Tattooing: Permanent Marks on Culture


(Image via BangBangNYC)

Tattoo communities have always been a mystery to me. None of my family members (immediate or extended) have tattoos; in fact, my parents are very against them. As I grew up, I became more and more intrigued with tattoos, what they symbolized, and why people got them. As my friends began turning 18, some ran straight to the tattoo parlor, while others steered clear. I have been with several people as they have been tattooed, either for the first time or because they loved getting them so much. I would like to discuss tattoo communities as subcultures, questioning if they fit the requirements to be considered as such; and what we as a society can add to media discourses surrounding tattoo communities to provide those unfamiliar with a better understanding of the group.

Ken Gelder says there are six components that identify a subculture in his book Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice (3). The first is negative relations to labor. This is an interesting characteristic to consider when analyzing tattoo subcultures and is very present, as tattoos in the work place have a stigma of being unacceptable. However, this refers to the corporate workplace, but a tattoo shop is a work place just the same. In an article published in 2013 in Forbes magazine, one author reported that, “tattoos are no longer a kiss of death in the workplace” (in conjunction with the article title). The change in dynamics of tattoo communities is prevalent and is becoming more accepted in a corporate work place. Second, Gelder says that subcultures transcend class. In considering the history of tattooing, this is important to consider: tattooing started in prisons and has evolved into an elevated art form. The transcendence of class in tattooing comes to life in the turn of the twentieth century, which Gelder cites on page 131. He quotes Albert Parry (author of the book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art published in 1933):

“When the ruling classes go in for tattooing, they are perfectly aware of the fact that slum dwellers, toughs, sailors and other plebs constitute the majority of the tattoo-fans in all the civilized countries. But they are not at all repulsed by this consideration. On the contrary, it is the subconscious desire of the upper class to borrow the primitive strength of the lower class.”

Third, Gelder identifies that subcultures are territorial. On page 2, he states: “Subcultures creates its own geography- a set of places or sites through which it gains cohesion and identity.” Tattoo origins are Polynesian or Oceanic, first introduced to the west during Captain Cook’s voyages into the south seas. Tattoos were introduced to the west through natives of these civilizations; Gelder states on page 130 that many anthropologists believe that tattoos will always carry this history with them, making tattooing very anachronistic and possibly inauthentic, stressing the original territoriality of the subculture.  Fourth, subcultures exist outside the domestic sphere (tattoos are permanent, therefore, sported at all times). Lastly, they refuse conformity and “the pressures of mass society and massification” (4). Gelder quotes Clinton R. Sanders’ ethnographic study, Customizing the Body, “Wearing a tattoo connected the person to significant others who were similar marked, [making] one unique by separating him or her from those who were too conventionally bound as to alter their bodies.” By V. Vale, author of Modern Primitives, tattoos are seen as one of the last authentic expressions left in contemporary society (5). Before my chosen subjects are interviewed, I would like them to read these characteristics explained by Gelder and see where they stand, allowing for open discussion on the topic. These attributes of subcultures helps us to understand the tattoo community as one.

For my media artifact, I would like to create a sixty minute documentary on tattoo communities. As the filmmaker, I want to get down to what I believe to be the truth behind tattoo communities; how the participants of the community feel, their motivations, ideals, and importantly: what they believe it takes to be a member of their subculture. The documentary would allow for an honest perspective of the subculture, as told by participants of it. This type of “truth” would allow viewers to grapple with the idea of tattoo communities and make decisions for themselves, based on the information provided. It would allow for a wide range of opinions, from those who have many tattoos to those who have only one. I want to learn the truth about this subculture and its progression into the mainstream, as well as how it is perceived by those not a part.

It is important for me as a media maker to allowed audiences to make decisions for themselves based on the content, which is why I chose the documentary format; it allows for an objective opinion, if created correctly. When I began creating the idea for my documentary, I thought I would be able to make an unbiased piece of work that would be an excellent example for any audience. However, upon more careful thinking, I realize that unbiased is not what I am going for in my documentary, but presenting answers to my own questions about tattoo communities. The documentary will depict the tattoo subculture through the lens of my own personal experience. Interviews will be held, but I would allow an “open forum” type of discussion for the interviewee to have with the camera, in an effort to avoid biased questions (framed questions, leading questions, aided vs. unaided questions, two questions in one, etc.) My documentary would begin with a brief history of tattoo communities, as described in Margo DeMello’s Bodies of Inscription and V. Vale’s Modern Primitives. The ladder focuses on the revival of body modification in the 1980s. Vale focuses on tattooing as a mode of self-expression, at one point stating, “A tattoo is a true poetic creation, and is always more than meets the eye. As a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so its essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition” (18). Vale appreciates those who have tattoos and those who tattoo others, she concentrates on self-discovery through body modification. The book dozens of interviews and essays from influential members of the subculture.

