The Truth About Your Favorite Tattoos

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Tattoos have been around a long time. So long, in fact, that there’s no real consensus on when the practice began, where it started, or why. Historical and archeological evidence shows tattooing was practiced throughout the world in antiquity, rising in popularity in recent years. In fact, nearly 40% of millennials have at least one tattoo, according to the Pew Research Center.

And after speaking with several tattoo artists, we’re pretty sure we know which one’s the current Pinterest favorite: “The feather that’s breaking into a million birds,” says tattoo artist Megan Massacre, cofounder of Grit N Glory clothing and tattoo studio in NYC. “There must be tens of thousands of people on the planet with that tattoo right now. If I see another one, I’m going to puke.” Noted.

Here, a quick history of Western tattoos of the past and present, plus a peek into the future.
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OG Ink
3200 BC to 1800s

Ötzi, the world’s oldest mummy, dropped dead sometime around 3200 BC and was found in the European Alps in 1991. The ancient corpse had 61 tattoos of sets of black horizontal or vertical lines. Scientists believe they were made by rubbing charcoal into thin incisions.

Badass as that may be, it’s thought that the tats weren’t a fashion thing, but a mark of early diagnostics or pain-relief treatment. (They were mostly located near his lower back, and knee and ankle joints — places where he showed signs of degeneration.)

Captain James Cook gets most of the credit for bringing tattoos to the West after stopping in the South Pacific in 1769 and bringing back Polynesian tattoos along with their Tahitian name, tatau. (He also brought home a tattooed Polynesian dude named Omai whose overnight popularity started a short-lived tattoo fad among highfalutin, upper-class Londoners.)

That’s not to say the 5,000 years between Ötzi and Omai were tattoo-free, only that Westerners didn’t have a word for tattoos yet — European literature and archeological evidence do mention people whose bodies were “pricked,” “marked,” or “engraved” with permanent “pictures,” “paintings,” and “stains."
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Electric Art
1890s to 1930s

You can thank Thomas Edison for this one — in addition to the phonograph, the movie camera, and the lightbulb, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” invented the perforating pen. In 1891, New Yorker Samuel O’Reilly based the first tattoo gun on Edison’s design and went to work. By then, fully tattooed people were a popular attraction at dime museums and the circus, and he was known for having inked his brother John “Tattooed Irishman” O’Reilly and more than a dozen famous women, including "tattooed lady" Emma de Burgh.
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Sailors, Soldiers & Scoundrels
1910s to 1950s

Polynesian designs weren't the only examples of ink that found their way back to the U.S.A. on the biceps of travelers. Tattoos were particularly popular with sailors as a way to mark where they’d been. “Sailors in the merchant marines were getting tattooed on the ships when they reached port,” says tattoo artist Barry “Baz” Shailes, owner of NYC’s Clash City Tattoo. “It was a way to tell a story before you could go on Miami Ink and talk about how much you miss your dead shih tzu.”

Swallows indicated that they’d traveled 5,000 miles; a shellback turtle meant they’d crossed the equator. But tattoos were mostly the domain of sailors, hobos, carnies, and criminals.

Once WWII was in full swing, millions of clean-cut American men had the — uh, opportunity — to visit the South Pacific, just near Honolulu, where former-Navy-man-turned-tattoo-artist Norman Collins (a.k.a. Sailor Jerry) slung ink at his shop.

He shaped traditional American tattoo style — that is to say, pinup girls, patriotic symbols, clipper ships, and anchors — and he innovated new needle formations and safer color pigments. “If you look at traditional tattooing from that era, it's still very simple and two-dimensional,” says Massacre. “It’s more about symbolism than art.”
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Outlaw Style: Skulls & Wizards
1960s to 1970s

After the war, everyone had seen a snarling English bulldog or boxing baby on someone, but they were hardly mainstream. (“Your mum would say, ‘Stay away from your Uncle Barry with the tattoos,’” says Shailes.) Those on the fringes of society — hippies, bikers, and counterculture types — embraced tattoos as symbols of rebellion and empowerment.

