Humans have been tattooing themselves for over 5,000 years. Their purposes and meanings are as diverse as the people whose bodies they have decorated. They have been declarations of love, symbols of status or religion, brands of punishment, identifiers of criminals, or simple decorations.
Today, tattoos are just as popular as they ever were, but even as pop culture embraces the idea, there is a pervading negative stigma that has attached itself to tattooing. It’s sometimes seen as unprofessional, offensive, obscene, and even atrocious. But for every image that’s particularly violent or disturbing, it still seems there are many more that are filled with beauty, symbolism, and love.
So where did this stigma come from, when at one point in our history—in the world’s history—tattoos could be used to signify high status and leadership? Royalty in Europe was still using them as a mark of wealth as late as the 1870s. But today, we are seeing employers, police services, and even the army ban all or most tattoos from being seen.
The nineteenth and twentieth century saw a huge rise is the commonality of tattoos, as they became more accessible and less expensive. Acceptance has grown with the sheer popularity, but not always in good places. During the 1960s and 1970s, tattoos became prevalent among socially outcast groups such as bikers, prisoners, criminals, and gang members. It was used as a way to identify group affiliation and in some cases indicated facts about crimes committed.
Indeed, those who have tattoos are substantially more likely to have spent time in jail than non-tattooed people—72% as compared to 6%. So, as this trend has become apparent, people are more likely to see tattoos as an indication of “trouble,” rather than an artistic expression of individuality.
And yet, many would agree that there’s significant beauty to be found in tattoos, particularly in those works that are unique and not just “flash” (mass-produced) images. But will this negative stigma ever go away?