Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community

Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community

by Margo DeMello, Gayle S. Rubin

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Since the 1980s, tattooing has emerged anew in the United States as a widely appealing cultural, artistic, and social form. In Bodies of Inscription Margo DeMello explains how elite tattooists, magazine editors, and leaders of tattoo organizations have downplayed the working-class roots of tattooing in order to make it more palatable for middle-class consumption. She shows how a completely new set of meanings derived primarily from non-Western cultures has been created to give tattoos an exotic, primitive flavor.
Community publications, tattoo conventions, articles in popular magazines, and DeMello’s numerous interviews illustrate the interplay between class, culture, and history that orchestrated a shift from traditional Americana and biker tattoos to new forms using Celtic, tribal, and Japanese images. DeMello’s extensive interviews reveal the divergent yet overlapping communities formed by this class-based, American-style repackaging of the tattoo. After describing how the tattoo has moved from a mark of patriotism or rebellion to a symbol of exploration and status, the author returns to the predominantly middle-class movement that celebrates its skin art as spiritual, poetic, and self-empowering. Recognizing that the term “community” cannot capture the variations and class conflict that continue to thrive within the larger tattoo culture, DeMello finds in the discourse of tattooed people and their artists a new and particular sense of community and explores the unexpected relationship between this discourse and that of other social movements.
This ethnography of tattooing in America makes a substantive contribution to the history of tattooing in addition to relating how communities form around particular traditions and how the traditions themselves change with the introduction of new participants. Bodies of Inscription will have broad appeal and will be enjoyed by readers interested in cultural studies, American studies, sociology, popular culture, and body art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396147
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/25/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Margo DeMello is a nonprofit fundraiser. She has taught at San Francisco State University, Sacramento City College, and the University of California, Davis.

Read an Excerpt

Bodies of Inscription

A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community

By Margo DeMello, Vida Pavesich

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9614-7


Finding Community

Shops, Conventions, Magazines, and Cyberspace

I don't go to a lot of conventions. They wear me out in a way. It's just a mass of people and a sensory overload. I know a lot of tattoo artists who work in this town. This is an opportunity for me to watch a few artists that I've heard about, and see what they're doing, not that I'm planning on simulating it, but it just gives me an idea of what people are doing. And in the back of my mind, I'm rating them. I got a checklist in my head. I am. —Lal M., tartooist

One of the central questions of my research involves community. What is it, how is it understood, and how is it realized? Within the group and movement that has come to be known as the tattoo community, the answers to these questions vary according to the position, experience, and motivation of the person being asked, and people's views on the subject will often contradict one another's. My own understanding of community has evolved since I began this study. I first understood it to be a static, place-bound phenomenon found only within tattoo shops. This seemed logical: tattoo shops are where tattooing occurs, thus I felt that community would also occur, or at least originate, there. Later, I realized that the notion of community was not being defined exclusively in the tattoo shop, but was a more fluid notion, one that takes shape in the realm of discourse. I found that community occurs whenever tattooed people talk about themselves, about each other, and to each other —community is a function of that discourse. Therefore, I found community primarily occurring within the pages of magazines and newspapers, in Internet newsgroups, and at tattoo-oriented events across the country. My aim in this chapter is to explore the operation of the tattoo community in the spaces where it is realized (primarily the tattoo convention) and in the texts in which it is defined (magazine and newspaper accounts). This chapter will introduce these sites and will also look at a third site, the Internet, and in particular, at the newsgroup rec.arts.bodyart, which has become for the people who subscribe to it a separate form of community. I will describe the tattoo shop first, because it is the entry point for everyone in the tattoo community. While I maintain that the tattoo convention and media accounts of tattooing are the primary arenas in which community is created, every member of this community begins his or her journey by spending time—often considerable amounts of time—in a tattoo shop.

