Throughout history, tattoos in the West have by and large been reserved for specific subcultures that assert group identity through tattooing. However, tattoos have undergone a paradigm shift in the past 50 years as they began to find their place in the mainstream. Since then, this specific body art has evolved from its power to express group identity to its most contemporary power in the 21st century, the ability to express self identity and individuality.
When Captain Cook made his ground breaking landfall in the Pacific in 1769, he was the first to have real contact with the painted people the Pacific. Afterwards, it was “rediscovered” by Western subcultures The earliest subculture to claim tattooing was the sailors. Their use of tattooing was for group identification. The seafarers were united by inscription as a whole, separating them from the mainstream culture, but at the same time they differentiated amongst themselves by the types of tattoos they got. For example, those born before the revolution inscribed things like “independence” and “liberty” or a cluster of stars, while the younger boys focused more on tattooing their initials, maritime symbols, and less specific patriotic symbols
However, the most poignant use of tattoos in the last century is the Holocaust tattoos. In that context, tattoos were forced onto others as a mark of alleged inferiority.It is not until the 1960’s, when tattoo artists began to study fine-art training by looking at Polynesian and Japanese body art that tattoos began to be considered fashionable or artistic. Since then, tattoos have become swallowed up by fashion.
Kat Von D--powerful tattoo artist and female media figure
Rick Genest "Zombie Boy" in Mugler campaign and Lady Gaga's video.
Gaultier used temporary facial tattoos in his show.
If this is the case, have tattoos become part of what sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the “carnival of signs,” a postmodern world filled with floating and misunderstood signs where everything is reduced to mere participation in the fashion system? Even if we keep tattoos linked with their devious roots and define them as an anti-fashion, in post-modern thought the resistance to fashion is still seen as a participation in the greater system because fashion is self referential.
An important qualification is that while fashion maybe self-referential, tattoos are not merely observed in the realm of fashion, making them referential in other, more sober contexts, specifically “the self.” Since they are permanent markings on the skin, and not frivolous fabrics that have a fast turn-over rate, tattoos end up defining a person for a lifetime, not an afternoon or a season. In that sense they transcend fashion, and become part of a larger discussion of the expression of self and the inescapable urge to communicate through visual, and non-verbal ways.
There is clearly a deeper connection to getting a tattoo than simply following or negating fashion because if tattoos were only fashion accessories then only the end result would matter, and temporary tattoos would suffice.
At the same time the meaning depends on the receiver. Certain tattoos can hold a deeper meaning to those who associate with it. Nevertheless, when it comes down to it, tattoos have the most meaning to the individual. They commemorate a significant moment, a loved one, or an idea and become “body projects”. We can choose to mark up our skin in whichever way we want, and in that way it can mean whatever we want and remain indexical of so much more than a simple participation in the fashion system. In fashion that is not the case because we can only wear what is offered to us. Even those opposing fashion, by tearing their jeans for example, are using the fashion codes that already exist.
The tattoo gives power back to the individual by allowing him to express identity through a fashion item that is both aesthetically pleasing AND meaningful, which in our arguably postmodern world is a rarity—if not inconceivability.