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.
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.