In other cultures, like that of some of indigenous populations in Asia and Africa, tattoos have traditionally been used as signs of group membership – positive, distinguishing marks that reward accomplishment and denote achievement. That tradition has not emerged in the United States.
“My gut reaction (to those with tattoos) is that they’re trying to make a statement. They’re definitely saying – I don’t really know what they’re saying. I don’t know what they’re really thinking,” computer science senior Nick Schrock said.
Schrock’s sentiments echo those held by many in American society, one that has received body decorations with confusion and skepticism. That absence of substantial understanding has not limited formulation of stereotypes and mostly negative impressions, however. Instead, there is a plethora of misgivings and assumptions harbored concerning tattoos, piercings, and those who wear them.
Be they rebellious twenty-somethings or burly biker boys, those often thought likely to decorate their bodies cannot escape the seeming condescension of America.
Adam Forman, a local tattoo artist who works at South Ashley Street’s Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlor, provided some needed clarity when he discussed both the experiences of his customers and his own history with body art.
“Getting a tattoo is really personal, really spiritual. It goes beyond the aesthetics and is really a transformative process. Often, the tattoo is almost secondary to the process itself.” Forman firmly believes that those who opt to change their bodies through tattoos or piercings do so for various reasons, yet not frequently with the subversive intentions commonly assumed.
“There really is no standard way to get a tattoo, but I do think that having a tattoo becomes a personal accomplishment. The experience of getting one, given that tattooing can be a painful process, is almost what makes (the phenomenon) so popular.”
The pain associated with body art – to say nothing of the psychological barrier posed by needles – is a difficult issue for tattoo artists to tackle.
Asked what he tells customers who ask him about pain, Tattoo Paradise artist Greg Phipps said, “That’s the question that I hate the most. One person can’t tell you the pain because everyone has a different threshold for it. I try to tell people not to go by what their friends tell them because no one else is you. I’ve seen 300-pound bikers looking like they were ready to cry and pass out, and I’ve also seen teachers looking like it was nothing.”
LSA senior Andrew Weiss, who has a generic barcode tattooed on his lower back, said, “It didn’t hurt, really. (The procedure) didn’t take that long – it was only ten minutes – so it felt a little weird, but there was no serious pain.”
Were one undeterred by the prospect of pain, finding the right tattoo artists can be another obstacle for those interested in a body transformation. Forman, who has between 50 and 60 tattoos, asserted, “It’s important to go to an artist who is heavily tattooed,” explaining that it means that the artist both understood the process and was likely familiar with all the potential factors.
Phipps, who has 38, some of which were self-applied, said, “You shouldn’t tattoo someone unless you can tattoo yourself,” implying a sentiment similar to Forman’s.
The two men also agreed on the spirit behind most tattoos and piercings. “Piercings and tattoos have been lumped together – perhaps unfairly – but they also lump themselves together, in a way. Both are transformative processes.”
Phipps added, “It’s not smart to get into tattooing and not piercing.” The distinctions between the two exist because the former is permanent and requires artistic ingenuity – likely the reason that Forman felt that tattooing and piercing are unfairly coupled – while the latter is easily removed and inherently lacks some of the artistic demand. This is not to say that piercing is devoid of creativity or style, though.
“I’ve pierced ladders up penises, the backs of necks,” said Phipps. “I’ve done flesh-to-flesh piercings on the side of the neck where the skin is pulled out and all that is exposed are two little dots. That’s commonly called a Vampire pierce.”
Such craftsmanship and attention to detail have drawn many with artistic training to body decoration. Phipps took several art courses in college while Forman has an art degree. Both men make their own designs, yet much of their work is dependent upon the wishes of their clientele. “Eighty to 90 percent of customers come in with their own work or some idea of what they want,” said Forman, adding that he is fine with that because “I want to see the person, I want to see their skin, I want to see what they want.”
Perhaps the most notable part of the process is that some in America, perhaps many of the tattoo- and piercing-desiring set, do approach body decoration in a fashion akin to the traditions of elsewhere.
Forman was clear about this point, noting, “Being accepted into the subculture group (of tattoo bearers) is often more the reason to get one (than a desire for decoration).” Such a theory renders many of the societal values that have made transformative art seem awkward, alien, and angry both right and wrong: right that a disassociation is desired, but wrong that it is born of malice or contempt.
In a country where groups are formed based on race, class, gender, lunch period, and the even more arbitrary, is the culture of America so rigid that it can’t allow for another, alternative means of subgrouping?
The answer is likely, and unfortunately, yes. The well-intentioned Schrock conceded that he wouldn’t get a tattoo because “I feel like in my future job, I’d be labeled as someone going against the man. I just view it as being kind of like a punk rocker, aligning yourself with some sort of counterculture. It’s not a negative thing, but I simply don’t understand the need to indelibly display (a message).” More practically, Schrock added, “Your views change, but tattoos can’t.”
Weiss, meanwhile, said that while he won’t get another tattoo, he would do it all over again for the first time. “I got a tattoo because I thought it was funny. My friends came up from home after freshman year of college and we were looking for a fun activity to do, so we went and got tattoos.” He won’t get anything pierced – “I just don’t think (piercings) look good” – and doesn’t feel that piercings are of paramount importance. “I don’t think that I wouldn’t date a girl based upon a piercing, but that’s not a necessary trait that I look for.”
That two open-minded fellows, one a tattoo bearer, understand that the American culture neither merely allows for nor champions body decoration does not indicate an impending opinion shift concerning tranformative art. Instead, people like Phipps will likely remain isolated in their understanding that, “I’m no more rebellious than someone in college 24-7 or someone in a suit working at their job.”