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Episode 143: Tattoos fuse art, culture and identity into one expression

From their historical roots in identity to their modern-day significance, tattoos are not only on the rise but are also evolving to reflect a changing world.

KAYLIE SIROVY: Hey everybody, this is Kaylie Sirovy from the Minnesota Daily and you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast dedicated to the University of Minnesota.

A little fun fact about me is that I have three tattoos on my right arm. I got one as soon as I turned eighteen, eager to mark the occasion. I chose a design with timeless appeal, something I knew I would cherish for years to come. As time passed, I found myself returning to the tattoo studio annually, each visit adding another layer of self-expression to my arm. The tattoos I have reflect my evolving tastes and passions, serving as a visual timeline of my journey through life.

The point is I love tattoos, but does the rest of the country? Data from the Pew Research Center can show us. According to their 2023 survey, 32% of adults have adorned themselves with at least one tattoo, marking an increase from previous years. This hints at a growing acceptance of tattoos, especially within the younger generations as it also shows 41% of those aged 18-29 are tattooed.

The roots of tattooing are etched into human history, spanning across diverse civilizations and cultures scattered throughout the globe with origins dating back millennia. Some reaching as far as 5,200 years ago. Evidence of tattooing can be traced across a vast array of cultures, from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks and across a frozen expanse to Siberian nomadic tribes. Looking to the south, the Nubians of Africa and the indigenous peoples of South America also had tattoos.

Venturing across the Pacific Ocean, one encounters the rich tapestry of the Polynesians tattoo culture, where intricate patterns served as both a testament to identity and their societal standing, according to anthropology professor David Lipset. 

DAVID LIPSET: Now in these cultures, traditionally, men and women received tattoos as part of their membership in particular identities in society that we call statuses, and so they received tattoos when they became adults. When a man became an adult and was eligible to marry, for example, or a woman became an adult, could marry and have children, or when they joined particular groups of people, secret societies or other groups of people, artists or political leaders. They received tattoos that represented their maturity, represented what rank in society they held and what groups they belong to in society.

SIROVY: Meaning tattoos served as a visual language through which individuals communicated their place within the intricate web of societal structures. They were badges of honor, declarations of allegiance and testaments to one’s journey through life—a living canvas basically. That idea hasn’t changed much. Rylee Anderson, a seasoned tattoo artist at Dinkytown Tattoo with 15 years of experience, says that he sees a lot of tattoos that intersect with people’s identities.

RYLEE ANDERSON: You know there’s a lot of people that will get tattoos in celebration of their sexual identity or like their gender identity and stuff like that. And even though I’m a, you know, straight white male, I don’t know what it’s like to go through that, but I think it’s awesome that I give these people a way to express themselves through these designs that kind of touch on these very intimate subjects for them. You know, I’ll see a lot of people, the different ethnic backgrounds that will get tattoos that are a celebration of their culture and their ethnic history which I think is always a wonderful thing to be able to do for someone.

SIROVY: In Polynesian cultures, tattoos held a profound significance that extended beyond mere decoration. According to Lipset, they were also thought to be alive.

LIPSET: They were thought to have power that not only bestowed power to their wearers but also communicated with them. So, if you’ve seen the Disney animated feature of Moana, one of the major, one of the heroes of the movie in the narrative, is the so-called demigod Maui.

One of the things, one of the ways that they depict Maui is that some of his tattoos are alive. Some of his tattoos move across his body and communicate with him, approve of something he’s done or disapprove of something he’s done. And that general idea is actually consistent with, or the traditional ways that, you know, tattoos were thought about in pre-contact or in traditional Polynesia.

SIROVY: According to Lipset, Polynesian’s tattoos were integral components of a communal identity. They were emblematic of shared narratives, beliefs and cultural heritage. Nowadays, they are more representative of individual expression. My tattoos, for example, are flowers, lightsabers and plant vines. Those reflect who I am, not what my community or status looks like. Anderson said that he sees a lot of people get tattoos inspired by their favorite music, video game, or anime.

ANDERSON: I do a lot of stuff that is from different fandoms, like Lord of the Rings or whatever. And it’s a way for people to express like something that they just love that means so much to them. And they get to wear that on their skin. 

BLU: I have some clients too that get tattoos because they have parts of their body that they don’t like. Like maybe their legs aren’t as attractive as they would like to be, and so they come to me and get tattoos to make them more attractive. And I have seen these people brighten up when they start covering those areas and like it changes their whole perspective about their self confidence and their way they show themselves to others, and it’s kind of nice to be part of that too.

SIROVY: Meet Blu, another artist at Dinkytown Tattoo, who has been part of the team for about two years. Both Blu and Anderson shared a recent surge in trends among their student clientele, with a particular emphasis on lettering, angel numbers, and fine lines with abundant foliage motifs such as ferns and herbs. Blu mentioned that when students make their decisions, it’s often a culmination of various factors all coming into play at once.

