The previous ten years have seen tattooing explode into the mainstream to an unprecedented degree. It’s difficult to imagine that, in 1995, a heavily tattooed Robbie Williams would have been warmly embraced by the grandmothers of the nation as a harmless, portly Saturday night entertainer, or that David Beckham’s rapidly growing collection of ink would have been an acceptable addition to the body of the England football captain. Before the beginning of the tattoo renaissance in the mid-90s it’s more than likely that both would have been judged with deep suspicion, not to say pathologised by press and public alike, and would have seen their chances of becoming pop culture heroes hampered by their choices regarding their appearance.

This is largely due to the fact that, in the post-war West, tattooing has traditionally been associated with subcultures, and subcultural preoccupations; and tattoos have been widely regarded as visible signifiers of an often threatening difference between a discrete group of individuals and the rest of society. It’s unusual for a visual artform to evoke such strong reactions, when, semantically, a little ink placed permanently under the skin can be understood however an individual chooses to do so. In many so-called “primitive” cultures, those who are not tattooed are regarded as stranger than those who are; yet in the industrialised West, both the tattooed community and those who remain untattooed have, until recently, imbued body art with intense meaning and value judgement.

In the case of the ardent football fan emblazoned with his team’s emblem, or the neo-Nazi sporting a swastika, the meaning of the tattoo appears clear in society’s eyes, and, one suspects, is often relatively unambiguous. However, more obscure, abstract symbols have also been frequently understood as coded badges proclaiming an allegiance to some subculture or other, again not without some justification. In short, post-war society has tended to assume that to become tattooed is to make a statement of collective “otherness”.

As marks of opposition to mainstream society, tattoos have often been regarded as symbols of both group inclusion and group exclusion: signifiers both of what we are and what we are not in relation to the world at large. Those actively seeking group identity by labelling what they are are perhaps easier for society to categorise. Within traditional male working class institutions such as gangs, football clubs, heavy metal bands, bulldog Britain, or the lower ranks of the army or the navy, tattoos which allude to one’s membership imply a lifelong bond to one’s brotherhood. Similarly, tattoos featuring the names or images of loved ones reinforce the importance of the family as a discrete unit from the rest of society, but also create allegiances with other family-minded working-class men.

The tribal swirls and Celtic bands of the mid-90s, touted by wearers when they first became popular as totems of individuality, have become reduced via their ubiquity to badges of conformity – admittedly expressing the atavistic norms of tough masculinity or hippy sensibilities rather than allegiance to a specific football club, but nailing one’s colours to a specific mast nonetheless. The kanji characters chosen by the kids of ten years ago are equivalent to the scrolls and roses and hearts of their day: pre-printed flash posted on the wall of the tattoo parlour, pointed at and facsimiled onto the skin. They reinforce group identity and make some statement against the true mainstream, but fail to say anything distinctive about the wearer, as they were once perceived to do.

Indeed, in the Heat-fuelled world of the entry-level celebrity, it could even be argued that (small, easily coverable) tattoos signify only an allegiance to the cult of pop pap: indeed, the generic squiggles proudly sported by the likes of Atomic Kitten, Ronan Keating and Kym Marsh are about as challenging, individualistic and distinctive as their music.

Those seeking to define otherness via exclusion from the mainstream – through a definition of what we are not – have traditionally adopted more ambiguous symbols and have sought larger or more visible pieces. Marginalised elements of society such as bikers and members of queer and S&M subcultures have, since tattooing became available on the high street, sought bold, often deeply coded designs which proclaim otherness via symbols which present a threat due to their very resistance to interpretation and categorisation. Snakes, dragons, and other phallic creatures; nightmarish biomechanical images; and bold emblems appropriated from ethnic or ‘primitive’ sources all hint at worlds of danger, transgression, and ritual from which the vast majority of humankind are happily excluded.

C-list celebrities aside, to some extent these motivations of belonging and exclusion among tattooed individuals are linked. Bikers and gay men were, at least until the late 80s, seeking to distance themselves from a society which found their tastes distasteful, but were also creating cliques in doing so. Those in the army or navy were forging bonds between each other, often in situations of heightened danger and therefore heightened comradeship, but were also reacting against a regime which stripped away vital aspects of their identity (first name, hair, freedom not to follow orders). Tattooing has always flourished in prisons, a regime which by its nature both excludes individuals from society, undermining identity in the process, but also encourages brotherhood. This perhaps accounts for the phenomenon in Russian prisons where convicts voluntarily tattoo themselves with symbols reflecting their convict status: where only deliberate exclusion can provide a rare chance for real inclusion.

None of this prepares us for the rise in truly individualistic tattooing during the last ten years, a period which has seen an exponential growth in ink which is conceived entirely ad hoc, typically as a collaboration between a customer who knows what kind of visual image he or she wants to achieve and a tattooist who can draw upon a range of ethnic and Western styles to create a truly unique piece of art. For the first time we are seeing tattooing which demonstrates freedom of expression rather than bland conformity or freedom from repression. True, this rise in distinctive and individualistic tattooing – as opposed to the commoditised flash of the post-war years – only exists in Britain because of the presence of tattoo shops such as Into You and Evil From the Needle, which provide high quality, custom-designed work which can mark the individual as visually unique. But supply only emanates from demand: these shops are businesses and would not survive unless culture had created the market for the work they offer.

Perhaps the demand has emanated from an increased desire for a demonstrable personal identity, as well as a reduction in the fears that tattooing is inherently deviant, at least for those who are apprehensive of widespread censure. In Britain we are experiencing a steady liberalisation of opinion towards appearance, with a decreasing tendency for society to judge or categorise individuals based upon visuals alone. Recent years have seen young men dressing more and more effeminately, with none of the ridicule in the tabloid press which met the New Romantics in the 80s. Dandyism, both male and female, is back with a bang in a manner not seen since the pre-Victorian age. And the rise of the Internet has not only proved that there is no such thing as a homogenous mainstream, but also that there is no such thing as a deviant. Increasingly we see subcultures splitting into ever more specific factions, with our fellow members of these factions easily accessible via clever search engines. Thus the fear of stigmatisation and categorisation as “other” which surrounds extreme forms of self-expression such as bold, unique tattooing has been enormously reduced for individuals who are drawn to them.

This has led to a tattoo movement driven by personal motives which derive from the id rather than from one’s relationship with society: predominantly pure aesthetics and erotic enhancement. None of which is to say that large-scale custom tattooing is always devoid of meaning. It is believed by some within the tattoo community that the modern renaissance in tattooing can be attributed at least in part to our desires to define ourselves and reclaim our own bodies. When every surface which could possibly command attention has been plastered with advertising, endorsements, logos and other signifiers of salesworthiness, we are left with little but our own skins as the last truly unbranded space upon which we can carve out our own identity in competition with the overwhelming signifiers of corporate lust which surround us in every urban environment.

Custom tattooing empowers individuals to tell their own stories and define their own identities. Even pop stars such Eminem, who depend upon regular reinvention to sustain their careers, have chosen to colour with permanent markings the blank canvas which others redefine with disposable clothes. Eminem’s body is a narrative of his life: the death of his uncle; the birth of his daughter; his split from his wife are all recorded in permanent ink. Extraordinary for a man who, in his pop career, builds layer upon layer of ambiguity to create an image defined by a variety of alter-egos and contradictory expressions on race, violence and sexuality.

A society where custom tattooing can move into the mainstream, then, is a society which has grown up; which no longer feels the need to pander to all tastes and which can support and accept individuals’ definitions of themselves.

Darren Harvey