Tattoos Losing Rebel Status Is a Good Thing

Meaning trumps badassed-ness when it comes to ink art.

My neighbor Joe, a longtime driver for Tastykake, isn’t a fan of tattoos. “I don’t get it,” he says. “They look cluttered and used to be for tough guys. Now, I don’t know.”

Joe is in his mid-50s and, maybe not surprisingly, doesn’t have any ink himself—and that’s despite his wife and two daughters having already gone under the needle for their own mother-daughter-sister set.

He’s right about one thing, though: Tattoos aren’t just for tough guys anymore. Nowadays, you’ll find inked-up skin across all economic, age, social, religious, gender and racial groups in North America. A recent Harris poll indicated that around 21 percent of U.S. adults have at least one tattoo. But is that a bad thing?

If you’ve been reading the latest anti-tattoo rants from the online media—à la Slate and, hell, even The Philly Post—you might think so.

Tattoos have become “mundane” they say, they’ve been separated from their badass past as flags for convicts and rebels and have consequently lost all relevant meaning. Too ubiquitous, too overdone, too tacky. The mainstream killed what only the rebel could understand (and this coming from people who don’t even have tattoos).

But tattoos have been around for about 5,000 years and in that time they have hardly been the exclusive domain of criminals and rebels. Throughout their existence, tattoos have been associated with growth, acceptance, spirituality and community—especially in non-Western cultures. It wasn’t until the mid-20th-century that tattoos, thanks largely to the popular culture of the time, became associated primarily with the rebel elements of society in the eyes of middle-class America.

And the apparent tattooed masses definitely don’t agree with that association. While 50 percent of non-tattooed respondents to the Harris poll said that tattoos make a person more rebellious, some 72 percent of tattooed respondents said that their tattoos have no bearing on their rebelliousness.

Regardless, say critics, with their connection to the nation’s underbelly being severed more each day, tattoos are little more than a bad decision waiting to happen. So many people have them, the argument goes, that the elements of individuality and exclusivity have been forever removed. You can’t have something that everyone else has and expect it to be unique. Right?

For Paul Berge, 33, the electrical engineer and tattooed webmaster behind pro-tattoo blog TheTattooedEngineer, that stance doesn’t make much sense.

“Just because everyone has art in their house doesn’t mean you shouldn’t as long as it means something to you,” he says.

Surely people aren’t, in fits of hipster rage, denouncing and tossing out their paintings, sculptures and photos because “too many people have them.”

That seems to be the crux of the discussion, the point that critics can’t or won’t or don’t care to get past: Tattoos are highly personal messages designed not to appease the viewer, but to complete the wearer. They’re art. Not just in the gallery sense—although they are that, too, with exhibitions popping up throughout the country more and more—but in the individual, emotional sense.

Take, for example, Berge’s tattoo, which he had done just shy of his 31st birthday. Covering his shoulder and upper arm, Berge’s piece, based on an ancient Japanese legend, depicts a koi fish swimming its way up a river to become a dragon. The tattoo was inspired by Berge’s divorce from his high-school sweetheart after roughly seven years of marriage.

“What started as a painful and difficult situation forced me to adapt and become a better and stronger person,” he says. “That is what my tattoo symbolizes.”

So, a cathartic process of a few hours (25 in Berge’s case, actually) of mild physical discomfort and conversation, with the intention of alleviating pain, not increasing it.

Tattoos aren’t an outward sign of personality disorder, they’re not done with inflicting pain in mind—”Why not just use a tattoo machine with no ink? You could go over the same area as many times as you wanted and still get the same amount of pain,” muses Berge—and they certainly aren’t meaningless because the unsavory stigma surrounding them has begun to recede.

What we’re seeing is most probably a return to tattooing’s roots as an art form dedicated to personal and cultural expression that is open to all interested parties, a massive advancement from the popular 20th-century view of tattoos as signs of danger and violence. And of course, as with any change, you’ll have the naysayers urging us to forget, to make the other side crazy and wrong.

Maybe we, the tattooed (I have three myself), are wrong. Maybe we’ll regret our decisions, laser off our pricey ink and don Ed Hardy t-shirts to remember our decorated pasts. But one thing’s for sure: The tattooed won’t abandon their personal expressions at the behest of a bunch of inkless writers, mainly because we aren’t really concerned with what other people think about our tattoos. We wouldn’t have gotten the work done in the first place if we had been.

Can’t you tell by looking?