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Clinton R. Sanders with D. Angus Vail

The Art and Culture of Tattooing


1. Tattooing-Social aspects. 2. Tattoo artists.
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Book Details
 272 p
 File Size 
 11,693 KB
 File Type
 PDF format

 1-59213-887-X (cloth : alk. paper) 
 1-59213-888-8 (pbk. : alk. paper)
 2008 by Temple University 

Preface to the Revised and 
Expanded Edition
In those days, a tattoo was still a souvenir—a keepsake to
mark a journey, the love of your life, a heartbreak, a port
of call. The body was like a photo album; the tattoos themselves
didn’t have to be good photographs. . . . And the old
tattoos were always sentimental: you didn’t mark yourself
for life if you weren’t sentimental (Irving, 2005: 74–75).

Much has changed on the tattooing (and larger body
alteration) landscape since Customizing the Body first
appeared in the late 1980s. Perhaps the most important
change has been the transformation of tattooing from the ostensibly
“deviant” practice I discussed in the first edition to the popular
cultural phenomenon it is today.
There are (at least) three criteria sociologists use to define an
activity, perspective, or appearance as fitting into the category of
“deviant.” First, the phenomenon could be seen as constituting
or causing some sort of social harm. Since much of what might
be considered to be socially harmful rests on the values of the
person or persons doing the defining, what is regarded as “bad”
behavior, “disgusting” or “shocking” appearance, or “inappropriate”
thoughts is largely a matter of taste (though sociologists
tend to overlay their personal tastes with a legitimating patina of
theory). A second way of understanding deviance is to see it
simply as something that is relatively rare. This “statistical” orientation,
of course, has some presumed relationship to the
values/harm model since what is bad by definition is presumed
to be appealing to only a relatively small number of twisted, misguided,
or unfortunate people.

A third, and to my mind the most useful, way of thinking about
social deviance is to see it as behavior, thoughts, or appearances
that are widely regarded as “bad.” Consequently, when those who
engage in the bad behavior, think the bad thoughts, or publically
display their bad appearance come to the attention of some audience
or another, they are subjected to punishment or some other
kind of negative social reaction. This third orientation has the advantage
of making a distinction between breaking rules and being
“deviant” in that deviance is defined as that which is the focus of
social reaction. A person might break rules and not be found out—
he or she is a rule-breaker but not a deviant—or one could not
break rules and still be “falsely accused” of being a violator—he or
she is a deviant but not a rule-breaker. It is especially useful for
understanding the shifting social definition of tattooing and other
forms of permanent body modification in that this “labeling” perspective
(deviance as a socially applied label) incorporates the central
idea that defined deviance changes over time, from culture to
culture, and depends on just who is doing the defining (see Becker,
1963; Goode, 2005: 86-93; Rubington and Weinberg, 2002).
Tattooing and, to a somewhat lesser degree, other modes of
body alteration have been “de-deviantized” since the early 1990s
in light of the last two definitions of deviance. Tattooing has
become more widely practiced (that is, more popular) and has,
therefore, come to be seen as less odd, unusual, rebellious, or
otherwise deviant. In general, those things your friends do are
significantly less likely to be negatively regarded than are those
things strangers do.

Although I see it as wise to take the findings of survey research
with considerable skepticism, polls conducted in the early– to
mid–1990s suggested that somewhere between 3 and 10 percent
of the general population were tattooed (Anderson, 1992; Armstrong
and McConnell, 1994; Armstrong and Pace-Murphy, 1997).
Recently, a study conducted by Anne Laumann, a dermatologist
at Northwestern University, revealed that 24 percent of American
adults between the ages of 18 and 50 are tattooed and one in
seven had a body piercing somewhere other than the earlobe
(nearly one-third of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29
said they were pierced) (Laumann and Derick, 2006).
The movement of tattooing into the realm of popular culture
displays certain features of the contemporary culture industry
and reveals how fad-like phenomena emerge. Culture producers,
beset by the problem of “commercial uncertainty” (that is, what
popular cultural products will or will not be successful [see
Sanders, 1990]), are constantly on the lookout for new materials
with potential commercial appeal. Typically, the producers keep
an eye on the interests, activities, and appearance of those outside
the boundaries of social power. The tastes and entertainment
and material interests of minorities, teenagers, disaffected urban
residents, and other “outsiders” are filched by the culture industry,
cleaned up and homogenized, avidly promoted as the latest
thing, and sold to the larger consumer market. In short, the major
source of innovation in popular culture is in the materials and
activities of the relatively poor and powerless; innovation flows up
the stream of power.