In 1970, legendary San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle etched a pretty Florentine wrist tattoo on Janis Joplin; it was photographed on the cover of Rolling Stone, and totally changed the game. All of a sudden, everyone wanted one — it was like being admitted to an elite club.

The trends were dictated by what you could get on flash — line drawings of tattoo designs displayed on the walls for walk-in customers to choose from. “This is when you started seeing the mystical stuff — the cosmos, Merlins, castles, and fairies. Then you’ve got your bikers with flames, skeletons, and Grim Reapers,” says Shailes, explaining that some designs still needed earning. “Back in the '70s, my buddy saw a non-biker sporting a Hell’s Angels tattoo at the local pub. Some club members let him know he probably should take that off. ‘We can do that for you,’ they said. ‘Just get a hot iron and away it goes.’”
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Art-School Revolution
1980s to 2000s

During this time, the tattoo scene was splitting into two groups: the old-school scratchers with flash on the walls, and trained fine artists who were learning to transfer their artistic vision to a new canvas — skin. “The fine-arts movement in tattooing has been growing since the '80s,” says Massacre. “Artists became interested in tattooing as an art form once the technology was better — thinner needles, brighter, safer ink, more advanced tattoo machines. Now, you weren’t restrained by basic lines — you could draw different widths. You had more control with shading.”

With more artistic freedom, the idea of what a tattoo could be changed. Designs moved away from flash (these days, it’s mostly used as a starting point for customized work) and became a collaborative process between the client’s vision and the artist’s interpretation and execution. Treating tattoos as art also framed the body as a larger canvas to work on, resulting in larger, more intricate projects. “Back in the day, you’d pick a little Grim Reaper off the wall and have it floating in the middle of your bicep. There was no forethought — no one was thinking about filling the space around it, or drawing with the flow of the body,” says Shailes.

But soon, the clientele began to shift along with the level of talent — they wanted safe, sanitary shops, they were willing to pay, and they cared about things like aftercare and making sure their tattoos healed beautifully. Choosing from artists who specialized in certain styles like nautical, Japanese, portrait, and tribal, newer customers were “tattoo collectors” who allocated space for a half-sleeve, back piece, or full sleeve — a kind of investment.

That also changed the quality and safety of materials like needles and ink. “I use Waverly ink — it’s vegan and natural. Not that there was bacon in the other ink, but now people are interested in putting better stuff in their bodies. There’s more respect for the art,” Shailes says. “If you told one of those old-school bikers to use moisturizer and sunblock, you’d get punched in the throat.”
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Everybody & Their Mom Gets A Tattoo
1995 to today

In 1960, there were around 500 professional tattoo artists in the United States. By 1995, there were over 10,000 of them. And at one point, they all tattooed a dolphin on someone's ankle. Remember, there’s an expiration date for coolness — and you are stamping it on yourself.

“So when you see a trend forming, think, Oh, hang on,” Shailes says. Basically, getting a tattoo that’s on the cutting edge of cool is getting a permanent mark of that time — you can point to a barbed-wire armband and know it was done in the early ’90s.

“All the tattoos we make fun of now were really cool at one point,” says Massacre, who admits she’s happy she didn’t get the first ink that caught her eye. “I wanted tattoos in high school, and what was really cool then was tribal work and nautical stars and Old English lettering. Thank god nobody tattooed me then, because those were terrible ideas.” Tribal suns. Celtic knots. Japanese kanji. “Hey man, I was there in 2002,” Shailes says. “It’s easy to look back and roll our eyes…and I often do.”

