Tattoos: Today

Posted: August 25, 2016 - 08:00 , by ROM
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Picture of actor Angelina Jolie in a blue dress showing her tattoos on her neck and shoulder

Guest blog by Ann Webb, Managing Director ROM Contemporary Culture

Although tattooing has deep roots across cultures and has spread globally, across several millennia, the Western perception of tattoos, the tattooist, and the tattooed has had connotations of deviance. 

The invention of the mechanical tattoo machine during the late 19th century in the United States, cross-cultural sharing between American, Japanese, and European tattoo artists,
and changing social mores amongst youth and the middle-class, which began with 1960s counterculture, have served to change the perception of tattooing in contemporary society. Today, tattoos are ubiquitous: seen on the street, used in luxury fashion brand advertising, and themes of popular reality television shows. 

It is interesting to note that although tattoo shops operated in New York in the late 19th century, tattooing was illegal in the city until 1997. The history of tattooing in Canada has closely mirrored that of the United States. Over the past 45 years, the acceptance of tattoos has evolved with the proliferation of tattooers who have formal art training; academic research and writing about tattoo culture; books and magazines about tattoos; and exhibitions in museums around the world. Further, according to Clinton R. Sanders, writing in Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing, “the fact that admired public figures such as celebrities and athletes [are] tattooed [gives] tattooing a certain popular cultural cachet.” All have helped to change what was once perceived as deviant and taboo into an accepted practice in mainstream popular culture. 

The contemporary tattoo artist may work in a variety of media in preparation for the final creation of a tattoo. They might make drawings on paper, watercolours, or paintings. They also exhibit their work in galleries and create unique, custom work for their clients with whom they enter into a collaborative relationship. Writing about the art of tattooing in Artforum in 1981, Marcia Tucker, former Director of the New Museum, stated, “Tattooing is finally, once again, coming into its own as another aspect of the fine arts. A new form of populism is emerging in the arts, a sense that artists no longer wish to address themselves and their work exclusively to each other and to a small, informed audience. Rather, there is an increasing desire to work outside traditional media, to address a non-art public and to situate the work itself in a context larger than previously thought possible.”

How To See It: Tattoos runs until September 5, 2016.