This process has impelled the movement of tattooing into popular
culture. Beginning with the “tattoo renaissance” of the 1960s
(discussed in Chapter 1), musicians, movie actors, and other entertainment
figures admired and followed by young people started acquiring
and displaying tattoos. Similarly, sports figures—typically
from minority and/or impoverished backgrounds—were tattooed.
Despite the fact that most of the tattoos displayed by entertainers
and (especially) athletes look as if they were done by eight-yearolds
with magic markers, the fact that admired public figures were
tattooed gave tattooing a certain popular cultural cachet.
While exposure by key figures in the mediated popular culture
is an important factor in the rise and dissemination of cultural
interests and products, cultural innovation and the consumption
of particular materials also derive from people’s immediate social
networks and contacts. As we see in Chapter 2, an important
factor in people’s decisions to get tattooed is that their friends or
family members sport tattoos. Understandably then, as more
people are tattooed, more people have contact with those who are
tattooed, and more people see it as reasonable or desirable to
acquire a tattoo. Cultural popularity is a form of contagion.
As tattooing has inserted itself into mainstream popular culture
in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it has been
thematically assimilated into a variety of media materials. At this
writing, television viewers have access to such tattoo-themed
shows as “Miami Ink” on TLC, “Inked” on A&E, and “Tattoo Stories”
on FUSE. Popular memoirs such as Emily Jenkins’s Tongue
First (1998) and serious novels like John Irving’s Until I Find You
(2005) and Sarah Hall’s Electric Michelangelo (2005), a finalist for
2004’s Man Booker Prize, feature tattooing and tattooists. Mass
market booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble have a variix
ety of tattoo-oriented titles such as International Tattoo Art, Skin
& Ink, and Tattoo Magazine on their magazine racks. Clearly, tattooing
has moved out of the dark underground of the 1950s into
the spotlight of mainstream commercial culture.

Given the “mainstreaming” of tattooing, the declining power of
the tattoo to generate what I call (after Quentin Bell) “conspicuous
outrage” becomes an interesting issue. When the traffic cop
who stops you for speeding or the youth minister in your church
sports a tattoo, the mark clearly has lost a considerable amount
of stigma potential. The issue then becomes “How can those who
fit into or aspire to the common social category of ‘rebel’ visibly
demonstrate their divergent identities?” The question “What is
next on the horizon of rebellious body alteration?” is commonly
tossed at me by the journalists who still call me when they have
been assigned filler stories for the leisure section of their papers.
When I choose to catch the question, I usually make note of the
rising popularity of full-body tattooing and multiple piercings and
less frequently encountered, and usually startling, alterations
such as extensive facial tattooing and surgical implants of horns,
feline-like wire whiskers, and bladders that can be inflated or deflated
for appearance-altering effect.

