Tattoos have become more popular than ever, and they experienced an increased presence in 2016 when it came to celebrities. There was Rihanna and Drake's matching camouflage shark, the tiny cross that Justin Bieber got near his left eye, the Fat Jew's portrait of Barack Obama on a $5,000 bill, and Lady Gaga's David Bowie tribute tattoo, among many others. Celebrity ink is helping to change the way tattoos are thought about, and normalizing a practice that has surprisingly continued to carry a social stigma.
According to a 2015 Harris Poll that surveyed 2,225 Americans, roughly three in 10 Americans— about 29 percent—have at least one tattoo. Almost half of all millennials are inked, and about seven in 10 people have two or more tattoos. The Harris Poll's findings reflect the reality of the growing number of Americans getting tattoos, celebrities included.
When it comes to the influence of celebrity tattoos on other people getting inked, there does seem to be a larger connection. Jannah Miller, the shop manager at Electric Anvil Tattoo in Crown Heights, told me over email, "Celebrities getting tattooed definitely influences the style of tattoos that people want for sure. A while back, there was a huge trend of people getting 'under boob' Rihanna-style tattoos that look like lace. There has been a trend of people getting small trinket style tattoos, geometric patterns and mehndi/henna style designs."
Stephanie Tamez, tattooer and co-owner of Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn, added, "I would say the biggest trend I have seen in the last couple of years would be what people are calling 'naive' tattoos. Which is mostly black line, simple design illustration with quotes or statements. I also have noticed a lot of hand poke work—some by real tattooers exploring this style and others by non-tattooers. There have been a lot of fine line micro tattoos as well."
Jen Carmen, who has been tattooing for 20 years and owns New Foundland, NJ's Monarch Tattoo, noted, "As far as trends go, we have been tattooing lots of birds, owls, and ravens being the most popular. As far as celebrity tattoo culture goes, Scarlett Johansson did no one any favors by getting a 'homemade' tattoo. Every time someone with high visibility does something like that, it undermines what so many serious dedicated artists and craftspeople dedicated their lives to."
While these larger fads in tattoo culture are important to note, Carmen also seems to be suggesting there is a broader history that the average person has to be alerted to. The larger history of tattoos, particularly in the United States and abroad, is complicated and spans centuries and cultures. However, the wider exposure to the practice, and the celebrities who are participating, is continuing to help normalize the practice of tattoos.
There's also a larger gendered element to tattoo culture that Dr. Beverly Thompson, a professor of sociology at Siena College, researched within her book 2015 book, Covered in Ink: Tattoos and the Politics of the Body.
Dr. Thompson said via email, "Women have been an important part of popularizing tattoo culture, as the practice grew from masculine subcultures and new demographic groups began collecting in earnest. In 2012, the Harris Poll reported that women surpassed men as tattoo collectors for the first time. With the changing demographics of tattoo collectors, the meaning of being inked has changed. For women, they still struggle with gendered public reactions, which reminds them that for women, gender appropriate tattoos remain small, cute, and hidden. Yet this hasn't slowed down the increase of heavily tattooed women that are represented in the media and in public, who are redefining their own concept of beauty and self-expression."
Dr. Thompson's astute observation surrounding the way women in particular have helped to popularize tattoo culture is vital. It also speaks to the influence that women celebrities such as Kat Von D and Rihanna play in the public eye. Tattoo culture has become the subject of several reality television shows—including TLC's ink series Miami Ink, LA Ink, and New York Ink—and Spike TV's Ink Master, recently crowned its first woman winner. Reality television, as well as many famous tattooers Instagram accounts such as Dr. Woo, Kat Von D, and others, have all helped lift the veil behind tattoo culture and give the general public a peek into this otherwise private world. Tattoos continue to gain momentum in celebrity and culture, and if 2016 has taught us anything, it's that tattoos really are for the masses.
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