From Fringe to Phenomenon: The Rise of the Tattoo

In case you haven’t noticed, tattoos are all over the place. Once the territory only of military men and drifter types, tattoos are now sported by your IT guy, your accountant and maybe even your aunt. And today it’s not just drawings of the naked lady or the heart that says “mom;” the 21,000 tattoo parlors in the US employ artists who are breaking boundaries and turning this rebellious outlet into an bona fide art form.

While it’s pretty much a requirement for rockstars, Pew Research statistics show that 36% of US adults ages 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo (with one more added to their ranks last week — see story on page XX), and Americans spend $1,650,500,000 a year on them. And if you want some fast cash, some companies will pay you to put their logo on your forehead.

Surprisingly, tattoos have been around way longer than 2000s alternative bands. The word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian word tatau meaning “correct.” According to the Smithsonian, the earliest known example of ink was found on female mummies dating back to 2000 BC, and many cultures have evidence of tattoos that goes back millennia.


In the US, tattoos have been popular with soldiers and sailors since the Civil War, when Martin Hildebrandt, widely regarded as country’s first tattoo artist, traveled around from camp to camp tattooing soldiers. For a period of time after the war, tattoos were fashionable among upper-class youth. But by WWII, the elite status disappeared, in part because the electric tattoo machine took away the exclusivity, and ink was associated with criminals and rogue types. Through the 20th century, people like Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins in Hawaii and Ed Hardy helped to expand the art form, but it wasn’t until the past few decades that Americans started flocking to tattoo shops.

For a more interesting study, take Japan; they’ve had tattoos since wooly mammoths roamed the earth, but still it remains taboo. There is evidence of tattooing as far back as the Paleolithic era, and around 700 AD the Japanese started using them as a mark of punishment on criminals. In ensuing centuries, the art flourished in many places, but was dealt a huge blow in modern-day Japan when the yakuza, or mafia, co-opted tattoos as their own symbol. The stigma exists to the point that it’s difficult to even find a tattoo shop.

So what makes something go from the ranks of drifters, sailors, criminals and outcasts to the guy down the street? To explore this question and talk more about the art, I spoke to a few local tattoo heavyweights.

I was curious about how the early adopters got into this then-sordid business. Kevin Borowski, owner of Iron Hand Tattoo in Cranston, was attracted to the rebelliousness associated with the movement from a young age. “I would go to punk shows in the ‘80s as a kid and was really intrigued by the people with tattoos. My folks hated it, which also helps.”

In his teens, Kevin learned about the history of tattoos and fell in love with the art. But devoting your life to it wasn’t exactly an accepted career path. “It was a pretty despised thing; it used to be that you would tell people you were going to draw tattoos for a living and they would look at you like you were going to join a violent cult or something,” said Borowski. “Now we have housewives coming in, saying ‘My son is becoming a tattoo artist!’” He got his start in Boston, eventually moving to RI and setting up shop in 2010.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the tattoo’s rise is in the workplace. There’s still stigma, but having ink is no longer an automatic disqualification. Dennis Del Prete, owner of Providence Tattoo, has been tattooing for 16 years and believes much of the reason is sheer numbers. “Nowadays, many employers have no choice. So many people are getting tattoos, you’d be cutting out a huge percentage of the qualified candidates.”

Employers seem to be smartening up to the fact that a tattoo on a candidate’s arm does not make them any less able to file paperwork, teach a classroom or run a fortune 500 company. It’s a predictable cycle: Tattoos become more popular, they become less taboo, they become even more popular.

Del Prete thinks the advent of the internet was a big reason for the change, as is the case with many underground movements. “Before the internet, the scene was so closed off. [The internet] created a community and then an audience, so it made tattoos feel less like a stigma. And clients and artists now have access to photos and portfolios to take inspiration from.”

But the internet has also, in some cases, taken the artistic element out of the process. “People today are shopping for tattoos when they should be shopping for tattoo artists. They can go to Pinterest or Google, print something out, and say, ‘Give me this exactly,’ which is fine, but people should know they have the option to get creative. It’s our job to make sure we can cater to both kinds of customers: the ones who want the exact replica and the people who want help in creating something original, and our priority is [creating] something that will withstand the test of time,” said Del Prete.

Luke Taylor, artist at Hope Street Tattoo, thinks the media is a big part of the acceptance of tattoos. “Shows like ‘Miami Ink’ may not always be super realistic but they showed viewers that it’s a real art form. I think it also showed the value of the tattoo artist in the process. The media exposure brought people around to the idea that you could seek out a shop that you’re interested in for the artistic value, instead of just going to the guy down the block,” said Taylor.

If asked if he could go back to the early days, Del Pete has mixed feelings. “The movement was so much smaller and everyone had to be more creative by necessity, which was exciting. But the past tends to get romanticized a bit; for example, the best equipment you could find was usually low-quality knockoffs from a magazine.”

When it comes to hindsight being 20/20, Borowski agrees. “People tend to look at the earlier days with rose-colored glasses. I’m happy to have lived through that time because it will never happen again, but I think the popularity has only enhanced the scene. Think about it; it’s a personal and social movement, everything about it is radical, so of course it’s a matter of time until people get into it. Who knows … eventually it could all go back to square one.”

Tattoos, once an indicator of a criminal record or naval service, have gone the way of gay marriage and cannabis:  they’ve become mainstream enough to show your in-laws. Perhaps a general softening of attitudes toward inked skin deserves the credit for tattoo’s ascent to the mainstream. If you’re against tattoos for some reason, you’re likely to get left behind by history. And if tattoos continue to grow in popularity and evolve, who knows? Your grandkids could very well make fun of you someday for that antiquated piece of ink on your back.