Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Altai Ink

Earlier today at the supermarket checkout counter, the operator, a pretty Millennial perhaps 19-years-old, flashed the edge of a tattoo on her lower forearm while scanning the jar of jalapenos. From my angle it looked a lot like the semicolon tattoo which I mentioned in a previous blog. I was about to remark on it until the horseradish went by (yes, I like spicy foods) and saw that the marks actually were part of a butterfly image. So, I let the matter drop. They only thing remarkable about young tattooed checkout operators is that they are unremarkable -- at least in regard to skin art.

20 years ago, tattoos were still the exception. Not actually rare. They’ve never been rare. Still, they were the exception, especially among the young. They were most common among rougher subsets of the population: soldiers, bikers, strippers, prisoners, and others with an edgy image. On, say, a bank teller or an accountant they were improbable – possible but improbable. No longer. Tattoos now are mainstream, especially among the young, and they say nothing whatsoever about the social position of the wearer unless they are the work of a famous artist.

Arguably this is a familiar pattern: styles regarded as edgy are adopted by more conventional folks who want the image without the lifestyle. Eventually the style becomes so widespread that it loses its edge. Blue jeans are the classic example. They originally were blue-collar work clothes. More prosperous folk wore them to be edgy, sometimes as a political statement of solidarity with workers. By the 1970s, however, they were so commonplace as to lose all such connotations. Instead, expensive designer jeans became status symbols: a statement that the wearer could afford them. Tattoos seem to be on a similar course.

Today, Pew Research Center tells us 36% of Americans between 18 and 25 are tattooed. 60% of those are women. That’s still a minority of the population, of course, but more than enough to qualify as fully mainstream. Since there is no cut-off age for one’s first tattoo, we can assume many more of the presently unillustrated members of this age-cohort also will acquire ink at some point in their lives. Already, designer ink by noted tattoo artists is most definitely a status symbol, sported proudly by celebrities as such Angelina Jolie and Rihanna.

This brings us back full circle. Long before they were considered rough-edged, tattoos were status symbols. One of the best examples is the so-called Siberian Ice Maiden discovered by Natalia Polosmak’s archeological team in 1993. Also dubbed Princess Ukok, the Maiden is the mummified remains of a 2500-year-old Scythian Pazyryk; she is believed to have been a major shaman based on the elaborate kurgan (tomb) contents, which included six bridled horses. She was alive at about the time Herodotus describes the Scythians in his Histories. They once occupied a vast area in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and spoke Indo-Iranian languages ancestral to modern Ossetian. Princess Ukok had some really great ink. See depictions and photos in The Siberian Times. They have inspired more than a few modern imitators.

I suspect the modern fashion for tats has enough life in it to become not just mainstream but the norm. By then they no longer will upset parents, and so will lose much of their appeal. That point is a while off though. As for me, being neither young, rough-edged, high status, nor female, I’ll likely remain un-inked for the rest of my days. If I choose to make some symbolic statement, I’ll probably drive an inappropriate car instead. It’s less painful, except in the bank account.


  1. Yeah, I don't get it, but to each their own. When I was working I noticed a guy while changing had a Yosemite Sam tattoo on his shoulder. Unless there's some inside story behind it, I couldn't figure out why you'd get one like that. Another guy at work had his last name tattooed across his should blades. I guess it's just part of that generation's "thing".

    If I were to get a tat, I'd have no idea what I'd want. I can't think of anything that's totally emblematic of me. Maybe one of those plastic thingies that you put inside a 45 record so you could play it on a stereo--but I just as soon have a t-shirt with it on it. And that's my problem, my taste in art varies and is too broad.

    1. Anyone under 40 would be convinced the 45 rpm insert was a symbol of some secret society or perhaps of the Trilateral Commission.