Please Explain: Tattoos

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tattoo artist Scott Campbell, of Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Dr. Lars Krutak, of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, discuss the history of tattoos and body decorations, the mechanics of getting a tattoo, the art of tattoo design, and how they can be removed.


Scott Campbell and Lars Krutak

Comments [32]

art525 from Park Slope

Sorry Jerome I'm not buying it. Despite your atempt to make it some sort of personal and creative act I see a bunch of rubber stamped.... yes.... sheep. It is amusing to see all the identical hipsters on the L train to Williamsburg. And while you say it's done more as a personal statement than for public consumption I notice that tattooed folks more often than not dress in way that flaunts their 'ink". And also I have often been amused by hipsters intensely studying others' tattooes on the subway. It's like animal plumage. Me thinks you doth protest too much.

Jun. 15 2012 05:46 PM
Jerome from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

To art525: the firmness and undifferentiated sweep of your statement about what "it" is ("a cliche"; "sheep like") contrasts with the rather personal reasons cited here by some folks who have gotten tattoos. As Aiko posted, "Tattoo isn't for others to look at -- I mean, it is, to a certain extent. But it's a lot more to do with personal value/mental impact for each individual who gets one. It's often more of an internal than external effect that the tattooed look for."

To me, tattoo culture seems to be more diverse than your view of it. Of course, there is a lot of pedestrian and "me too" derivative stuff in the world of tattoos (just as there is in high and low fashion, art, design, literature, music; also in food, politics, business, etc.; by definition, most things are not exceptional), but as a counter-example, check out Carl Zimmer's book *Science Ink*.

I'll note that all generations and locales seem to have had their conventions, trends, fads, movements; even condescending nay-saying has at times garnered herds of reflexive followers.

Jun. 15 2012 04:18 PM
miriam from nj

The anthropologist discussing cross-cultural aspects of tattooing neglected to mention the forced tattooing of millions of Jews and others by the Nazis. These were men, women, and children who had no choice but to endure the pain of a tattoo intended to dehumanize them and more efficiently murder them. There are many people still alive who have these indelible numbers tattoed on their arms.

Jun. 15 2012 03:22 PM
Pam from Brooklyn

I got a sizable tattoo as my first tattoo not that long ago, had been thinking about/wanting to get tattooed for a very long time, about 20 years(I remember wanting one when I was 12 years old.) I got tattooed in a place that is not visible to the general populace, I got tattooed for myself and no one else, my reasons for getting tattooed are private. It was a very big deal to get tattooed for the first time. It changed everything and nothing. Minimizing the import of getting tattooed by calling those who are as pathetic, followers, etc disregards the entire personal/psychological/emotional/spiritual process of the person who is tattooed. Thank you aiko from Brooklyn for summing it up for me, "'s a lot more to do with personal value/mental impact for each individual who gets one. It's often more of an internal than external effect that the tattooed look for."

Jun. 15 2012 03:14 PM
art525 from Park Slope

Sorry Jerome but it's a cliche. It is people desperately trying to prove their bad selves as they follow like sheep. Tattoos, skinny jeans, pork pie hats, "ironic " mustaches- this is the most sheep like generation ever. And the tattoos are all the same too. Chinese characters, skulls, etc etc.

Jun. 15 2012 02:50 PM
aiko from Brooklyn

I wrote an introduction to a book of photography called "Tokyo Tattoo 1970" by Martha Cooper, who followed a master tattooist in Japan in, well, 1970. Through my prep research, I learned quite a bit about the cultural impact and heritage of tattoo culture there, and I think that there's a lot of common threads, both negative and positive, in how people have perceived, and still do, tattooing in Japan and in the U.S. Tattoo isn't for others to look at -- I mean, it is, to a certain extent. But it's a lot more to do with personal value/mental impact for each individual who gets one. It's often more of an internal than external effect that the tattooed look for.

Jun. 15 2012 02:05 PM
clive betters

i'm pretty much a fundamentalist on this:

tatoo = yuck

Jun. 15 2012 02:00 PM
Jon from Manhattan

Leonard FYI regarding myth of burial in Jewish cemetery:

Just saying.

Jun. 15 2012 01:59 PM

Leonard, sorry the not being buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo is a myth. not sure where it started. I couldn't find a Jewish legal source for it. Auschwitz survivors are tattooed and there is no problem burying them in Jewish cemeteries.

Jun. 15 2012 01:58 PM

It's a myth that Jews with tattoos are not allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

Jun. 15 2012 01:58 PM

Did the Nazis know that Jws can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery with tattoos?

Jun. 15 2012 01:57 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Whoa, wait a minute. Now I'm worried. People who give (& get) tattoos should know that infection is not the same as toxicity is not the same as allergic reaction. And infection prevention is mostly about after-care? No, 1st it's about thorough & consistent sterilization of the needles!

Jun. 15 2012 01:55 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Is anything known about how (or if?) ancient tattoo artists prevented infection? What do the guests think about the fact that you can't donate blood for 12 months?

Jun. 15 2012 01:51 PM
bradley Shaw from manhattan

I am not a person who you would typically have a tatoo, a 45 y.o jewish attorney. But when i separated from my wife two years ago, leaving my two children then 6 and 4, I tatooed their initials in hebrew on my back.(Shin & Pey) The tatoo is the size of a quarter. It helped me deal with the great sense of loss i felt leaving my girls.

