Tattoos became popular in the western world after Captain Cook and his contemporary explorers returned to Europe with tales and examples of Japanese, Maori, and other Pacific Islander indigenous art - tribal markings and local lore etched into the skin with whale bone needlecombs and hard wood hammers - using the natural ink of sea life to pay tribute to one's culture in the most public way possible.
The 1800s found Europe's Royalty escaping to the Pacific Rim and returning with the latest craze of Conspicuous Consumption (if you’ve never read The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstien Veblen – you’re missing out on the most accurate social commentary to reach print that’s as relevant today as it was when it was written), sparking a long lasting fad among the landed gentry. Unfortunately, in 1891, Samuel O’Riley began the downturn of body art as his invention of the tattoo gun would eventually bring tribal rituals to the underclass, proving status and prestige can no longer be bought with ink.
Along with his invention, came the trivial art that now plagues our society. For every tramp stamp, barbed wire band, broken heart, or "MOM" tattoo that clutters our society, let alone the blitz of tattoo reality shows, it makes me long for the pure days when tattoos were for warriors, poets, royalty, the landed gentry, and men for whom scurvy was a common occurrence.
Not surprisingly, some of the greatest concentrations of American Tattoos are in the Jails, Prisons, and local Harley Davidson dealerships. (I happen to frequent two of the three - but can you guess which ones?) In my time I have seen some pretty odd stuff: tattoo needles crafted from staples, pens, pins, batteries, or paperclips; tattoo guns built from radios, soap dispensers, and computer parts, colored ink manufactured from Sunday comics, home depot ads, and even jolly ranchers.
Tear drops, bunny tracks, rosaries, crosses, hearts, horns, dragons,guns, knives, Aztec symbology, and gang affiliated scribbles, it's all been documented with jail house "hepatitis needles." Some of it good, some of it bad, and a surprisingly amount misspelled (one guy got his own name wrong!). The coolest tattoo I've see "inside" - a replica of his baby's footprint, very tasteful. The creepiest - an ode to white supremacy on one's wedding tackle. This week, while scouring the endless sleeves, half suits, and various murals sported by my clientele, I noticed a guys' eyes (not something you would normally admit in such a setting). I asked him about the work on his skull and neck (they love to share), and then asked what was tattooed on his eye lids. He closed his eyes, and similar to Dr. Jones' love interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark, this gentleman had "Game Over," one word for each lid. I suppose in the end, while laying his blue festooned casket, having his homies parade by paying their respects to "Joker," that his final statement should be so expressive: life is game which I don't take seriously and will lose anyway. His mom must be so proud...