BLU: It’s a lot of everything. Sometimes people who come in with friends or in a group can be a little persuaded by other people in the group, which I’m a bit against because it’s their body and their tattoo and they should be a bit clear headed in terms of not these kind of outside sources as much, especially right before the process.

You can get all those opinions before you come in the shop, but yeah, there’s, you kind of have to trust your gut a little bit. Usually people kind of, they have this like little voice in their head that kind of knows that that’s what they want. And it depends on society a little bit and on the friends a little bit and people’s lifestyles and everything.

SIROVY: In modern Western tattoo culture, whether driven by peer influence or broader cultural trends, there is a choice. That doesn’t mean that everyone will choose to get a tattoo as 85% of untattooed Americans say they are not likely to get a tattoo in the future. But as social media continues to dominate our lives, it can also influence a great deal, according to Anderson.

ANDERSON: There’s this old saying that I remember hearing in, in the beginning of my tattooing career that was, and it’s a little risqué, but it was basically tattooing isn’t just for sailors and *censored* anymore.

Because back in the day, like the people that you saw that were tattooed were sailors, women of the night, so to speak, in those types of places, in those port towns, bikers, you know. People that were freak shows, like people that were a lot more rough around the edges, but yeah, now you’re seeing, you know, I tattoo scientists, and I’ve tattooed people that work in literally all walks of life.

SIROVY: Although you can see just about anyone with ink on their skin now, there are notable variations between genders. Data from the Pew Research Center also revealed that 38% of women sport at least one tattoo, compared to 27% of men. Moreover, this trend is particularly pronounced among younger adult women aged 18- 29. 

While tattooing trends and numbers change here in the United States, the same might not be said for indigenous tattoos in New Zealand. There is a Māori practice where women traditionally adorn their chins with tattoos, a practice that some still uphold today, while others are rediscovering it. These tattoos typically consisted of parallel lines etched onto their chins, serving as symbolic markers of their adulthood and societal status.

LIPSET: The determination of that, you know, wasn’t really a matter of selection. It was if you became an adult woman and you, you know, had the resources to compensate the tattoo artist, usually with food, then it was something you wanted to do because it was a matter of prestige.

The idea of choice is not really part of the choice of the artist or the choice of the tattoo receiver. It’s not really part of the process. Except in a country, in a culture like, you know, our own, which is so based in individualism.

SIROVY: Economic downturns, like the 2008 recession, can sway those personal tattoo trends and ideas. Despite tattoos being viewed as a luxury, their popularity depends on quite a few things.

ANDERSON: Tattooing is a luxury. It is not a necessity. It is not something, it’s not a utility. You know, it costs money and they are expensive.

So I was not seeing a lot of people getting tattooed as much back then. However, you know, the TV shows has really propelled tattooing into the forethought of a lot of folks that maybe hadn’t thought about it as much before. And because of the individuality aspect of the tattoos that was presented in these tattoo shows really made people feel like, oh man, like I can express myself through this.

So it made kind of this huge boom over the last, yeah, like, I mean, last like 10, 15 years has been insane. And especially since COVID has happened. I went into that whole deal thinking, oh, tattooing is over, man. Like, you know, when we had to be shut down for three months, I was really worried about the state of tattooing and what that was going to look like once we were able to go back to work.

Boy, was I wrong because it has been an insane uptick in people getting tattooed and becoming tattooers over the last four years, especially it has been absolutely insane. It’s been great for business. I think we’re finally now starting to kind of level out from that because we didn’t have a slow season for the last four years up until this, this, you know, winter. So, it’s kind of an interesting thing to see how much that has changed. 

BLU: I agree with everything Riley said. I’ve noticed that I have super diverse clients like everyone from college kids getting their first tattoo to 60-year-old women getting their first tattoo.

SIROVY: Tattoos are like snapshots of personal stories and cultural shifts. From the ancient traditions of Polynesians to today’s binge-worthy tattoo reality shows, they’re not just ink on skin—they’re statements, conversations and expressions of who we are. Despite ups and downs, tattoos have stayed in the spotlight, evolving with society’s tastes and tech. In our world of hashtags and viral trends, tattoos are more than just body art—they’re bridges between people and generations and cultures. So, whether you’re a college student getting inked for the first time with your best friends or a 60-year-old embracing a new chapter, each tattoo tells a story.

This episode was written and produced by Kaylie Sirovy. As always, we appreciate you listening in and feel free to leave us an email at [email protected] with comments, questions or concerns. I’m Kaylie, and this is In The Know.

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  • Wendy Eilers
    Mar 16, 2024 at 1:42 pm

    Very, very informative!! Loved the tattoo podcast.