Naked Canvas

Body art as expression

By Jin Kim

Once symbols of vulgarity and savagery, tattoos have evolved over time and have  tested the limits of social tolerance.

Today, people of all backgrounds and subcultures indulge in body modifications as public opinions on what they mean shift towards a more understanding view.

“It’s definitely changed a lot, and I think it has to do in large part with the ascension of these tattoo worlds onto TV,” said David Strohecker, tattoo collector and University of Maryland doctoral student, who is writing his dissertation on the tattoo subculture. “Reality TV started to cover the escapades of tattoo shops and tattoo people and made it more publicly accessible to a large number of people,” he said.

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In America, tattoos were largely exclusive to deviants or sailors; they remained unpopular with the general public until the 1970s, during a period named the Tattoo Renaissance, when the various counter-culture movements of the time appropriated tattoos as symbols of expression.

Tattoo artist Dee Dessen, or Miss Dee, who has been a tattoo artist since 1989 at College Park’s Great Southern Tattoo, has noticed the shift in public perception as well.

“People who would’ve never gotten tattooed in the older days get tattooed now because they see it on TV,” said Miss Dee. “And a lot of people who haven’t gotten tattooed get tattoos commemorating family members that have passed.”

Strohecker, who has collected tattoos on most of his body, attributes a lot of the general public’s approach to tattoos on media. The frequent portrayals of tattoos as deeply symbolic and containing narratives have played a role in moving tattoos away from the realm of social deviance.

“This is how a lot of people from middle class backgrounds or more wealthy classes have approache[d] tattooing,” Strohecker said. “It’s a deeply symbolic, almost narrative approach, the kind of thing that was portrayed in a lot of the early reality TV shows like “Miami Ink” or “L.A. Ink.” Instead of seeing it as an indication of deviance, they see it as ‘Oh, that’s a symbol or a memento or a meaningful thing for the individual.’”

“The old days of just getting a tattoo because you liked it are over,” said Miss Dee. “The people who do that are few and far between. Everybody needs to have a meaning now. Personally, I don’t see why.”

Students on campus have mixed opinions.

“I don’t like people who just got tattoos because they just thought it looked cool,” said Pat Brady, a graduate student, who has four tattoos himself. “I think each one should mean something to you or remind you of a time of your life. That’s why I got them.”

“I don’t think there needs to be some deep reason,” said Alex Hursey, sophomore elementary education major, who has one tattoo and several others planned for the future. “If people have tattoos that don’t mean something, there’s a lot of judgment going on, but I dig people who just get tattoos because they just look really cool.”

Strohecker also said that the popularity of tattoos among celebrities as well as heavily tattooed professionals have helped change the perceptions of tattoos into what it is today.

It has reached a point where those seeking social deviancy can no longer rely simply on tattoos.

“I know a lot of people who wish it was still a little more deviant,” Strohecker said. “It kind of backfires now for a lot of people now who had that sort of more traditional approach, like, ‘This is my form of rebellion’ kind of thing instead of, ‘This is my expression of myself or my identity.’”

With people always looking to oppose the status quo and tattoos no longer fulfilling that need, other, more uncommon forms of body art may be scratching the surface of a fast-evolving pursuit for deviancy.

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