Ink Nation: What’s behind the tattoo obsession?

These times… they are a changin’.

Whether you receive a handshake, wish you could pull up a teenager’s jeans or have learned that summer sandals expose your seemingly conservative co-worker – we no longer have to work hard to uncover that our world has been inked, stamped, drawn on and tattooed in every shape and size. Everywhere you turn, people can’t get enough of self-expressing in the most permanent – and controversial – manner.

Decades ago, this naughty form of artistic rebellion was perceived to be self-destructive, taboo and supposedly reserved for illicit bikers, peace-pushing hippies and beauty school dropouts. In 2013, your Bieber-obsessed 14 year-old just has to get Believer (Belieber?) perma-ed on her love handle – and she’ll belabour (belieber?) the point until you allow it.

According to the documentary Tattoo Nation, one-third of adults under the age of 40 have a tattoo. This was most certainly not the case thirty years ago. Pew’s Research Centre for Millenials has taught us that four of ten 18-30 year-olds have one tattoo, half of that bunch have two to five tattoos and 18 per cent have six or more. Needless to say, if you don’t have one, you might be considering what you’d get if you ever went under the needle. If you don’t want one, you’ll never understand wanting one. If you have one, you probably want more.

It’s a funny turn we’ve taken into a tattoo-obsessed generation. Whereas before, no explanation (only congratulations that you were still part of the respectable status quo) was needed when you refrained from inking your body – today, it’s not uncommon to have an answer prepared for why you haven’t, or wouldn’t, take this “self-expressive” plunge.

But, is it always self-expressive? What really is the reason we keep going back for more and more? Some of the most artistic people I know don’t have a single mark on them (of course, this number is dwindling). And some of the more mathematical, straight-laced folk in my life have surprised me with this historically daring gesture. I know some aging Mommas and Poppas – of the non-California Dreaming-kind – who’ve proudly reversed their generation’s stigmatic approach to ink by parading their own body art.

It’s impossible to wade through the sea of the inked population and nail down one particular motive; any one person can dare to do it for a number of reasons, and I’m not in any position to declare one is more right or wrong than the others. There’s no doubt that in the heat of our 20s, when the newest haircut or accessory no longer cuts it – some feel it’s a natural progression to trendily tattoo what you’re trying to convey; what makes you feel sexy or cool. According to Pews, 31% of people say their tattoo makes them feel sexy, while 29% feel rebellious.

A popular form of reasoning for getting a tattoo (and what the judgmental might accept in order to sleep at night), is that it serves as a personal affirmation, memory or mantra to ground someone; it brings them solace or commemoration via sight of their own skin. The largest 43% say this is their inking intention.

And then there are the many – who most likely wouldn’t bother with a survey – who simply don’t care or even know why they decided to hop into the parlour chair. The idea behind what’s on a stretch of skin definitely doesn’t define them, but their casual (and perhaps, refreshing) approach to a permanent memento kind of does. They just like getting it done.

Realistically, tattoos – paired with a motive or an acknowledgement of no particular motive at all – are only up to that person; and if that person’s happiness and quality of life is heightened by any permanent decision they make – it’s no one else’s call. Whenever people negatively comment on another’s tattoo considerations with something (usually said in a backhanded tone) like, “I guess I would just never get one. . .” I suggest the recipient acknowledges their choice and responds, “That’s why I’m not asking you to.”

I have three tattoos. I’d consider – well, am always considering – more of them. None of them fit into a particular category of reasoning, but I suppose they each pull from a number of rationales. Trendiness or sexiness weren’t the motives when I first decided to get one as a 16 year-old figuring out how to make myself feel that much more different (*Note: I presented my parents with the idea, waited several months and am still madly in love with it). Being tattooed also wasn’t yet at the increased level of socially acceptable that it is now, either – so perhaps it was a little rebellious. Affirmation on a personal note would be the most fitting reason. And being fairly relaxed about the idea was a small piece of the puzzle – a piece that grew with years, as I can vouch for the fact that your general attitude towards your tattoos in the years that follow will shift towards pleasantly indifferent. Sooner or later, the ink literally becomes a part of your skin which, despite still loving them, I hardly look to for meaning or encouragement. Similar to this whole tattoo era, the “shock factor” of your own permanent mark fades just as beautifully as the tattoo itself. I’m not sure if this attitude is a good or bad thing – but I suppose if all three tattoos were the last sight I saw, they would act as a nice reminder of my original motivation.

