Tattoos: from subculture to pop culture podcast

The history and relevance of tattoos in popular culture is marked by artistic change and changes in popular perception.

Until recently, tattoos were long considered subversive and outside of mainstream culture. But today, they are now almost commonplace. Join us as we discuss the art, history and relevance of tattoos in modern popular culture.

Speaker profile(s)

Lee Barron is based in the School of Design at Northumbria University where he teaches in the areas of fashion branding, marketing, and luxury brand management. His research interests cover subjects such as fashion, popular music, celebrity, tattooing, and culture-inspired design.

He has published in numerous journals such as The Journal of Popular CulturePostcolonial StudiesFashion TheoryCelebrity StudiesPopular Music HistoryEuropean Journal of Cultural Studies, the Journal of Modern CraftGothic Studies, and Fashion, Style and Popular Culture.

Lee has also contributed chapters to a number of edited book collections that include Popular Music and Film (2003), Terror Tracks (2009), The Tube Has Spoken: Reality TV and History (2010), and Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures (2013). He is also the author of the book: Social Theory in Popular Culture (2013), Celebrity Cultures (2015), Tattoo Culture: Theory and Contemporary Contexts (2017) and Tattoos and Popular Culture (2020).

In this episode:

  • How has the perception of tattoos changed over time?
  • What is their place in popular culture today?
  • What does reality TV reveal about the relevance of tattoos?
  • What do tattoos tell us about celebrity culture?

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Tattoos: from subculture to pop culture

Daniel Ridge (DR): In recent years, tattoos have burst onto the pop culture scene and in many ways have gone from representing subversive subcultures to becoming commonplace. Stars like The Rock, Tom Hardy, and Jason Momoa have even incorporated their tattoos into the on-screen personas. And musicians like Justin Bieber and Post Malone are known for the facial tattoos. Interestingly, in the 1860s, King Edward the seventh Victoria son started a trend among the upper class when he got a tattoo of a Jerusalem cross, which shows the tattoos haven't always been as subversive as we may think. To talk about the significance of tattoos and to delve a bit deeper into their historical context I'm joined today by Lee Barron. In his new book, Tattoos and Popular Culture; Cultural Representations in Ink, Lee dives into the storied history of tattoos and explores the significance and celebrity in popular culture. Thanks so much for joining me today. Lee.

Lee Barron (LB): My pleasure. Great to be here.

DR: Well, I have a lot of questions about your book, I thought it was really fascinating. I'm wondering how you first got interested in working on tattoos.

LB: It came from working on a previous book, which was looking at different ways of explaining sort of classic sociological theory. But using popular culture to do it, I kind of thought it students would be much more interested in these ideas, kind of see them in the world around them, and the book had various different chapters. And I was watching a show called Miami Ink at the time. And what was interesting about Miami Ink was the way in which people would talk about their tattoos, a sign of signs of self and the signalling aspects of their identity. And so I thought that would be a great, the best way to show semiotics. So, I started researching tattoos from that perspective, I was a fan of the show, I really liked it, so I was watching it every week anyway. But I thought that was a really lovely way of explaining something which is quite tricky but actually in a way in which lots of people have even experienced themselves. From there, I just kind of became really increasingly fascinated with tattooing. That led to an entire book dedicated to tattooing, and tattoo cultures. And that then has led to the new book Tattoos and Popular Culture which is much more easy and less heavy than the previous book.

DR: Yeah, so you, you talk a lot about popular culture, tattoos and popular culture. But you also talk a little bit about the history of tattoos, are there surprising things about the history of tattoos that people might not know about?

LB: Um, I think the sheer age of tattooing, I think many historians argue that humans have tattooed themselves until the very beginning. So we found mummies who are extensively tattooed and symbolically tattooed from thousands of years ago. So the idea of kind of inscribing, some kind of pigmentation in our skin, either for ourselves, or to signify something about our status and position in society. It seems to be one of the oldest practices, I think that's really interesting. It's certainly not a contemporary trend, or even a trend of decades ago. It's something that humans always been fascinated with; altering themselves in this way. And I think I find that really fascinating.

DR: Well, tattoos have been subversive for a long time up until the last few decades. And I'm wondering if you tell us about the cultural shift of it moving from often a religious ceremony or a cathartic experience, and then it being part of counterculture around the world. And then now it's become so mainstream that celebrities have them.

LB: Another surprising thing when you look at the history of tattooing is the kind of change, the perceptions of tattooing and tattoos have often shifted. Again, you've seen tattoos as a part of IDs. It's simply part of that growing process. So the rite of passage, tattooing has been very important kind of ala tradition was a very important element in a really important way of being seen across the world. However, in the late 19th century, and certainly in the UK, but I do believe in the US as well, many aristocrats as well became obsessed with it.

