Tattoo Encyclopedia: “Public Perceptions & Tattoo Art”


Voluntarily receiving a tattoo, a permanent alteration to physical appearance, can technically be said to be borne from either rational logic or whim (here displays of group membership are also categorized as whim due to their extreme situational dependence).

Tattoos can be a well thought out plan or a spur of the moment decision. Yet their subsequent display is not as easily divided. Heavily tattooed men frequently cover their ink with business suits, go into an office and refuse to hire an outwardly tattooed candidate on the grounds of unacceptable physical appearance.

Where does this discontinuity of feigned tattoo acceptance, practice and public perception arise? And, why tattoos should not inherently be considered works of art.

Tattoos have just a long and illustrious history as any mainstream or classical type of art. Although this fact is not frequently considered today, far from appreciation, public perception in mainstream Western society often verges on an unenthusiastic civil acceptance of the tattooed.

The nature of this dichotomy is characteristically American. The United States has some of the most stringent penalties in the Western world for marijuana use but also the highest consumption. The FCC guarantees that on American public daytime television you won’t be able to see a female nipple but the country’s consumption of hardcore pornography is second to none. Drunk driving is a huge safety issue on American highways.

Yet, in a move almost designed to promote binging, the age when one is legally allowed to consume alcohol is still 21 (three years after a citizen can join the military). There exist staggering contradictions between perceived, ‘acceptable’ public opinion and practiced reality.

Tattoo appropriation has become a striking method of display for often deeply personal viewpoints. Yet unlike the easily derisible choice of fashion, body art is not a practical necessity and therefore rightly open to what is at times, severe criticism. When a practice is pushed to the periphery its practitioners necessarily create rifts away from mainstream society through subcultures.

Recent years have seen an exponential growth in tattoo adoption. Slowly, tattooing is moving into the light of day. However, there is tattoo art and there are tattoos. The two are vastly different practices with the differentiation often overlooked. Tattoos current reluctant acceptance is the uneducated mass reaction to a practice once relegated to a traditionally infamous subculture (i.e. tattoos and not tattoo art).

Broader public approval of tattoo art has been hampered by the inability to differentiate logic from whim. In other words, acceptance of tattooing as a genuine art form has been slowed by the inability to differentiate tattoo art from tattoos.


Tattoos are one of the oldest forms of body art. Traditionally these tribal markings held significant cultural value (tribal is used here in the most traditional sense of the term). Otzi, a recently discovered mummy preserved in ice, bore tattoos that date back some 5,300 years. Egyptian priests and priestesses arranged tattooed dots in what they believed to be mystical abstract geometric patterns across their bodies. Western Europeans have also long adopted the practice.

The etymological derivation of ‘Briton’ was regarded by Bentham to be from the Celtic word meaning ‘land of the painted people’. And the art, used for both spiritual and aesthetic purposes, has also been prevalent across Asia for thousands of years. After a period in the West the practice fell into the shadows, not brought into popular consciousness until the Polynesian voyages of Captain Cook.

Tattooing then returned to modern Europe as a carnivalesque display. Soon afterwards, in tandem with the invention of the electric tattoo machine, this negative perception of tattoos was strongly reinforced through the appropriation of ink by criminals, sailors and those of ‘low repute’. This subcultures’ tattooing methodology being a type of misappropriation to more strongly juxtapose the tattooed from their ‘clean skinned’ counterparts.

A large part of tattoos modern history consists of tattoo-tracers who use prefabricated flash-tattoos to simply copy designs onto clients’ skin often in rapid succession. Tattoo-tracers enable and propagate negative tattoo stereotypes. And unfortunately, tattoo-tracers have been unwittingly accepted to the point where they now constitute the vast majority of both studios and tattooists.

The rate of cover-up tattoos and laser-removals of all tattoos received is estimated to range between 20% and 38% respectively. Although these surveys have been of varying depth and legitimacy still, irrespective of the potential error margins in calculations, the implication of accepted quality and impetuous enthusiasm remains abundantly clear. The best parallel being the right to free speech has no bearing on the veracity, impact or adequacy of words uttered. Opportunity is not reason itself.


Nowadays very few choices are permanent. A staggeringly large percentage of marriages quickly end in divorce. The number of different types of careers held over a lifetime can extend into the double digits. Friends, houses and social affiliations are too easily changed. In a heavily beauty-prejudiced society rational thought would dictate extensive consideration to any permanent alternations to physical appearance when said alterations are neither uniform nor universally accepted. Yet the past few decades has seen exponential growth in flash-tattoo adoption.

A person might have an evenhanded rationale for receiving a tattoo. Yet the public’s uninformed acceptance of flash-tattoos and tattooists necessarily limits the potential range of consideration. Just as there is a link between emotional stability and an eclectic, diverse vocabulary; a person thrives when granted the opportunity to freely express themselves. The first discontinuity of perception and practice regarding tattooing can be seen to arise from the need to express oneself yet doing so with a limited vocabulary.

Conversely, as more and more sections of an individuals’ personal life turn out to be non-permanent the concept of stability itself becomes elusive. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if you anticipate that everything will change then the very nature of any decision is temporary. This extends to the choice of tattoos.


Although the term ‘reality’ is used cautiously, there are undeniably common denominators regarding tattoo acceptance within mainstream society. As initially stated, the common denominators are here termed rational logic or whim. These two categories encompass a broad range of actions and end with fundamentally disconnected results.

A tattoo acquired from whim is by far the most common type. Immediate gratification and or shock value are the two most regular motives. Whim tattoos are generally selected from a book of prefabricated designs and applied by someone who knows how to trace a picture.

The overly busy decals used on Ed Hardy accessories perhaps being the most infamous example. Most forms of Chinese character tattoos, tribal designs and lower back tattoos also fall within this category. To determine if a tattoo was acquired on a whim one only needs to answer negatively to the following three questions: 1) Was the tattoo something you wanted and thought about for a long time, perhaps even years? 2) Are you the only person with this tattoo? 3) Can you call the person that applied the tattoo an artist?

The differentiation between tattoo types and motivation is not something to cause or promote discrimination. It is a distinction drawn to present a broader range of possibilities. If artists are held to certain standards of quality then the acceptance of tattoo art will be justified. When it comes to the choice of body art, there is no other area over which one has more direct control.

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