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
choice.”

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
henna.