DR: Oh wow, I didn't know that.

LB: Yeah, which kind of dismayed some criminologists who decided that tattoos must be associated with a very particular group, and they were rather confused and surprised when even royalty where becoming tattooed with heraldic emblems and all manner of interesting things. So, it's an interesting thing of looking the way in which tattoos, although we tend to think that the modern acceptability is a fairly modern process, I guess kind of in the early 20th century onwards, tattoos did start to become synonymous with a more rebellious social group and seemed to be things that were kind of communicating very powerful, countercultural messages, or simply practices, which then became divorced from our middle class cultures and the like. In many respects, certainly from the 50s the tattoo, became seen as the emblem of the rebel signifying that anyone with a tattoo was clearly going their own way, wasn't following the sort of dictates of polite society. And that became an interesting dominant theme for decades, until kind of the 1980 and certainly in the 90s, which became part of what any theorist would call a tattoo renaissance, in which a wider spectrum of people started to see the communicative and symbolic value of tattoos. So that notion, then of tattoos, kind of becoming really an indicator of one particular sort of group, or particularly a set of attitudes became a little bit more complicated and more widely diffused from the 1990s. And in many respects, we've now seen waves of renaissances in the sense that whilst tattoos will be certainly less common, and certainly less visible as a popular culture, now, they're not, they're extremely visible, and seen in television, film, etc. music. But actually, celebrity culture has played a really important driving role in that regard.

DR: So tattooing is not a casual act, I've heard it called surgery without anaesthesia, and it's painful, and it's likely to last your entire life. Do you think young people especially take all that into account when they're getting a tattoo, that it's not something to take as lightly as something you just do with your friends on Saturday?

LB: Certainly, and in some of my previous research, I did interview someone who had a moderately casual attitude to tattoos, you know, just woke up that morning, give his tattoo artist a call and said, I'll figure out what I want on the way down there, which I thought it was very maverick. But in many cases, it can't really be that casual, because it isn't something you can just do on the spur of the moment, it isn't like going in a piece of fashion, you know, you have to contact the artist, you have to decide what the piece will be even if you go into a studio and point at some flat, there's a process you have to fill out paperwork in terms of your acknowledgement of processes, you have to disclose your medical issues and make sure there aren’t any problems. So in many respects isn't a fast process, many artists will be booked, so you're going to have a waiting list time anywhere. So it isn't going to happen immediately. In many cases, it doesn't happen quickly. Because of the nature of the act, the set of time picked time. So even before the needle makes its first mark, there's a fair few steps to go through before you're actually tattooed.

DR: Well, I know that in your first work on tattoos, you spent time in tattoo parlours, and you got to know these people. What can you tell me about the current culture of tattoos, what it's like hanging out in the tattoo parlour?

LB: They're fascinating places. They're quite unique. The thing that always strikes you is the smell, there is a very distinctive antiseptic cleaning agent smell that I've only ever detected in tattoo studios because of the very specific products they use. And the moment you step into a tattoo studio, that's what hits you. So they're very evocative spaces you can hear the sound of the machines going, there’s that constant interesting kind of whirring sound. Usually the spaces are really fascinating, they're kind of really stylised and cool spaces. Often there are fashion items that the studios also produce which are really interesting. And certainly some of the artists, they can be very intimidating spaces because they're unlike any other kind of retail space you’re likely to visit. And also of course, what's happening is it's a painful act there is blood, it produces various sensations depending on where you get the tattoo, there's music playing there's often a lot of talk because they are spaces where people actually enjoy being. The act of being tattooed is very singular act, it isn't something you're going to do very often even if you become heavily tattooed. There will be spaces between that process and those times. They're very unique spaces

DR: I’ve heard tattoos been called job stoppers, that if somebody gets a big tattoo, especially on their hand or their neck or even their face, that it can harm them when they try to go into the professional world. Is there ever a time that a tattoo artist will not do a tattoo on somebody?

LB: In the interviews for the earlier book I talked about particularly facial tattoos and some artists will do it but they will speak very clearly with the client and really ensure that they're clear and the same with neck tattoos or hand tattoos. So in many cases, the client really wants that and they can demonstrate that they've thought this through, then that's, the artist will do it. And clearly, we can see many people with neck tattoos. And it has changed to some degree, I think that the kind of jobs stopper issues has become less important, or certainly, there's a lot more visible tattoos than there used to be, neck tattoos. But even that has kind of changed to some degree. And again, it seems to be coming from the world of celebrity that we're seeing, particularly in music, a lot more celebrities sporting facial tattoos, some spectacularly like Post Malone, others more discreetly, like Justin Bieber, or Halsey. But they are quite new, the facial tattoo almost seemed to be the last frontier, even for the heavily tattooed it is changing to some degree.

