stream and as white­washed as I think tat­toos are going to con­tin­ue to get in our soci­ety, we’re going to con­tin­ue to see… (Because most of us don’t go to prison, although here in the United States a lot of us do, actu­al­ly, let’s just say; a lot of us do.) We are going to con­tin­ue to see that on the edge of soci­ety, cons and ex-cons who are wear­ing those tat­toos, and there’s some­thing about that that kind of keeps… There’s that ten­sion between all the middle-class peo­ple who are wear­ing their tat­toos that they got in their nice shops, and all of our cons and our ex-cons and our gang mem­bers and our ex-gang mem­bers, wear­ing their tat­toos. I don’t know. It’s just there’s some­thing inter­est­ing about that, because again as much as I think there might’ve been a not con­scious but sort of semi-conscious desire to make those oth­er styles of tat­too­ing go away, that one’s not going anywhere.

Title Card: Statistics appear to indi­cate that more and more peo­ple than ever are cur­rent­ly get­ting tat­tooed. Can you fore­see a time in the where non-tattooed peo­ple with be in the minority?

DeMello: That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. The lat­est sta­tis­tic that I saw, inter­est­ing­ly the largest group who was tat­tooed was not the youngest group… Or the largest group who was get­ting tat­tooed… I’m try­ing to remem­ber, it was the lat­est sur­vey in the United States, so it might not have been rep­re­sen­ta­tive. But it was bro­ken down by age group, and it was like in the 30s ver­sus the 20s or the old­er group, and I thought that was inter­est­ing. Does that mean that younger peo­ple are not get­ting them as much? Anyway, so I’m not sure about that. I thought that was sort of an inter­est­ing one because we expect to con­stant­ly see young peo­ple get more and more and more, and instead it was that mid-age group. 

Anyway, to your ques­tion do we ever expect to see peo­ple with­out tat­toos being in the minor­i­ty? I don’t know. That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. I will say that my hus­band is not tat­tooed and for years when we would meet peo­ple in more recent years, instead of it being, Why are you tat­tooed?” to me, it was Why are you not tat­tooed?” to him. Which is sort of inter­est­ing. He was the odd one. I don’t know. That’s how I’ll answer that. I don’t know.

Further Reference

This inter­view was con­duct­ed by Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez as part of the require­ments for his Master of Arts in Creative Media, at the University of Brighton, 2014, and por­tions were used in his doc­u­men­tary Tattoos: Perceptions & Perspectives.