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Tattoos in the new age of self-expression

By: Arianna Morales

  

Ink on the skin has become a norm in telling personal stories and expressing our personalities. The human body is a living canvas, acting as a coloring book waiting to be transformed. Younger generations, such as Generation Z, are playing a significant role in breaking stigmas surrounding tattoos.

 

Sporting a tramp stamp nowadays probably won’t get you kicked out of the house for being in your “rebellious phase.” That’s how my generational experience differs from my mom’s. She had to hide her lower back piece out of respect for my grandparents. I get to freely flaunt my tattoos without worrying if it will earn disapproving stares.

 

Historically, tattoos have existed in many cultures worldwide for thousands of years. For the U.S. specifically, the markings were introduced to Western sailors by the indigenous groups of Polynesia. When the practice worked its way from maritime workers to land, tattoos became a secret fad for socialites of the early 19th century. In public, the perception of tattoos was negative, and often associated with lower-class citizens. 

 

Through economic change, war, countercultural movements and emerging styles such as American traditional, tattoos started to spread through the population as statements of self-expression. Still, they were labeled a taboo topic and often hidden away so as not to be associated with deviant behavior. 

 

Rather than a taboo, today’s young adults have embraced tattoos as their favorite art form and continue to prove the importance and value of individuality. According to an analysis from the Pew Research Center, 41% of adults under 30 have at least one tattoo. Despite a dwindling, yet present, social stigma, we are starting to see tattoos more frequently. 

 

In the workplace 

One of the biggest issues people have historically faced with getting permanent body art is worrying about how it would be perceived professionally. As time passes, we see a variety of people committing to a tattoo. More industries have developed flexibility within appearance policies for their employees. For example, at a local coffee shop, where most employees are in their 20s, visible tattoos may not be the most troubling thing for management to enforce rules on. However, in industries that focus on service or air transportation, employers take presentation more seriously. For instance,  in 2017, Southwest Airlines employees were told that visible tattoos were not permitted while in uniform. Since then, revisions have been made to the standards. 

 

Comparing previous years to 2024, there was a slight shift in attitude towards representatives having tattoos. If we look into the 2023 appearance standards for Southwest Airlines inflight employees, the guidelines stated that tattoos on the arms, wrists, legs and feet were acceptable. Tattoos still had size restrictions and could not be larger than the employee badge. There’s still room for improvement on these rules, seeing as the 2024 standards mention visible tattoos on the face, neck and chest are prohibited in uniform. Putting it into perspective, Southwest Airlines leans more on the modernized side with their policies since most U.S.-based major airlines still do not allow any visibility. 

Some argue that airlines consider cultural sensitivity and professionalism when their crew interacts with millions of passengers annually. I would call this an outdated perspective, as we see an overall societal attitude change. With tattoos becoming more accepted and appreciated beyond the U.S., the stigma around them in these conservative industries is gradually fading. 

 

An artist’s perspective

Resident artist Bella Pilli (@kayabi_art), who works at the Los Angeles-based tattoo and coffee shop Supersweet also agreed that there has been an increase in the number of people coming in to get inked versus older generations because of changing mindsets. The Supersweet shop itself has a new-gen look that contrasts traditional parlors and where Pilli spends her time perfecting the blackwork style. 

 

Newer artists seem also to have different views on the value of their art and the time they spend with each style. Self-expression is just as important for the artist to trust what they put on someone else. Artists like Pilli, who see tattooing as another artistic medium, shift from a fine arts foundation to collaborate with others willing to wear their creations. On the topic of uniqueness between each tattoo and client, she expressed that it’s frustrating when clients expect artists to duplicate someone else’s work perfectly. 

 

“Drawing is kind of a fingerprint,” Pilli said, “You cannot really copy someone else’s work.” 

 

Right down the road at Bad Dog LA, artist Nuri Kwon (@nuuriworld) has developed her own unique style that attracts first-time tattoo clients. When asked about self-expression in tattoos, she highlighted how tattoos go beyond being a simple marking on the body and can reflect personal growth or evolving interests. 

 

“I think on people who have a lot of tattoos, you can see that journey of change, maybe one of the tattoos marked that period of time in your life you liked bears. But now you have a bunch of stars and butterflies on you because you like stars and butterflies,” Kwon commented. “Maybe next year you’ll add new stuff to the collection. And then it’s like a journal on your body of all the fun stuff you like, and maybe not fun stuff also.”

 

The defining trends of Gen Z 

Not only have they uplifted a new wave of self-expression, but young artists in the tattooing community have created spaces where fun tattoos can be mixed with personal pieces. It’s not uncommon to see flash sheets filled with Sanrio characters, anime references or zodiac art. Gen Z has created trends with tattoo designs. Fine line has become a prevalent style, especially on social media. The request for dainty, Pinterest-inspired drawings has replaced the once sought-out American traditional. Instead of large, bold pieces, people now have collections of smaller designs that act as a mini gallery on the skin. This unique style is referred to as patchwork. 

 

Tattoos can be cohesive without each design being related or part of one connected piece. Clients can also experiment with different styles and shops now that more artists have started picking up a machine. 

 

The resurgence of tattoos in the mainstream for this generation has definitely proved that the title of a taboo can no longer contain the practice. As younger generations continue to decorate their skin with symbols of their personality, their self-expression will transcend the judgment that tattoos are only ‘skin deep.’.

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