I would mainly focus on DeMello, as she considers tattoo communities as a subculture in her analysis. On page 102, she describes tattooing as a folk art or trade. She explains that today, tattooists view themselves are artists who “claim personal authorship over their work” (102), which is difficult to argue after watching the tattoo reality shows. On page 135, she states: “What is at stake in this battle is not just who gets to claim control over the culture of tattooing (although that is a large part of it) but also how tattooed people define themselves with respect to mainstream (non-tattooed) society and to each other.” In her work, DeMello discusses the highbrow and lowbrow perspectives of media representations of the tattoo community. Although DeMello applies these perspectives to tattoo zines, I believe they can apply to any media representation, including reality television.

In The Work of Representation by Stuart Hall, he focuses on representation and its meaning. He starts that the meaning of representation relies on difference. For example in language, concepts only make sense when there is a concept for the opposite or difference. He starts that social movements and subcultures are the same way: we understand them as they are different from the mainstream. If there is nothing that makes a subculture different, they aren’t one- they are just everybody else. It is very clear the distinction between the tattoo subculture and everyone else- body modification. Hall states that media representations of these groups usually work to highlight the differences, clearly seen in Inked, Miami Ink, and Ink Mastera process known as “othering.” Hall also discusses codes in reference to both subcultures and media formats. The documentary codes I would use are interviewing and voice overs, which are tools story tellers use to make their point. I would like to highlight the codes in tattoo communities, such as placement of tattoos (visible, non-visible), colors, content, size, and coverage on the body. These are important factors in distinguishing the tattoo community and getting to the “truth” I am trying to get to.

According to Bill Nichols in his book Representing Reality, a documentary will always represent the view of someone (usually, the filmmaker). Nichols also discusses the role of the filmmaker and explains to the reader that documentaries are not a whole story but always have an argument (77). It took me a very long time to figure out what my argument would be. I decided to perform my own ethnographic research to get the best possible results I could. I attended two NY Tech Meeups and attended one as myself and one as the tattooed version of myself and attempted to gauge the reactions of those around me.

photo 1-1 photo 2-1

When performing my field work at the NY Tech event, not a single visibly tattooed person approached me. This part of my field work took me by surprise, but upon reflection makes sense in the sense of the tattoo subculture. They may not have approached me because they knew my tattoos were fake. Obviously, a poser would off anyone who is a proud member of a subculture. This would mean that I was inauthentic, and they knew it.

On the other hand, I was not approached by a single person in a business suit, or even given a glance. This supports the idea that tattoos are taboo in corporate workplaces, something I thought was fading in the professional world. It seems that some companies are becoming more accepting of tattoos in the work place, so it is likely that these individuals are still in a corporate setting that does not tolerate tattoos (it is not necessarily that a tattoo will get you fired- but you are less likely to be hired). 61% of human resource managers said that having a tattoo will hurt a job applicant’s chances to land the position, up four percent from 2011 (Kaufman).

photo 5-1 photo 3-2









My field work provided more insight to tattoo communities than I expected. It helped me to analyze the subculture through my own experiences and draw conclusions about a subculture I knew nothing about. I feel I understand more about what is important to those with tattoos, their ideals, and beliefs. My researched furthered my suspicions that tattoos are about individuality and self expression. Members of the subculture do not want to be same as the rest of society. However, I do believe that my research shed some light on the tech community, but not only them- society as a whole because of the variety of individuals in attendance at the meet-up. From my analysis, I can gauge that most people (not all) judge on appearance and are still uncomfortable with tattoos, especially those of an older generation. In the very same outfit, acting the same way, I was much more accepted without tattoos than with. This is in line with what I expected, but I was able to shed some new light on the situation as well, mostly about the tattoo subculture.

As the filmmaker, I analyzed tattoo reality shows and felt there was a skewed perception of the tattoo community presented. According to John Corner in Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions, these reality shows (Ink Master, Inked, and Miami Ink) are performative. They obviously rely on drama and take place in a theatrical setting. Each of these reality shows are very different and have a different aim for their audiences. Inked is arguably the first reality show based on the tattoo subculture. A documentary style reality show, it follows the owners of Hart and Huntington tattoo company, located inside the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. For a reality show, I would say that this is the most realistic depiction of the three shows I analyzed. Miami Ink follows the owners of a tattoo shop in Miami, Florida, and has a much more dramatic basis than Inked. The show follows famous tattoo artists such as Chris Nunez (who is a judge on Ink Master now) and Kat Von D. These shows follow the format for a “docusoap” according to Corner, with attributes such as the following: audiences can vote off contestants (Ink Master) and audiences can relate to the participants (especially those who come in to get tattooed) and can watch these non-celebrities turn into celebrities (Kat Von D, Chris Nunez). The foundation of the “docusoap” is entertainment and pleasure from conflict and drama, according to Corner (263). My documentary would attempt to abolish all understandings of tattoo communities created by these shows, referred to as “Documentary as Journalistic Inquiry and Exposition”- referring to reportage, using interviews as support, inline with the views of Nichols. This would be very important to me as the filmmaker because it would lead to the audience’s new understanding of tattoo communities and make members of the subculture much more relatable. When the subjects are presented on reality television, they are seen as distant, ridiculous, and almost fictional.