Spending Time in Tattoo Shops

A typical tattooist's workday begins at 11:00 or 12:00 in the morning. The tattooist usually begins the day by setting up the workspace: laying out photo albums to display the type of tattoos created in the shop, checking to make sure there are enough supplies (clean needles, bottles of ink, latex gloves), and dealing with money. The tattooist might also sterilize some of yesterday's needles if there was not enough time at the end of the previous evening. The day proceeds as potential customers enter the studio to get tattooed, think about getting tattooed, or just to look at the tattooist's wares. The wares include the posters of flash (sheets depicting tattoo designs) on the walls, design books (filled with images of flowers, animals, "tribal" and "Celtic" designs, and other images used in contemporary tattoos), tattoo magazines, and photographs of the specific tattoos produced in the shop. Depending on the type of shop, some customers will bring their own design, while others will choose one from the flash or design books. Some customers will try to bargain with the tattooist over prices ("I could get my buddy to do this one for a six-pack, man!"), and others will drive the tattooist crazy with questions ("Do they hurt?" "Can I get AIDS from it?" "How much will this one cost? ... ok, well what if I get it a little bit smaller? ... All right, what if I don't get any color, just black? How much then?"). Of course, it's easy for tattooists to take the process of tattooing for granted, but customers anticipating a new (or a first) tattoo are typically very nervous.

Much of the tattooist's day, even after customers have begun to arrive, is spent not actually giving tattoos but preparing for work (drawing and tracing designs, cleaning equipment, making needle bars, fixing machines, ordering supplies) or talking to potential customers. Actual tattoo work is variable: a tattooist will have days where he or she might only make $40 for a small name tattoo and days where the same tattooist might make $1,500. In my experience, tattooing is not the hardest part of a tattooist's job; instead, it is dealing with customers. At working-class street shops, I have seen drunks come in on a daily basis, customers vomit or faint during a tattoo, and customers challenge and pick fights with the tattooist over prices or an imagined slight. I have also witnessed men and women pulling down their pants or lifting up their shirts to show their homemade tattoo to the tattooist, hoping that perhaps it can be fixed for next to nothing.

On the other hand, at a custom-only studio frequented by those who want, and can pay for custom tattoos, there are more women coming in with their friends, art students who want to learn how to tattoo, and people who have been thinking about becoming tattooed for, in some cases, months or years, and have finally decided to take the plunge. The tattooists who run these studios do not promote flash-based tattoos; instead, they expect to play a part in designing every tattoo that they create. Their walls, then, are not filled with flash, but are covered with photos and drawings of tattoos created by the artists in the shop, as well as other forms of tattoo-related art, such as comic book art or Japanese art. But not all the customers at a studio like this are middle class and professional. A lot of punks hang out at these shops, as do musicians, artists, and other (often heavily pierced) members of the counterculture. And custom tattooists are not spared the hassles of customer service that often plague the street shop tattooist, even if they don't keep a baseball bat behind the counter for protection.

In many ways, though, all tattoo shops are alike: the colorful walls, the smell of A&D Ointment, the drill-like sound of the machines, the preponderance of young people hanging out, the nervous laughs of first-time tattoo customers, and the tattooist's emphasis on cash only, no drunks, no minors, and no facial tattoos. Additionally, the process of tattooing is fairly consistent, regardless of the type of shop in which it is performed.

After the first few years of fieldwork, I no longer spent much time in tattoo shops because the nature of my research changed. But the tattoo shop remains the most important place for the newcomer to learn about tattooing: who gets tattooed, what kinds of tattoos are available, how the process occurs, and what the relationship between artist and customer is. (Of course, it is also the best place to get tattooed.)

What Is the Community?

Key Rituals * One of my first, and most enduring, research questions has been: How is membership in the tattoo community constituted? I originally thought that the question of membership was personal and that individuals self-identify as members. While individual identification is extremely important, it is my assertion that there are certain key rituals that define membership. These rituals would include first, and obviously, becoming tattooed. (However, having tattoos, even multiple tattoos, does not by itself constitute membership. For example, most sailors or other military men I have spoken to do not consider themselves to be part of a tattoo community and many have never even heard the term. Individuals who have a few tattoos but otherwise show no interest in tattooing would also be excluded.) Second, it is crucial to have enough interest in tattooing to either read tattoo publications (including magazines, books, pamphlets, and calendars), attend tattoo conventions, or both. It is said that tattooing involves a commitment, as the mark made is for life. This is true. But to be a member of the tattoo community requires more than just getting a tattoo—it involves a commitment to learning about tattoos, to meeting other people with tattoos, and to living a lifestyle in which tattoos play an important role.