DR: Well, I know that for celebrities, getting a tattoo was always very taboo that they thought it would ruin their acting career. But like you said, there are actors that have, a lot of actors that have tattoos. I'm interested in somebody's like The Rock or, you know, the I was thinking of Jason Momoa also in Aquaman that he's wearing all these tattoos without a shirt on. And I think a lot of those are real tattoos, aren't they?

LB: They are yes, so his wrist tattoo designs are his. They've been worked into the narrative of Aquaman, which I thought was really interesting.

DR: Yeah. What do you think that says about popular culture when they're being incorporated into the identity of an actor?

LB: I think again that it's the kind of the recognisability of celebrity, I think, so when you've got really iconic figures like Jason Momoa and The Rock whose tattoos regularly feature in his film roles, either Fast and Furious movies, there is that notion that we're seeing the character and the person as one in many respects, and that notion of a distinctive tattoo, that they wear off screen, and in one sense, become part of that overall persona, which I think is really interesting. It doesn't happen with all actors, Scarlett Johansson has a number of tattoos and they're often not visible in screen roles in this way.

DR: I think you were talking about Johnny Depp having tattoos in the 90s that even in the 90s, it was a little bit taboo, wasn't it?

LB: Yeah, it was. I remember reading an interview with Johnny Depp, where he pretty much said that it was a forbidden thing. So certainly in the in the late 80s and the 90s. It was pretty rare to see celebrities with tattoos, there were some of course; Cher, Sean Connery is a good example.

DR: Sean Connery has a tattoo?!

LB: Yeah, if you look very closely in a lot of Bond movies, you can spot it, it's I presume it's from his Navy days, he has a very distinctive old school tattoo on his forearm, which is really interesting. So in some Bond movies, if you if you look out for that you can spot it, it’s never referred to. But again, it's Sean Connery’s tattoo from his younger days. So there were some, but they were pretty rare, and nowhere near as pronounced as they are now. And again, the indications seem to be that an actor wouldn't really engage.

DR: Well, how has the internet and online community shaped tattoos in popular culture or even in subgroups? So really, what has the internet done for tattoo artists too?

LB: In many respects, it's revolutionised tattooing. If you think not that long ago, you would be fairly limited to the artists in your locality. So if you wanted a tattoo and you wanted to start looking into which artists you wanted to do the work, would probably choose a studio that was fairly close to you, you'd have to visit that studio and you would look at the portfolio physically, social media has changed that, so artists’ work is now globally diffused and globally on show, we can check out the studios and the artist’s work in a number of different ways. We're not constrained by geography anymore. Again, we're seeing more examples of artists’ work, that's becoming a really important element. So the world of tattooing has been opened out in a very powerful way through social media, particularly platforms like Instagram which is primarily visual. So again, if you're a tattoo fan, you can explore tattoos more, you can look at what the trends are, and you can look at what the new techniques are. You can look up tattoo artist’s portfolios and obviously, tattoo artists are uploading all their work constantly. More importantly, you can engage with artists online, you can talk to other tattoo fans online, you can debate designs. There's an interesting trend where often the design will be soaped over then revealed. So you have this moment of revelation of the tattoo, which will then be uploaded onto Instagram as a short film. So I think it's become a really great platform or set of platforms in which we can really immerse ourselves into the world of tattooing. And in that sense, and one of the points I make in Tattoos and Popular Culture is that the internet has started becoming a repository and almost a historical record of tattoos now, or if we want to look at what were the key trends of a particular period, we can now look at social media platforms, and get a really great sense of that. A kind of related issue of course is impact of reality TV, and which really opened up what the studio was, how it worked, who worked there, what went on in a tattoo studio, because they were previously fairly secretive places. So that really helped as well to sort of take away some of the kind of mystery of tattooing. Some artists didn't like that, and still don't but it did help the industry in that sense, and that a lot of people sort of understood what tattooing is, it certainly helped more people become enamoured with tattoos.

DR: Yeah, we've mentioned a couple times now reality shows, and there's some strange ones that I found on MTV, the one; Just Tattoo of Us, and How Far Is Tattoo Far, where a boyfriend or girlfriend or friend chooses the tattoo of somebody, and then they put a horrendous tattoo on them, and then they react to it and usually cry or fight or something like that. What does that say about tattoo culture that it's gotten to that point now?

