From Sea Captains And Tough Guys To Britney: The Social History Of The Tattoo

Tattooing has gone from being a mark of the upper class to the lower class to the mainstream.

Since 1769 when a British sea captain stumbled across the art form in the

Polynesian islands, tattooing has gone from being a mark of the upper class

to the lower class to the mainstream.

With the advent of the electric needle in New York City in 1891, tattooing

lost its exclusivity and cachet, making way for tough guys and outlaws to

typify the type of person to get inked. Their favorite markings? Eagles,

anchors, hawks and hearts.

It wasn't until quintessential "tough guy" and music legend Janis Joplin, the

first musician said to have combined rock and tattoos, adopted and effusively

praised the practice that the phenomenon really took off. (Click for photos of celebrities and their tattoos.)

At the time she appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1970 she had two: a

Florentine bracelet on her left wrist and a girly red heart over her left

breast done by Lyle Tuttle, a San Francisco artist. "I wanted some

decoration," Joplin once said. "See, the one on my wrist is for everybody and

the one on my t-- is for me and my friends. Just a little treat for the boys,

like the icing on the cake."

Joplin died only two months after that television appearance, but Tuttle (and

no doubt countless other tattoo artists) has given hundreds of female fans

the heart that Janis popularized. And just last season on "The Osbournes"

Kelly got her very own version of the heart on her hip.

Since Joplin broke the seal, it's hard to think of an artist who is

not tattooed or dabbled in the art form. The activity that has

officially been illegal in most states for the better half of the last 40

years as a result of a hepatitis outbreak has been seen on everyone from the

wholesome likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake to the grittier acts

like Kid Rock and Method Man and just about everyone in between: the music

business has ink on lock. Even unmarked artist Mick Jagger has added

to the idealization, as depicted on the cover of the Rolling Stones'

Tattoo You LP.

For Travis Barker of Blink-182, altering his appearance was his way of making

playing music for a living an inevitability. "I purposely tattooed my whole

body so I wouldn't have to be a perfect person in a perfect world working at

a perfect job," he said. "I made it so I had to play music. I had no other


While that may be true on some level, Barker and everyone else who ventures

into the world of tattoo art has many choices to make: specifically, what

type of body modification they'll be stuck with for the rest of their lives.

Whether it's to get a prison-style black and gray gangster tattoo made famous

by East Los Angeles artist Mr. Cartoon, or the ubiquitous barbed tribal

armband pioneered by Leo Zulueta; from the impulse tattooist's worst enemy

(the significant other's name) to their best friend (the cover-up), deciding

what to put on your body — and then, of course, where to put it — is crucial

for the most effective non-verbal self-expression.

But for those with a commitment problem or a low threshold for pain, who

still have something to get off — or put on — their chests, there's always