Conventions and magazines are important aspects of this commitment for a number of reasons. First, tattoo conventions constitute a space where individuals with a common interest—tattoos —come together for a period of time. While tattoo shops are also places where tattooed individuals congregate, I would argue that a different kind of community is created there. The community surrounding a tattoo shop is more localized and more focused around a particular shop, tattooist, or style of tattoo (for example, a tattoo studio in San Francisco specializing in tribal tattooing will attract a small contingency of punks who identify strongly with that style and what it represents). The sense of community that individuals find in the tattoo convention or reading a tattoo magazine has less to do with the physical congregation of bodies than with a feeling of "shared specialness." Tattooed people define themselves vis-à-vis nontattooed people and the dominant society in general. What makes tattooed people feel they are part of a larger community when attending a convention or reading (and writing to and sending in photographs) a tattoo magazine is a sense that they have found people who are like them and who are not like everyone else.

The second way that conventions and magazines constitute community has to do with where and how the notion of community is defined within the movement. Without the organized structure of tattoo shows, tattoo magazines, Internet chat groups, and tattoo organizations (which often organize the shows), there would be no broader notion of community, because it is on the pages of tattoo magazines and in the literature promoting tattoo organizations and their shows that a broader idea of a community has taken shape. Before 1976 (when the first big tattoo convention was held), I suggest that the term "community" was unknown among mainstream tattooed people. In addition, while tartooists communicated with each other about the best equipment and supplies, there was also a great deal of competition between tartooists; many were suspicious that other tattooists might gain access to their secrets. One tattooist says of the old days, "There was open hostility between one another, almost. If there was a guy a few hundred miles away or a few thousand miles away, then that's where the communication was. But if they was fairly close, tattoo artists are like dogs—they run around pissin' on each other's territory" (Kenny P., tattooist). Even with the rise of tattoo shows and magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, many older tattooists shunned these new developments, preferring to stay out of the limelight and keep to themselves. Stoney St. Clair, for example, never attended a convention and felt that the public exposure—the "glorification"—was damaging to the profession (St. Clair and Govenar 1981). Another old-timer, Broadway Bill, told me that all the new publicity surrounding tattooing made him suspicious, and he wanted no part in it. On the other hand, there did exist, prior to the development of conventions and magazines, a notion of community among other groups who practiced tattooing—bikers, convicts, sailors, or members of the leather and S/M cultures, for example—but the community was not based on the tattoo, nor did the notion of community extend outside of each specific group to embrace others with tattoos. While the tattoos worn within each group, and especially those worn by convicts and bikers, did serve as important markers of group membership, the communities of bikers, convicts, or leatherboys were based on much more than tattoos. But until the seventies, I can find no evidence—in magazine or newspaper accounts, books on tattooing, or recollections of old-timers—of a notion of community broader than that surrounding a particular shop.

But Does It Exist? * My conversations with tattoo convention attendees and the language used on the pages of tattoo magazines indicate that there is, for most, a very clear notion of the tattoo community. This understanding asserts that, in the words of one Los Angeles-based tattooist,

It is truly a community in that we recognize that other people who do other styles and types of tattooing, which you may not like or approve of, are all equally as valid. We're actually a family. Most of the tattooers, whatever city they go to, the first thing they'll do is look up the tattooers. Whether you like me or don't like me, you know me because I've been here for twenty-five years.... What does an outsider see of our community? Is the tattoo convention format our community? You know what you really need to do is be in a tattooist's living room, as he's having a beer or doing whatever he's doing, and see the tattooists who are staying in his house that he's never met before, for whom he's opened his doors and allowed them to live in his house, and eat of his refrigerator, and he has no idea who they are. People who I've never met before, who I didn't know existed before, have invited me to share their homes so immediately, they recognize that I share something that they share. Especially when you think you're an island and then this other guy that's doing the same thing, in three seconds you immediately know that that bond is there and that does happen a lot. (Barry B., tattooist)