LB: Well, I think in one sense, I mean, one of the points I want to make about that is, that's kind of, in some cases, the antidote to the kind of notion that all tattoos have profound meaning in the sense that they don't. So if we look at Just Tattoo of Us, you know, there is sometimes really nice work and there are sometimes that is we have genuinely nice sentimental meaning behind them, but they are pretty rare. Most of them are kind of really quite spectacularly bad images, or in many cases, offensive images, which, as you say, do result in on screen conflict, and drama. And I think that's that the level of tattooing which is, many artists find it problematic. Sometimes the work is deliberately bad, or it's deliberately provocative. Again, particularly because they're semi-permanent, and to remove a tattoo is easier than it ever has been but it's still difficult. So, when you're having a tattoo, which is deliberately offensive, it isn't something that you can discard easily.

DR: Right, so tattoos do mean different things to different people. So obviously, these people are on these shows, that means one thing and what you said about purposely offensive tattoos, but then, you know, some people look at it as a cathartic experience. They'll have tattoos of loved ones who have passed away, or they'll have, you know, images of something that happened in their life. But then other times, that doesn't mean anything. It's just a nice design. What have you learned about people's relationships with tattoos in your research?

LB: In most cases, tattoos had some kind of rationale behind them, there are some that didn’t, some that people just really love the idea of being tattooed, they wanted a particular image that they just happened to like. And it's also important to note that because in one sense, the kind of reality TV influence has been to assume that every single tattoo has some profound meaning. It doesn't necessarily have that. But in my research, a lot of people’s tattoo were personal statements of family, personal statements of self, which is important, there are issues in which people will mark that period of their life. One person I interviewed was transforming his body into this really complicated history of his life, with these themed elements of each part of his body had a very distinctive connection, which was astounding to look at, and tried to decipher and couldn't be deciphered unless he took you through it, that was amazing. In some cases, people just like having tattoos, in some cases, people’s tattoos had kind of been left behind in terms of how they changed. So there were some people sort of band logos and insignias, that they're getting a decade or longer before now, they weren't much, they weren't really fans of the band anymore. Even in that case, they kind of they didn't see them as objects of regret. They kind of said, well, actually, it was a great time of my life. That band meant a lot to me when I was a teenager or in my early 20s, they don't mean that much to me now but it always reminds me of that period. So in that case, it was quite interesting that even though a tattoo didn't have that kind of symbolic power anymore, person had changed, they didn't really see them as being problematic.

DR: Well, with celebrities, I'm interested in how that works. I'm curious, are they do you think they're responding to trends? They're setting trends? What is the relationship with celebrities in popular culture with tattoos,

LB: I think, obviously, celebrity they're always kind of held to be our primary role models. So again, in terms of fashion and trend, so it's inevitable that in one sense, we're looking to a group who are normalising tattoos. I think that's the more interesting way of looking at it rather than people simply copying celebrities simply because they have tattoos. If we’re looking at the normalisation of tattoos, something which 10-15 20-30 years ago would have been very different. I think celebrity clearly has a role to play in that. Because there are so many celebrity tattooed bodies in a way that there just didn't used to be. And when we talked earlier about the notion of areas celebrities have really pushed through with that in Post Malone is clearly one of the most significant examples of that, facial tattoos now are so extensive, and so iconic, now they're so recognisable. And that's something we wouldn't have seen even in popular culture until I think relatively recently. But you know, the aesthetic of tattoos and celebrity and popular music has changed. And I think what's interesting is once upon a time, you know, it would have been heavy metal bands or punk bands, who would have been heavily tattooed. They still are. But what's interesting now is its pop performers and way more mainstream celebrities who are not only tattooed but extensively tattooed, so there's been a bit of a shift there, in terms of it was always quite a subcultural activity. Tattoos and heavy metal have always gone together anyway, that notion of rebellion, the fact that it's mainstream pop performers now who are heavily tattooed, Ed Sheeran, it's very hard to find anyone who's more heavily tattooed than him. He is not a heavy metal artist, nowhere near. I think that's really interesting, that the sort of, that there seems to be no, there are no rules now, there's no expectations about who can be tattooed, Justin Bieber’s maturity as a performer has been matched by his growing collection of tattoos. And again, now he is extensively tattooed; full body, sleeve, even some facial tattoos. So that's been a really interesting sea change, I think, and celebrities have clearly been part of that heavily in terms of that normalisation of tattoos.

