An ancient art becomes mainstream: The acceptance of tattoo art helps remove former stigma

Tattooing is sometimes treated by pop-culture journalists as some new fad. It is more popular today, with middle class kids and some of their parents than it ever has  been in America, but there is nothing new about tattooing itself, or other bodily adornment like piercings.

According to the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, tattooing has been practiced since the days of the ancient Egyptians, although the pharaohs and their gang must have called it some other word. Tatau is a Tahitian word, and ta-tu the Marquesan word that Captain Cook's sailors brought back from their 18th-century travels to Polynesia, where tattooing held great cultural significance on most of the far flung islands of the South Pacific.

Sailors became the first segment of western populations to go for tattoos in a big way. Veterans of overseas wars and convicts followed.

But something has happened in the past 15 years or so, and tattooing has exploded into the mainstream.

Jim, 35, who works at the Seattle Tattoo Emporium at 1508 Boren, has a quick way of confirming that tattooing has become a much more mainstream pursuit than it was 15 or 20 years ago:

"When I came here in 1989 there were maybe three shops. Now at any one time there are between 40 or 50 listings (for tattooists). It's a double-edged sword. There are more people into it but it is also much more competitive and the population of Seattle hasn't grown nearly as much (as the number of tattooists)."

Jim's relationship with tattoos began when he was a little kid.

"I got my first tattoo when I was 6-years old, in Tucson, Arizona," he said. "My father had lots of tattoos and that's what first interested me. My first tattoo was done by a professional artist, a friend of the family. He didn't want to do it but my Dad said if he didn't I would just get one of my friends to do it and then he (the artist) would just have to clean it up anyway."

Jim has tattooed his way up and across the American social landscape.

"In the '70s it was still pretty seedy. It was unacceptable," he said. "The guys involved in it were not dummies. They were some really smart, really creative people who just weren't into nine-to-five jobs. When you wanted to open a storefront you had to lie, say it was an artist's studio. People would cross the street to get away from you. In 1990, I had to lie when I bought a house on my mortgage statement. Now, it's like, 'oh, tattoo artist, you make a lot of money, right?'"

Azure, the manager of Apocalypse Tattoo at 1558 East Olive Way, acknowledges that tattooing has changed.

"It is a lot more mainstream. People from all walks of life. Surgeons and judges get tattooed nowadays," she said. She added that I-Ching (Chinese characters) and tribal (so-called primitive art, Polynesian-inspired) seem to be slightly on the wane.

"A lot more people now seem to be focusing on the quality of the work. They have their own ideas and either bring in a sketch or describe what they want done to one of our (six) artists (who are all between the ages of 27 to 38, and who are all multi-tatted themselves)," she said.

Not every request is granted.

"We generally want to fulfill any request but we won't do any racist tattoos and we tend to discourage name tattoos. We won't do name tattoos for a couple unless they have been together a long time, like 10 years," Azure said.

"I used to try and save people from themselves," Jim said, laughing. "But  who am I to say what something means or doesn't mean to a person. I feel like this (tattooing) should be the one place where we just shut the f... up and do what the person wants. There are enough people, from the government on down, telling people what they can't do."

As for names....

"We say if you want to get rid of someone, put their name on your body. It's like a talisman," Jim said.

When asked what's the weirdest tattoo she's seen, Azure mentions that one of her shop's artists has a banner tattooed around his chest which says "Please try CPR one more time."

A tattoo artist at Laughing Buddha Tattoo, 219 Broadway East, No. 24, who requested his name not be used, said his weird pick was a guy who had flames tattooed "coming out of his butt."

Another tattoo artist based now in the Midwest said he saw a beautiful young woman who had a green rattle snake tattooed from the base of her neck, gliding down her backbone, with the snake's head disappearing down her pants.

Jim, at Seattle Tattoo Emporium, had his own take on this question.

"It's the brain that is weird, not the skin attached to it. And the straighter they look the stranger their requests tend to be sometimes," Jim said.

Summertime in Seattle is tattoo artist's high season. More skin is being shown and people want to decorate themselves.

"In the Virgin Islands, where there are tourists all year, tattoo artists are busy all year. We're just like other businesses. When the restaurant next door is slow, we're slow. The cops come in and smoke a cigar and talk. They're slow, too. When everybody else is busy, we're busy, too," Jim said.

Whatever your position on tattoos, be you a parent who is against Little Johnny tatting up, or an alleged rebel whose dream is to start a rock band and shock people, know that you are not alone. More and more people are thinking about tattoos and quite a few of them are acting on such thoughts.

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