Flip on the TV, and you're sure to spot at least one tattooed celebrity within a few minutes. The shear number of athletes, actors, actresses, singers, musicians, comedians, and other celebrities who have tattoos today shows just how deeply this art form has permeated the mainstream. Just a few decades ago, many people would have been appalled to see so many visible tattoos on their favorite celebrities, but they're so common now that most people don't give celebrity tattoos a second thought. How did the American public become so desensitized to tattoos when they were considered taboo for most of the 20th century? When exactly did tattoos go mainstream?
The History of Tattoos
The art form of tattooing is nearly as old as mankind itself. It dates back at least to Neolithic times, which we know from the markings found on Ötzi the Iceman, who is believed to have lived between the 5th and 4th millennium BC. Egyptian mummies like that of Amunet, who lived in the 2nd millennium BC, have also been found to have tattoos on them. The Picts, who lived in Scotland during the late Iron Age and early Medieval periods, were decorated with war-inspired tattoos that were described by Julius Caesar in Book V of his Gallic Wars. They weren't the only tattooed Europeans during that time period, either; many from pre-Christian Germanic and Celtic tribes and others from central and northern European areas were also heavily tattooed--particularly the warriors of those regions.
Tribal cultures have used tattoos to distinguish warriors and mark major milestones for thousands of years, and not just in early Euroasian and African tribes. The natives of New Zealand, South American natives and the Native Americans of North America are a few examples of other tribal peoples who have utilized tattoos to classify warriors, celebrate their accomplishments, and commemorate life achievements for countless centuries. Throughout history, many natives have also used tattooing for a variety of religious purposes. For instance, the Mojave Indians believe that it's necessary to tattoo a specific pattern on the chin to ensure one's entrance into the afterlife.
In addition to being used for religious and commemorative purposes, tattoos have also long been used to beautify the body, depict cultural symbols, show a person's status, and more. Some ancient cultures used tattoos as a form of punishment, marking both prisoners and slaves visibly, while others used tattoos for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. You can look back and see these trends around the globe and throughout time, not just in limited areas or eras. The Egyptians, Africans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Persians, Taiwanese, South Americans, Native Americans, Europeans, Samoans, and many other cultures all utilized tattoos for these diverse purposes in the past, and tattooing remains popular among people all around the world for many of the same reasons today.
History of Tattoos in the U.S.
The first wide-spread appearance of tattoos in Anglo-American society occurred shortly after the American Revolution, when sailors used tattoos as identifying marks. Without tattoos, scars or other unique and easily-identifiable markings, the descriptions of sailors found in government-issued protection papers were usually too vague. Since those papers were often the only barrier between freedom and impressment (forced labor) for sailors picked up by the British Royal Navy, many sailors got tattoos to ensure that their protection paper descriptions were as specific to them as possible. If there was any question as to whether or not a sailor's papers legitimately belonged to him, he could show the tattoos described in them and thus prove his American citizenship.
Fast forward to the Civil War, when tattoos also became popular among soldiers thanks to the first documented professional tattoo artist in the U.S., German emigrant Martin Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt tattooed soldiers on both sides of the war between 1861 and 1865, just a decade after American Sam O'Reilly patented the first tattoo machine. It wasn't until well after the war--more than 125 years after tattoos made their first appearance in an American subculture--that tattoos became popular among people outside of the military.
The next group to adopt the art of tattooing was the wealthy American upper class, towards the end of the 19th century. These were some of the only Americans who could afford the expensive process of tattooing at that time, and they were particularly fascinated with intricate, Japanese-inspired designs. Those days were also the peak of popularity for circus show and carnival "freaks" who both shocked and delighted the American public with their full-body tattoos.
By the early 1940s, the the tattoo fad among the upper class had waned, and people's former curiosity about tattoos had devolved into disgust. For decades after, tattooed people were looked down on and assumed to be deviants. Tattoos were negatively associated with bikers, sailors and outcasts. That negative connotation began to fade in the 1970s, though, some say due in part to Janis Joplin's iconic Florentine bracelet wrist tattoo, which was one of the first celebrity tattoos to gain media attention. Tattoos have become progressively more mainstream ever since the early '70s. They're now common among both sexes, available to all economic classes, and sported by everyone from teenagers to Baby Boomers and even the elderly.
Tattoos in the Mainstream Today
In the past, tattoos were more common among men than women, due in large part to the role they've played for male military personnel since the mid-1700s. Things are different today, though. Now, more young women have tattoos than their male counterparts--twice as many, in fact. 34% of all voting Americans ages 18-30 have at least one tattoo, and 1/5 of this group has 3 or more tattoos. 14% of voting Americans over the age of 45 have tattoos, too, as do 18% of Americans over the age of 65. Tattoos are everywhere, spanning and uniting people of all ages, races, sexes, and varying economic statuses. People are also covering more of their bodies in tattoos than ever before, celebrating this art form by donning full arm and leg sleeves, chest pieces, full-back pieces, hand and foot designs, and even facial and neck tattoos.
Although tattooing's reputation as an art form has grown steadily since the 1970s, the explosion of tattoos in pop culture started with the launch of the first widely-popular tattooing shows Miami Ink, LA Ink and Inked in the early 2000s. Since then, more and more people have joined the Tattooed Nation--as many as 45 million Americans as of December 2013--and many of those people are celebrities. Famous athletes like David Beckham, well-loved musicians like Adam Levine, and favorite actors like Angelina Jolie all have multiple tattoos and even full sleeves. The crazy number of celebrities who sport tattoos today speaks volumes for how tattooing has infiltrated the mainstream. The prevalence of tattooed celebrities has also helped many Americans who previously thought negatively of tattoos to either embrace the art form or at least become more tolerant of it.
Many people now get tattoos just to have beautiful, wearable art permanently placed on the blank canvasses of their bodies. Others get tattoos in memory of loved ones, to celebrate life achievements, to hide scars, to beautify their faces with permanent makeup, to express their individuality, and even to declare their love for others. All the purposes that tattoos have served historically and then some are prevalent today. The art of tattooing has literally put its mark on the world, and future accounts of 21st century history will only be richer and more colorful for it.
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