DR: Well, one of the changes that I'm curious about is how, you know, in the fashion industry, there's been this movement of this positive body image movement. I'm wondering, do you think that tattoos fit in relationship to that?

LB: I do, again if you look back at fashion tattoos are very rare. Now they're not, they're certainly becoming more visible in that sense. And I think that that is an element where there is a clear differentiation between what we‘d assumed would be fashion and what tattoos are, as if it is, if you're getting into tattooing, because it's a trend, then clearly, you're not going to be able to kind of change that where you could change your fashion ensemble. But I think even that with fashion with advertising, tattoos have now become visible, they're there in a way that they weren't that long ago in terms of pop culture.

DR: So we're almost living in a sort of tattoo Renaissance aren’t we?

LB: I'm saying it's the next wave, the tattoo renaissance that sort of started early, started to pick up speed in the 70s, and I think this is the most interesting one in that sense it's become the most culturally used and visible. Again it's still subcultural, of course, but the visibility of tattoos is unprecedented.

DR: So where do you see it going from here? If you're looking at it in terms of a wave that began in the 70s, and has moved on to mainstream popular culture? Where can we go from here?

LB: I think it was Ozzy Osborne, who advised one of his children to be a true rebel now would be not get a tattoo, because they are so normalised so that that's going to be the new rebelliousness. I think they will always change, I think, you know, tattoos again as I’ve said have been around for thousands of years, whether they're always going to have that same level of conspicuousness, who knows. And that, of course, is obviously always the risk with tattoos, particularly if we start thinking, why not get your neck tattooed, why not get your hands tattooed, there's nothing to say that in five to 10 years’ time, there won’t be another swing in which that will be out, as it were. So it's always unpredictable in that sense, but I can't see anyone deciding that they don't want to be tattooed. In one sense, the custom work we now see is often astounding. Not always, of course there are a lot of websites of bad tattoos, you have to be careful with that. And a lot of adverts on social media talking about tattoos are things worth investing in in terms of finding the right artist, and not being put off by price because lower cost tattoos tend not to be the ones everyone's going to be amazed by. So again, not every not every expression of the art is amazing, but much of it is and also that's interesting to note about people are communicating aspects of self. In terms of pop culture, you know, the sheer number of pop cultural tattoos is really interesting. So again, you can see Marvel characters and DC characters, so though in some cases, it's become even more semiotic in the sense that tattoos are not simply part of pop culture, but they invariably express pop culture itself, really moves you or that you're a fan of and that's become really Interesting. So again, there's a whole host of Marvel characters, and Harley Quinn, etc, many of which are absolutely spectacular. Joker tattoos with Joaquin Phoenix. So, again, there's there are lots of different ways in which tattoos can express person's sense of personality.

DR: I've noticed how a lot of people who get tattoos, there's an element of cultural appropriation where they get symbols of languages and different, you know, different sayings and different languages and things like that. What can you tell me about cultural appropriation and tattoos?

LB: Yeah, I think it's one of the cases of visibility and certainly, I think, yeah, there is often a risk of that, where people will look at the aesthetics of a symbol with no understanding of what it represents, or what it’s history may be. So they will simply take aspects of culture simply because they think it looks cool. But they don't really have that understanding of what lies behind the tattoo and the tattoo design. So I think that that can be problematic and there are certainly some people who run into that. And again, the notion of this postmodern approach that you can simply take a symbol just because you like it, and not be concerned at all with the history of that, and the cultural specificity of that and that often is a risk with that approach. The flip side of that are some people who simply don't know that you can’t just simply run a particular language through Google Translate and expect it to say what you think it's that there are people with symbols that don't make any sense or not translating what they think it translates into. So there have been some problems with that. But at night, I think it is an issue, I think sometimes there is an issue where the aesthetics of a tattoo can for some people override the history of what lies behind it.

DR: So Lee are you continuing to do research on tattoos?

LB: In terms of where I want to go next. My next plan is to do something very different. What I want to do is return back to the studios, and I want to look at the craft underpinnings of tattoos. So I want to look the tattoo artist as a contemporary crafts person. That's what I  really want to look at the technology aspect, the application aspect, really thinking about the notion of the use of hand and eye tattoo artists, where representation of what is ultimately a craft and art process. And that's something I'm really interested in it.

DR: Yeah, that's really interesting. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today about this.

LB: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

DR: We hope you enjoyed my discussion with Lee Sarron. You can find more information about his book in the show notes found on our website. I'd like to thank Sallie Gregson for her help with today's episode and Alex unius at This Is Distorted

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