Some of those recognizable styles are...
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Bro Tribal
“Modern tribal is silly to begin with. It's different than Polynesian art, which has patterns with actual meaning to the culture,” says Massacre. “The black freehand tribal of the ’80s and ’90s was just putting a bunch of shapes together and saying, 'Yeah, this looks cool.'” Once frat bros took it over, the cool factor vanished pretty much instantly.
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So, so many fans of sci-fi movies and industrial music were inspired by H. R. Giger’s Alien. Many got gears, wires, microchips, and that trompe-l'œil thing where their skin is being ripped open to expose the mechanics within.
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New School
Another tattoo era now largely gone by was New School in the early 2000s, which married traditional flash ideas and bold lines with neon colors, pop-culture themes, and an anime influence. “When I started tattooing 12 years ago, that's what was huge. It's almost like graffiti-style, cartoon-y, and very abstract with super-thick borders and thin lines inside,” says Massacre. “Now that can look dated, too.”
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Trash Polka
“Trash polka is really big in Europe now. The look is black-and-white portraits with color splashed on it, or text in different fonts,” says Shailes. “Basically, it's a graphic designer's nightmare — it often looks like someone imported a bunch of images in Photoshop from all different places. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.”
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“Geometric shapes and lines are huge right now. Instead of regular shading, you see a lot of shading with dots,” Massacre says. Very fine pointillism looks intricate and beautiful now, but all those dots will blob together over time. “You have to plan ahead, because in 10 years it's going to all blend into one mass,” says Shailes. “A good artist will use fewer dots, since they're going to spread out over time.”
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Hand-poked tattoos used to be relegated to teenagers with access to safety pins and ballpoint pens; convicts using cigarette ash and saliva for ink and tape-deck tattoo devices; and traditional pros in exotic locations (think Japanese tebori or Hawaiian hand-tapping). Not anymore — yes, GG Allin’s look has finally hit the mainstream.

“Stick-and-poke is a big trend right now that makes me feel really old, and the first trend I haven’t been able to get into,” says Massacre. “You just get a needle — no machine — and you dip it in ink and just stroke away. Kids think it’s so cool, and it looks like shit. It looks like they got it in prison. But I can't hate, you know? I just gotta accept that I just don't get it.”
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White Ink
Ugh. “People think that they're going to have a cute white tattoo, but they don't realize that white ink doesn't stay white on skin," says Massacre. "A lot of times, the color falls right out. Or it turns yellow and brown, especially if you go tanning." Thankfully they’re very easy to cover, she says — so you won’t need to live with your mistake for long.

Those are the most current trends, but what's next? So many weird, exciting things.
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Regret-Free Ink
The white coats at Harvard, Brown, and Duke have created a tattoo ink that allows you to erase regrets (“Getting a partner’s name is the kiss of death for a relationship,” warns Shailes). Freedom-2 ink traps dye in microscopic capsules that can be easily — and painlessly — erased with a laser in one shot.
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Cyborg Tats
Chaotic Moon is creating temporary “tech tats” that use skin-mounted elements and conductive paint; they can collect, store, send, and receive health and fitness data without actually implanting any devices into the skin. In a creepier development, Nokia has a patent for tattoos using ferromagnetic inks that vibrate based on commands from your phone, so your skin can literally tingle when someone calls.
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Optical Illusions
A new 3-D technology called projection mapping allows images, like, say, a full body-tattoo, to be cast onto an “irregular object” such as a human body in motion. It will probably be more useful for performances (Kanye West and Katy Perry are early adopters) than for daily life, but we don’t doubt the day will come when you can have a teensy personal projector to make OOTD pics obsolete.

Until Then...
Tattoo artists agree that traditional ink will always endure. “Japanese and American traditional designs are historically significant, and a building block upon what tattooing has become,” says Shailes. That said, now that society is so accepting of body art, the zeal of rebellion is fading a bit. “Thanks to many years of awful celebrities and reality-TV shows, now having a tattoo is more like being in a social club. And who wants to be in the same club as their mum? I think in the future, no one is going to have tattoos,” he says.
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