The Mass Production Of Art: How Body Modification Became Mainstream

As tattoos and piercings have become more mainstreamed in our society, I decided to explore how and why this happened by talking with sociologists and body modification artists as they react to the different trends.

Read about it here or click below to read the plain text version of the article.

“The Mass Production Of Art: How Body Modification Became Mainstream”
Posted on October 14, 2015
By Danielle Levsky

Ian “Cognito” Rotundo has been tattooing for more than 21 years, and he’s sick of drawing the same tattoos over and over.

“I’m not doing any more feathers with birds flying out of it,” Cognito said. “It’s a strange time in tattooing with all the cliché tats. There’s so many artists, so there’s only so many ideas.”

The Greenleaf Tattoo Company, his studio in Rogers Park, is minimalist and spacious, giving plenty of room for him and his apprentice to work together on giving customers their first, second or fifteenth tattoos. He also provides various body piercing services.

It’s a popular time to get a tattoo or piercing. According to Support Tattoos and Piercings At Work (SAPAW), 42% of Americans have tattoos. Tattoo popularity has grown 13% since 2007. 61% of adults have piercings, with 83% having pierced ears. That means 26.51% of Americans have piercings somewhere other than their earlobes, the most popular places being the navel, nose, and ear (cartilage, tragus, etc.). In just 15 years, the population of tattooed people has increased by five percent.

“Tattoos and piercings have become more mainstream,” said Samantha Kwan, associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Houston. She noted that there are still disparities in class, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and sex. In her experience, research showed that women are more likely than men to obtain body piercings.

In the 1990s, the lower back was a popular place to get tattooed. As a tattooer, Joel Molina, a tattoo artist at Chicago’s oldest tattoo shop Chicago Tattooing & Piercing Company, thinks it’s a wonderful place to get a tattoo because “it complements the shape and form of the body area.” He noticed that after the release of the movie “Wedding Crashers,” where Vince Vaughn called the lower back tattoo a “tramp stamp,” no one wanted that kind of tattoo anymore.

“A seed was planted into American tattoo culture psyche,” Molina explained. “Now, people are getting teeny, tiny rib cage tattoos, which was set forward by celebrities like Rihanna and Lady GaGa. Monkey see, monkey do. Let’s all get lower ribcage tattoos.”

Dustin “Dusty” Rhoads, too, noticed the influence of celebrities on tattoo culture. He recalled the moment when Nicole Richie was photographed with a new tattoo: a small rosary that wrapped around her ankle. The photo circulated around social media, such as Pinterest.

“That week, I must have had 30 to 40 girls wanting to get that same exact tattoo,” Rhoads said. “Pinterest is a hard hitter! I don’t look at it because I know what I’ll be tattooing this week… every feather with a bird flying out of it.”

With popularity increasing in tattooing and piercing, the industries themselves are rapidly growing. There are 21,000 tattoo parlors in the United States, with a new one being added each day. Molina thinks that the Internet has provided curious people with access to more information.

“It’s good and bad,” Molina said. “On one hand, anyone can go on eBay, buy equipment, and start tattooing their friends. On the other hand, tattooing is getting more widely accepted, so people have started following and collecting the work of certain people. They’re nourishing the talent of that tattoo artist.”

Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr and other social media platforms have opened doors for anyone across the world to “Like,” subscribe, and follow the process of tattooing and the work of individual artists.

Beverly Thompson, an assistant professor of Sociology at Siena College in New York, noted the “bad” side that Molina spoke of: Many traditional tattoo artists long for the days when collectors were part of a “sub-cultural, edgy group.” Tattooed and pierced people could feel like they were a part of something special, something only certain people could understand and appreciate. Now, with the click of a link on Facebook, anyone has the ability to criticize and deconstruct the body modifications they see. With the right Google search, anyone can claim ink expertise after watching a series of tutorials on YouTube.

“The mainstreaming of tattoos does take away from collective identity,” Thompson said. “With the widespread appeal of tattoo culture, tattoo artists see that the art and its culture does not garner the proper historical knowledge and respect that it deserves.”

Before tattoo clichés like feathers with birds flying out of them, the culture grew in North America through the adoption of tattoos and culture by sailors and military enlistees.

According to Thompson, they were eventually adopted by other subcultural groups before gaining mainstream recognition in the 1970s and continue to rise in popularity each decade. By definition, even the cliché tattoos cannot be a fad.

Molina emphasizes Thompson’s point by explaining that these tattoo trends will always exist. Pop culture and social media shape and form these trends.

“It’s all social engineering in a way,” Molina said. “We’re indoctrinated through (social media) mediums to see celebrities with tattoos and it just boils over from there.”

Piercings, too, have seen the increase in “trendiness” that tattoos have. Molly Bennet, who works with her partner Luis “Cuba” Perez at Identity Body Piercing, Chicago’s sole piercing-only shop, has been working as a professional in the piercing industry for six years. She and Perez opened up Identity Body Piercing in June 2014.

“With a change of the shop and location, I’ve noticed that piercings have gotten a lot more mainstream and trendy,” Bennet recalled. “In the ’90s, it was naval piercings and eyebrows, which goes in waves. Now, you have people focusing on piercing projects and jewelry, like the triple helix cartilage piercing project.”

Bennet started her apprenticeship when she was 18 and noticed that piercings seemed to be something that tattoo shops had out of necessity. Piercing-only shops are rare, and the industry is growing.

“There’s a lot more overhead with piercing,” Bennet explained. “You have to have a lot of jewelry available now and the proper equipment, as well.”

On Etsy and Pinterest, for instance, people would post photos of nicer body piercing jewelry, so jewelry companies would start putting out more body piercing jewelry. Special jewelry has been designed to be more “work-friendly,” like facial piercings that carry a retainer, a glass piece designed to look like a mole.

With the jewelry industry growing for piercings, the phenomenon of tattoo schools seem to be growing as well. Traditionally, tattoo and piercing artists train under a professional and secure an apprenticeship. Tattoo schools offer a formal, in-class education on tattooing but at often high ticket prices. Forbidden Body Art in Portland, Oregon, for instance offers an Art of Tattooing class for a $9,350 tuition fee. Many tattoo artists react adversely to such schools.

“They’re just churning out tattoo artists,” Cognito said, also describing one tattoo school that teaches its students “how to draw” and “doesn’t guarantee them any opportunities after they finish the school.”

“The whole school thing is awful,” Molina said. “It should be a trade, just like welding or plumbing, where you are supposed to apprentice under an experienced tattooer until you can do it yourself.”

Tattoo schools put out large groups of tattoo artists because public demand and interest are high. In the vein of Andy Warhol, who created art that mocked the mass production of pop culture, body modification culture is experiencing this on a deeper level. Like the feather with a bird flying out of it, body art ideas are being mass produced to service an ever-growing population’s desire to modify each person’s body.

Despite disappointment with current trends, tattoo/piercing artists and enthusiasts are hopeful about the future of body modification.

“A lot of us have tattoos and piercings in our generation,” Rhoads said. “There’s a sector of people who are free thinkers and artists, who are working in social areas in the medical field or counseling. They have great life experiences and educations.”

To Molina, you have to “roll with the punches” and continue working with people. He follows a certain mantra whenever he sits down to tattoo a person, created by one of history’s most recognized tattoo artists (and circus performers), Leonard “Stoney” St. Clair.

“I, Leonard Stoney St. Clair, am in the business of rendering a service to this community, for the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in some way or another. I choose to pursue my profession with intelligence and skill, wishing not to offend anyone, but instead with my love of mankind, do what good I can before a I die.


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