Jun. 15 2012 01:49 PM
kelly from Brooklyn

Great topic, I have a few tattoos, my largest and most beautiful was done by Scott Campbell. No regrets. Thanks Scott!

Jun. 15 2012 01:48 PM

Don't like them? Don't get one! I encounter people every day who make decisions about their appearance that I don't find attractive. Even if one could argue that steroid muscles or baggy khaki cargo pants aren't "permanent," I bet the owner isn't going to change based on my opinion.

Jun. 15 2012 01:48 PM

U should have had a psychologist on to talk about the pain a person must be in to mutilate themselves like that

Jun. 15 2012 01:45 PM
Jim B

Dr. Krutak's description of stoicism while undergoing tattooing, that it is an acknowledgement of adulthood, is exactly the same as the old masculine ideal, which has been derided since the 60s.

Jun. 15 2012 01:45 PM
Angela Danzi from Farmingdale NY

I understand the cultural and historical interest, but tatoos will always be ugly and disfiguring to my eye. I have seen so many people with arms and legs covered with intricate, almost psychedelic designs - they are so repelling and unattractive.

Jun. 15 2012 01:44 PM
Mary Beth from Fort Greene

After a recent breakup, I got a tiny tattoo I'd always wanted, 10 years after my first tattoo. In some way, I wanted the tattooing to last longer, because the pain of the needle channeled the inner pain I was feeling into something more concrete. It was a bit like, if I could bear this buzzing pain, I'd be able to bear the emotional pain of the breakup. Happy to say I survived both the tattoo and the breakup quite well!

Jun. 15 2012 01:43 PM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

The problem with tattoos - they're not like the hairstyles and clothing we look back on with chagrin. You're stuck with the mistake for life.

Jun. 15 2012 01:43 PM
Julie from new york

The reason for the ubiquity of tatoos, has to do, part , with the economy. A oversupply nationwide of small retail space, means that the rents for these spaces have been falling. The tatoo business doesn't need alot of capital to get started (like hairdresser) Unemployment has been rising for many years, limiting job options. For many who want to start their own business, opening an independent tatoo parlor is much more feasible than, say a franchise.

Jun. 15 2012 01:41 PM
Paul Roe from Washington DC

Fred from NJ - According to the CDC and FDA - Dentistry has a much, much higher infection rate for both Hep. C and HIV/AIDS, the tattoo industry is clean and safe when done professionally. If you get a cheap tattoo from a hobbyist or amateur you risk contaminated equipment and subsequent infection.

Jun. 15 2012 01:40 PM
Larry from Brooklyn

To be "different" now is to NOT have a tattoo. While I am sure some people do have the spiritual motive expressed by the guests, it appears to me that it's just the thing to do now to fit in.

Jun. 15 2012 01:37 PM
Fred from Bloomfield NJ

Ask about danger of disease, e.g. Hep C

Jun. 15 2012 01:35 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I'm with you art525... it's sad that people think that some kind of happiness or contentment comes from external sources.

Aesthetically, I find the permanent marring of one's body to be very unattractive, and the motivations for doing so even more so.

It's pretty pathetic. Flipflop nation, tattoo nation, pierced flesh nation -- we seem to have waaay too much free time on our hands as a society if this is what people are obsessed over.

Jun. 15 2012 01:34 PM
Paul Roe from Washington DC

Removal of tattoos always come up in a conversation in the media, this perpetuates the belief that the tattoo need not be a permanent alteration playing into the "instant gratification" society mind-set.

Irreversible decisions are good for the soul, a mental nod to our mortality as the image will be lost with our corpse, flippant tattoos with "removal" as a future option disrespects the history and majesty of the primal parent of the visual arts - Tattooing.

Jun. 15 2012 01:31 PM

nothing says "me too!" now a days as a tattoo. rebellion is now mainstream.

Jun. 15 2012 01:31 PM
Andrea from Philadelphia

Do your guests have theories about why tattoos have achieved such wide popularity at this particular point in time? I'm 50 and when I was growing up it seemed like only sailors and ex-convicts had them.

Jun. 15 2012 01:27 PM
Jon Pope from Ridge, NY

My 47 year old older sister got a big tattoo on her leg to mark the finalization of her bad divorce. Its so big, she will never be able to afford to have it removed if so desired latter in life. I never understood why people want to permanently remind themselves of a bad time in their lives. Isn't just getting over it and moving on better then being branded with bad memories for the rest of your life?

Jun. 15 2012 01:17 PM
Jerome from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

Given that few things are truly "new under the sun", and that the history of cultural expression furnishes a wealth of precedent, sneering at folks with tattoos for not being truly novel and transgressive seems invalid to me. "Everybody else" doesn't have them; there are enough parts of mainstream American society that are uncomfortable with tattooing to keep it in the "not quite normal" category of subcultures. Also, not all tattoo fanciers get them to be novel or transgressive--some folks (not me!) like the aesthetic concept of making their skin a medium for graphics.

Jun. 15 2012 10:21 AM
art525 from Park Slope

Tattoos. How novel. How transgressive. I want to be different. Just like everybody else.

Jun. 15 2012 07:20 AM

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