What I wonder is, while the masses continue to tattoo and re-tattoo at an alarming rate, now that it’s so common – how much of the motivation is aesthetic and showy, and how much is to be reminded of meaning and a moment of expressiveness over the years? Did the sober tattooed yesteryear and rebellious baby boomers have the right idea decades ago? As in, “This is going to be on me forever. No one wants me to have this and few will think it’s cool. Better make it count.”

When I recently talked loftily about another tattoo, someone non-judgmentally asked me, “Why do you want to get another one though?” And although I could have answered with the significance of what I considered getting, I instead tried to think about the real “Why?” we keep going back for more. Maybe the more we see of them, the less scary “forever” becomes. But I also assume that in a fairly desensitized and liberal society – a competitive one at that – some people vow to make a difference, feel different, express differently, better, and more creatively than the next – in new, unique and edgy ways. At the end of the day, making something a part of you and knowing your reasoning doesn’t mimic your neighbour’s, is maybe our own way of self-validating our individualism. But then again, I think some people just like pulling up their shirt, too.

So, while the swing into everyday ink nation is a welcome one, the motives are always worth a ponder. Does it really add value to our lives? Can we still see what we engrave as something significant? Maybe every second boardroom presenter will be hiding inked dragons and chinese symbols beneath their pin-striped suits and pencil skirts in 2030. But the way I see it is, as long as we remain married to the idea of “forever”; either eternally standing behind it, eternally not caring or eternally being happily reminded of what it meant to us – smiling when it fades to untrendy blue and when you never want to show it off again – then we still kind of have the right idea.



  1. Tom says:

    Now do a piece on…. piercings, body mods, implants, reductions/enhancements etc.. I think the whole thing is less about social gratification and more focused on psychology. When those numbers like you put 18% or more grow it becomes more a question of “if everyone’s doing it why shouldn’t I” I’m not saying it is absurd. What I am thinking is perhaps it has nothing to do with society and more to do with an individuals upbringing. Sure I knew allot of people in school who had tattoos, but I also knew an even greater sum who didn’t have them. Perhaps I’m sounding cynical here I’m sorry if I am, I don’t have any tattoos and like you said someone like myself would never understand. However that isn’t exactly the whole picture now is it, one could just as easily say someone with tattoos could never understand what it means to be normal. Again not throwing words around, just pointing out that it is more psychological than it is anything else.

  2. Andrea says:

    I really liked your perspective Jess; I don’t have a tattoo but am much more on the ‘considering/will probably get in future’ than the critical/disapproving side. Mostly in the middle, though. Found this after searching about understanding the ‘why’…and in reference to the other comment I think that it is possible to understand someone different to oneself, but that its all about empathy i.e. letting go of one’s self with all its preconceptions and prejudices, and ‘being’ the other for a bit, then utilising the insight gained to have appreciation.

  3. Luke says:

    That was so nice of you to completely ignore Tom’s objective analysis and go straight for the girl who is thinking about joining your Pro-Tattoo team, so to speak.

    • In a Nutshell says:

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for your comment. Our blog underwent some changes since the time that this article was posted and the author no longer writes for us. Generating a discussion with Tom on a subject that none of the current authors posted about didn’t feel right. We have the ability to allow and disallow comments on our site; if we wanted to ignore it or push a “Pro-Tattoo” agenda, we would have simply hidden it. In any case, we appreciate your comment as it reminds us to reply to all comments received on the site. Thanks for reading!

  4. Jessica says:

    I’m really looking forward to getting tattoos in the future. I really love the way in which tattoos look, and already plan on were to get them. I feel like tattoos express myself. Right now I’m 12 years old.

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