A Generation in Color
By Chelsea Moore
“Jade, I swear if you don’t finish soon I might have to kick you in the face.”
“Ok, ok I’m almost done I promise. Almost done, almost done…”
Victoria Phillips clenched her teeth and struggled to achieve a zen focus on the ceiling tiles above as her tattoo artist, Jade Pinto, dragged a needle across her skin, coloring in the outline of the mermaid stretched along her right ribcage.
Phillips, a 21-year-old Journalism major at the University of Florida, has five tattoos. The mermaid was her most recent addition.
“Yeah, that one was really painful,” said Phillips, her eyes wide with the intensity of her words.
Within Western culture tattoos have long been associated with members of lower classes or socially unaccepted groups such as gang members or prison populations. However, recent decades have seen significant increases in the prevalence of tattoos. This growth has brought to light questions about why more young people are getting tattoos and how this increase will affect society.
“We tell people that they need to think about what they get and where they want it, and especially that they need to think about their career choice,” said Justin Berk, a manager at Bodytech, a tattoo and piercing studio in Gainesville. “If you have tattoos in certain places then some careers just aren’t an option.” Bodytech employees have done lectures at the University of Florida and other schools across Alachua County.
“I didn’t really think of the stigma associated [with tattoos] or what people would think of me,” Phillips said.
Phillips’s lack of concern for the impact of her tattoos is hardly unique. According to a report released by the Pew Research Center in February of this year 38% of Millennials now have at least one tattoo, and of those with tattoos half have two to five tattoos and 18 % have six tattoos or more. The report defines the members of the Millennial Generation as those born after 1980.
The Millennials’ booming appreciation for tattoos does not, however, translate across generations. While Generation X, made up of those people born between 1965 and 1980, is not far behind the Millennials with 32% of Gen Xers having tattoos, older generations view the increase in tattooing across America to be negative. A 2009 Pew survey reported that 61% of Americans ages 65 and older and 51% of Americans ages 50-64 view more people getting tattoos to be a change for the worse.
Rising incidences of tattoos have been attributed to a number of causes; some argue that younger age groups use tattoos as a means of rebellion against their parents and other authority figures, some see it instead as nothing more than an expression of self-identity.
Nina Jablonski, an anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of Skin: A Natrual History, cites a different cause for the tattoo boom.
“I think that now and in the last 20 years more people in high social standing and more celebrities have these decorations. We no longer have this old model of thinking that sailors and prostitutes get tattoos. Tattoos moved into the middle class when people who weren’t in gangs or in prison started getting them.”
The shift in the tattoo demographic has not been completely widespread, as seen in the Pew polls this phenomenon has been limited to particular age groups.
“Young people are incredibly suggestible. When people in their teens and early 20s start forming their peer groups they seek to establish a positive image within their group. When tattoos are seen on celebrities and people with high social standing they are seen as being ‘cool.’ If I were to go out and get a tattoo like [one that] Angelina Jolie has then some of her status would be transferred to me, making me cool,” said Jablonski of the motives of the younger generations.
Historically, tattoos have had a myriad of different uses and stigmas. The earliest known example of tattooing is on the Iceman, a human body found at the Italian-Austrian border in 1991.
“One of our major issues is that skin is not preserved, it doesn’t last,” explained Nina Jablonski, a Pennsylvania State University anthropology professor and author of Skin: A Natural History. The impermanence of skin makes it difficult to find concrete evidence of tattoos.
“The Iceman is approximately 5,000 years old, and his body was frozen so that his skin was almost entirely preserved. The tattoos were probably not decorative though,” Jablonski said. The Iceman had multiple small tattoos on his back and along various joints around his body, thus leading anthropologists to conclude that his tattoos most likely had medicinal rather than decorative purposes.
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“Oh, here’s a fun story! When we won the National Championship in 2008 I almost went out and got ‘Gators’ tattooed on the inside of my lip,” said Phillips.
People with tattoos have them for a wide variety of reasons, from the deeply sentimental to the truly ridiculous and spontaneous. All of the tattoos that Philips did get have distinct meanings and thoughts behind them.
“Some of them are healing, some of them are reminders. But all of them really symbolize me and my growth through life.”
While often beautiful and meaningful to some, ink comes with certain issues to combat. Tattoos in the workplace have traditionally been taboo throughout American history, but with nearly four in ten youths now sporting these skin decorations things may start to change.
“I’ve always chosen places [for my tattoos] that I can cover up. If I have to cover them I will, so I don’t foresee it being a problem.”
Phillips has held two different internships in New York City as well as several in the Gainesville area. By initially adopting this overly conservative attitude and being certain to cover her tattoos has kept Phillips from having any negative experiences in the her professional life.
“When I worked at More magazine this past summer I wore cardigans pretty much every day to cover my shoulders. Then one morning I guess… I think I just couldn’t find my cardigan so I sucked it up and went in without it. I remember everyone was so surprised, but it wasn’t a big deal. When I worked at the Gainesville Sun though I became the ‘tattoo girl’ once everyone found out I had tattoos. Not really in a bad way, I just think it was a sort of ice breaker.”
This acceptance of tattoos reveals a trend towards greater acceptance of tattoos in the professional world, but the norm is still opposition to visible tattoos at work.
“I think we’re going to continue to have a conservative workplace for people who actually have to show up to work,” said Jablonski, who cited technological advances as allowing people to more easily work outside of a typical professional environment. “I think that tattoos will continue to be popular with people who do not have to worry about the social opprobrium of concealing them.”
Despite all of the controversy and stereotypes surrounding tattoos, Phillips stands by each of her adornments.
“I love them. I don’t think I’m ever going to come to regret them because they show influential parts of my life.”
Tattoos have become an integral part of the Millennials’ culture and, much like the tattoos themselves, this trend appears to be here to stay.