My documentary would also attempt to find out what subcultural capital really means to those with tattoos and how they measure it. According to Sarah Thornton, subcultural capital is the knowledge of a culture that gives you power within the subcultural sphere. Subcultural capital will only bring you rewards among those who value the same things you value. Thornton argues that media discourses (both mainstream and micro) help to structure subcultural hierarchies. As someone with one small tattoo, which is always hidden from view, I wonder what members of the tattoo community would think of my participation. Usually, when people ask me if I have a tattoo, I respond negatively. Thornton notes that media representations are a site of struggle for subcultures; members are always battling to say what should be at the top of the hierarchy. Does this hold true for the reality shows based in tattoo subcultures? According to Thornton, media representations of subcultures help to develop the subcultures as much as they distort them. Ink Master assists in the continuing development of tattoo communities. By allowing America to vote in their competition- Thornton might argue that they are “selling out” – or marketing themselves to a wider audience than initially intended.

Inked’s tagline is “The ink may only go skin deep, but the show must go on.” As earlier stated, from my own analysis, Inked is the least fabricated show of the three. The issues presented seem like issues a tattoo parlor would actually face: Hart’s and Huntington’s difference in opinions about what direction the store should take (Pilot Episode). Other situations in Season One, such as Joey and Jesse’s competition to attract the attention of their new receptionist, Jenn, seems more scripted (Season Two, Episode Three). Miami Ink, which ran from 2005-08 for six seasons, has a much more dramatic element than Inked. Featuring controversial starts such as Kat Von D (a completely tattooed woman, famous for her relationship with Jesse James after his break up from star Sandra Bullock), it gives off a much more reality show vibe than “docusoap.”

Ink Master is very different than both of the previous shows, as it is a reality competition show. The format of the show is obviously prefabricated, it has specific rules and challenges established before the show aired. With a Real World-esque vibe, Ink Master sets up the challengers in a loft apartment, all living together- obviously to stir up the drama.

According to DeMello, highbrow perspectives would apply to Inked. In this perspective, tattooing is considered a work of art that is taken seriously. In the show, inline with DeMello’s analysis of highbrow zines, the editors and producers of the show have much control over the content. The lowbrow perspective applies more to Ink Master, where the audience has more control over the content (for example, allowing the audience to vote on who stays).

In terms of Thornton’s hierarchy, DeMello says that when serving a great number of middle-class clients, an artist builds their reputation. She explains that prison tattoo artists are considered the lowest in tattoo communities. They are usually tattooed in visible places, such as their face, neck, hands, and lower arms (132). They become easily identifiable as prisoners (many people associate tear drops with murder victims, for example). These negative stigmas with tattoos is what makes subcultures lose their power. However, prison is cited as a very important foundation for tattooing, according to Chris Nunez in Ink Master. DeMello believes that many blurred lines exist because of changes in the tattoo community, and today, individuals are represented differently beyond what tattoos they may sport. For example, many famous rappers (including Lil’ Wayne and Birdman) sport tear drops, but have become very commercially famous all over the world.


(Photo via Rolling Stone)

With the knowledge I have obtained through my research, I am hoping that my documentary will take the viewer on a journey throughout the subculture. I want viewers to look past the superficial aspects of tattooing and confront the ideals and values of the tattoo subculture. In order to do this, I need to analyze the aspects of subcultures as explained by Ken Gelder and Stuart Hall.

In all, my documentary will attempt to dig deeper into the subculture of the tattoo community. By gaining knowledge through my research, I feel prepared to present an unbiased, well articulated presentation of the subculture. By including opinions of several different members of the community, including my own conclusions drawn by my field work, it will encompass all aspects of tattooing not known by the general public. The point of the documentary is not to expose those who are tattooed or a part of the community, but shed light on a subject that many people do not know much about, or tend to make assumptions about.


Works Cited

“Baby Got Back, Episode 1.” Ink Master. Spike TV. 16 July 2013. Television.
Backer, Gregg. Inked. A&E Network. Las Vegas, Nevada, 2005. Television. Season One, Episode One. Season Two, Episodes 1-3.
Corner, John. (2002). “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions.” Television New Media, 3, 255-269.
Corwin, Charlie, prod. Miami Ink. TLC. Miami Beach, Florida, 2005-08. Television. Season One.
DeMello, Margo. “Chapter 4: Discourse and Differentiation.” Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. 97-135. Print.
Gelder, Ken. Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Hall, Stuart. The Work of Representation. London: SAGE Publications, 1997. Print.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.
Thornton, Sarah. “Chapter 4: The Media Development of ‘Subcultures’” Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: University of New England, 1996. 116-62. Print.


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