With the advances in technology and medical science, people no longer see the body as something natural that you’re born with and live with. People have all sorts of surgical interventions, both medical and cosmetic — it’s even possible to change your gender.
People’s identities are far more particular, not specific to a country of origin but linked to our interests, affinities to cultural or spiritual traditions, tastes in music and subcultural allegiances — tattoos has become a vehicle for that sort of particular identification.
The recent surge in popularity for tattooing started with the counter-cultural scene of the sixties and seventies. During the 20th Century, tattoos had become associated with criminals, sailors and members of the military, who had become dislocated from mainstream society and wanted to stamp a commemoration of that experience on their bodies. There’s been a return to traditional forms of tribal tattoos. Ancient Celtic designs or those originating in the Pacific Islands, provide inspiration for a great number of body ink enthusiasts.
Tattoos were not used to form individual identities but instead they tended to be a collective cultural project, constituting particular social markers. Sometimes they created a spectacular appearance when a tribe all shared the same design or they were used as initiation or coming-of-age rites.
Like so many traditional communities, having a tattoo as an important process rather than a possession — the whole body was tattooed at once and it was rarely supplemented. By contrast, the modern tattoo enthusiast tends to view them as an expanding collection that creates permanent markers of important moments in an individual’s life. Body art is becoming the opposite of conformity, a sort of badge of travel or internationalism, people visit places and make them parts of themselves, so that they will forever bear marks of their unique visit.
The decline of Christianity in the West has also had a degree of influence on the rise of the tattoo. Some streams of Christianity have condemned body art due to the perceived sanctity of the body but this is far from universal. During the Renaissance, European devotees who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land often had tattoos of Christian symbols or scenes to commemorate the experience.
Whatever your type of tattoo, research has shown that it profoundly alters the way in which you will be perceived: adults with tattoos have been shown to be more sexually active, engaging in riskier behaviour and have stronger self-esteem and body-confidence. Studies of first impressions of people with tattoos have revealed that they were expected to have had more sexual partners, be less inhibited, and to be probable thrill-seekers. Whether tattoos are the cause or the effect of such personality types is a non-starter — who you are is who you are, you decide to get the tattoo for a specific reason, the tattoo doesn’t decide to be put upon you. At this point in society, body art or the modification of one’s body, is here to stay.