"I tattoo everyone from high-school principals to the other end of the freaking spectrum," says Mike Dunn, a tattoo artist at Visual Expressions in East Hartford.
A music teacher recently came in to get a music staff that morphs into a DNA strand tattooed on him. It was his first tattoo and "he couldn't wait to get back to school and show it to the kids," says Dunn.
But it's the millennial generation, or generation Y, or anyone born roughly after 1982, that's the most tattooed generation ever, with about four in 10 people between the ages of 18 and 35 having at least one tattoo (according to the Pew Research Center). (That's about 38 percent of Millennials. Gen-Xers are close behind, at 32 percent with at least one tattoo, and only 15 percent of Baby Boomers say they've got a tattoo.)
Tattoo artists I spoke with around the state said the most popular tattoos these days are lettering and words. And showy tattoo blogs like Fuck Yeah Tattoos (fyeahtattoos.com) and Tattoologist.com back this up — song lyrics, excerpts of poetry, affirmations, latitude-longitude coordinates and birthdays dominate recently got tattoos. "Breathe" is tattooed on the insides of more bottom lips than you'd believe.
These tattoo displays function as alternatives or reinforcers to social media sites where your photos and personal information are organized and exhibited as projections of you. Fuck Yeah Tattoo photo submissions are almost always directly linked to the Tumblrs and blogs of the submitters, and within these blogs are shrines to their own ink and more elaborate descriptions of their tattoos' meanings, significance, origins and histories. The pride of the accomplishment is in the hours spent getting a tattoo, the pain of the needle, or the money spent, or the boldness of a tattoo's placement. And, of course, there's special attention to the meaning of the tattoo. It's who this person is, captured in a lover's note, a verse from a poem, a lyric from a Coldplay or 30 Seconds to Mars song. Or, in many cases, a depiction of Woody from "Toy Story" or a melting clock from a Salvador Dali painting.
There's also endless joke-spirited tattoos — Rick Astley, Michael Jackson, "Bowie Christ" (David Bowie's head on Jesus Christ's backlit, robed and haloed body) and meme tattoos inspired by double rainbows and "Inglip." When an earthquake shook the east coast earlier this year, someone in Brooklyn got an "I survived the quake" tattoo, which made its way several times around the Web.
Liz Anderson, of Studio Zee in New Haven, says that with the wider acceptance of tattoos today and a greater interest in committing to a tattoo, words and lettering are a neat form of expression that bypasses the traditional pictures/symbols route of yestertattoos.
"Not everybody is a visual person," says Anderson. "So writing a word is a very direct way to relate meaning to someone."
Tattooing is a custom that dates back to Otzi the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Italian Alps in the early '90s, who had markings on him resembling lines and crosses. But it's in the past couple of decades that tattoos have become little status messages on the body, inked icons of personal taste, and much more mainstreamly acceptable in modern American culture. Today we have reality shows centered on the art and practice of tattooing, and last month Mattel released a new Barbie doll whose shoulder, arm, chest and all the way up her neck are inked with flower tattoos. Some parents have bitched about its potential influence on their kids, but the doll's on back order through November.
In a 2006 article in The Journal of Popular Culture, Mary Kosut points out the change in tattoo demographics over the past several years. "The community of new tattooees transcends age, class, and ethnic boundaries, and includes a heterogeneous population of teenagers and young adults, women, African Americans, Latin Americans, urbanites, suburbanites, white-collar professionals, and the college-educated," she wrote. "Those who make up what could be described as the traditional tattoo population — working class, blue-collar, bikers, prisoners, punks — are also still getting tattooed, but have been carefully edited out of media discourses announcing the elevation of tattoo cultures. ... American children are growing up in a cultural landscape that is more tattoo-friendly and tattoo-¿ooded than at any other time in history."
Kristen Lake, manager of Ink-Side-Out Tattoo in Norwalk, said, "A lot of our customers get a lot of lettering, quotes that are meaningful to them. … 'Seize the day' is the most common tattoo I've seen."
Other semi-fads you'll see on blogs and on your friends are white-colored tattoos and tattoos done in fluorescent ink that glows under blacklights. Though Lake says clients are often disappointed in just how subtle a white tattoo is, and so she discourages clients from getting them.
"People's expectations of white tattoos are too high," she said. "They think it's gonna be really vibrant because their skin's not pure white. … We'll do it but we definitely advise them it's not gonna be very visible."
"We have lots of younger people coming in and doing their tattoos in white ink," Lake continued. "They want white tattoos on their wrists and hands. They're scared to make the leap and get something dark."
As tattooing becomes more accepted, it also becomes a more complex, but higher-valued, art form. Liz Anderson at Studio Zee got her master's in art history but has made her career in tattooing, a path she says many of her peers also followed after graduating from art school. And since there's no "tattoo school" or certification process — tattoo artists come into their professions through apprenticeships and years of practice and observation — it seems likely we'll start to see tattoo academies and certification programs cropping up in the next few years as tattooing keeps moving into realms of higher art and more esoteric designs. More clients are coming in with pieces of art they've seen on the Web and want on their bodies. Anderson's done tattoos of pieces by Edvard Munch, William Blake and Salvador Dali.
"People have been getting these fine-art paintings," Anderson says, "which I love. I feel really fortunate that that's catching on." A flip through her portfolio shows Anderson's Victorian-style inkings you could imagine a die-hard Jane Austen fan going in for.
Mike Dunn said he refuses to tattoo the necks, faces and hands of kids coming in for their first tattoos, and there are parents of young, overeager taste-displayers who've thanked him for that.
"Young kids come in with really bad ideas," Dunn said. One kid wanted the song lyrics, "If I live you're dead; if I die you're forgiven" tattooed on his back in big letters. "I told him, 'You're gonna have assholes coming up to you for the rest of your life giving you crap over that tattoo because you think it means one thing but it means something else.' I talked him out of it." Another kid wanted to get "Italy" tattooed on his neck, and Dunn asked him if he had a job. He didn't.
"I told him, 'If you get a stable job, you can come back,'" said Dunn.
There are few genres of tattoo that might be considered "classics." Dunn says it's the religious tattoos — the Virgin Mary, praying hands, crosses — with the longest shelf life. Meanwhile, big tribal tattoos and other cryptic badass-signifiers are out of fashion.
It's hard to say what tattoos will remain fashionable and which will become passe in the next decade or so, but Dunn says with increasingly improved technology, options are limitless, and so picking timeless designs is both easier and harder. A better question, though, is whether timelessness matters to most people. Most tattooees know tattoos aren't temporary, and happily commit to their selections. When you use your body as a canvas of taste, you're likely very confident in your interests.