In addition to being incorporated into the lucrative world of popular
culture, in the latter part of the twentieth century tattooing
also became more firmly situated in the world of “serious” art.
The general issue of what products constitute “art” and what factors
increase or decrease the likelihood that an activity is deemed
“artistic” and an actor is defined as an “artist,” was the primary
focus of Chapter 5 in the first edition of Customizing the Body and
is an issue we touch upon again in the 2008 Epilogue. Continuing
the trend detailed previously, tattooing has remained a focus
of attention as academics have continued to produce “serious”
analyses, museums and galleries have continued to mount shows
of tattoo works, and specialty publishers have continued to produce
pricey coffee-table books containing photos and discussions
of tattoo works. Tattooing has even been incorporated into a particular
“school” of art. Those like Herbert Gans (1999) who espouse
an egalitarian view of art that rejects the hierarchical
distinction between “high” (serious, real, traditional) art and “low”
(popular, mass, “brutal”) art commonly see avant garde art as
resting on the border between the simple world of commercial
popular culture and the complex aesthetic world of high art where
materials are created by specialists (“artists”), evaluated by experts
(“critics”), and consumed by monied “collectors.” Since the
early 1990s, this border space between popular culture and traditional
art has been taken over by the expansive category of “lowbrow”
art (whose representatives derogatorily refer to traditional
fine art as “art-school art”). Grounded on the underground art of
the 1960s, and in reaction to the arid, theory-heavy installations
that dominated conventional artistic work in the 1980s and
1990s, lowbrow art (sometimes labeled “outlaw art” or “l’art
de toilette” by adherents) is composed of such diverse types of
products as graffiti art, car art, underground comix, limitedproduction
toys and statuary, customized clothing, “art brut,”
record-album art, black-velvet paintings, pulp art, poster art,
prison art, tiki art, anime and manga, pulp art, and tattooing. Inspired
by the dadaists and surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s,
advocates and practitioners of lowbrow art reject the constraints
imposed by critics, mainstream gallery owners, and other central
players in the conventional art world and create an art that is selfconsciously
representational, dismisses the baggage of art theory,
and revels in the aesthetic tastes displayed in urban, street-level
culture. Clearly, tattooing has found a home in an established, if
somewhat unruly, segment of the larger art world.

Despite its rising popularity and tentative incursion into the
world of (at least marginally) legitimate art, it is still reasonable, I
would maintain, to regard tattooing (and other forms of permanent
body alteration) through the conceptual lens provided by the
sociology of deviance. Quite a bit of ink has been spilled recently
over the issue of whether “deviance” continues to be a viable and
useful analytic category (see, for example, Goode, 2002, 2003;
Hendershott, 2002; Sumner, 1994). I have no desire to enter this
debate other than to say that I find many of the arguments offered
by those who celebrate the “death” of deviance to be unconvincing
at best. Creating rules is an elemental feature of social life
and, consequently, violating rules and reacting to those violations
are of equal importance. Studying misbehavior has been, and
continues to be, central to the sociological enterprise. Given its
focus on the tattoo as a boundary-setting mark, a sign of subcultural
membership, and a potentially stigmatizing identity enhancement
and tattooing as a disvalued, officially regulated or
prohibited, and secretive occupational practice, Customizing the
Body was, and is, a study in the sociology of deviance.

Table of Contents
Preface to the Revised and Expanded Edition vii
Preface to the First Edition xxi

1 Introduction: Body Alteration, Artistic Production,
and the Social World of Tattooing 1
2 Becoming and Being a Tattooed Person 36
3 The Tattooist: Tattooing as a Career and an Occupation 62
4 The Tattoo Relationship: Risk and Social Control in the Studio 117
5 Conclusion: Tattooing and the Social Definition of Art 149
Epilogue 2008: Body Modification Then and Now
Methodological Appendix 189

Selected Tattoo Artist Websites 203
Notes 205
References 221
Index 239
Photographs follow page 108


[T]he tattoo culture on display at Daughter Alice made
Jack ashamed of his mother’s “art.” . . . The old maritime
tattoos, the sentiments of sailors collecting souvenirs on
their bodies, had been replaced by tasteless displays of
hostility and violence and evil . . . skulls spurting blood,
flames licking the corners of the skeletons’ eye sockets. . . .
Jack took Claudia aside and said to her: “Generally
speaking, attractive people don’t get tattooed.” But this
wasn’t strictly true. . . . (Irving, 2005: 339–340).
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