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.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.