Barry implies that the feeling of community is so strong that tattooists who do not know each other will invite each other to sleep at their homes. For Barry, and others like him, the tattoo community entails communitas, Victor Turner's (1969) term for a feeling of homogeneity, equality, camaraderie, and lack of hierarchy common among those who are marginalized or are undergoing a liminal transition from one state to the next. These assertions about the tattoo community as an example of communitas represent the idealized view of the tattoo community, one that is shared by not only tattoo organizations and tattoo magazine editors but by many members of the tattoo community. The following poem printed in the Tattoo Enthusiast Quarterly (spring 1990) illustrates this feeling.

Collectors, fans, masters of the Living Art.
Like light through a faceted stone.
Colors reflecting in all directions.
We come together in a celebration of self—
Though we are many we are one.
We share our meaning of life,
memories past and future dreams.
All come alive in the artist's hand.
(Jeri Larsen, "The Bond")

The writer's statement "Though we are many we are one" captures the idea of communitas well. By wearing the tattoo (the "Living Art"), the various colors come together "in a celebration of self." It is almost a mystical idea that tattoo collectors achieve a oneness through their tattoos. The process of becoming tattooed includes of course the pain (often ritualized in contemporary accounts) as well as the process of having one's memories and dreams embodied in the tattoo. Thus, this shared process, not to mention the shared marginal status of tattooed people, forms the basis for a near-spiritual union.

On the other hand, some of the older tattooists I've spoken with dispute this notion of community and would probably find Barry's statement ludicrous that tattooists will invite strangers who are tattooists to sleep on their floors. (For one thing, there are literally thousands of tattooists in this country today, which would make for a lot of very crowded slumber parties.) While the dominant discourse is one of family, equality, and sharing, the reality for these older tattooists also includes stratification, differentiation, and competition. One prominent West Coast tattooist had nothing good to say about the notion of communitas that is so popular among many tattooists and tattoo enthusiasts:

I think it's just stupid. It's like saying there's a brotherhood of all tattooed people. There's no commonality in those people. Of course you meet people who you have certain things in common with, but you meet others who you don't have anything in common with.... A lot of them are losers, they're outsiders who don't fit in. By and large, the people that go to conventions ... [are] kind of pathetic if tattooing is the biggest thing in their lives, although I suppose it's no worse than building model airplanes or any other kind of hobby.... I think a lot of them are misfits, you know, and that's okay, but they shouldn't pretend that they're some kind of noble breed. It's [the notion of communitas among tattooed people] a fantasy that they're perpetrating. I think it's great that tattooists can make people feel better about themselves and that they're happy with their tattoos, and that they can get the one that they really want. That's cool. But to make this whole other thing out of it, it's just silly. (Dan P., tattooist)

Dan P., a middle-class, educated tattooist, finds the idea of the tattoo conventions representing communitas to be ridiculous for a number of reasons. First, he denies that simply wearing a tattoo gives one a deep connection with others who are tattooed. For this tattooist, tattoos do not have that kind of power. Second, the people who are best represented at tattoo conventions still seem to fit the traditional, biker image, and for Dan P., many are "losers" or "misfits," and not some noble breed. The contradiction between the lofty identity of the tattoo community as a larger brotherhood and the disparities that Dan P. sees among the members strikes him as absurd.

Both of these views can be seen in the discourses surrounding the two main sites of community: the tattoo convention and the tattoo magazine. The "official" view of communitas is expressed in the literature of the tattoo community, while the critique is found between the lines—in the conflict between members and factions.


Excerpted from Bodies of Inscription by Margo DeMello, Vida Pavesich. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1. Finding Community
Shops, Conventions, Magazines, and Cyberspace

2. Cultural Roots
The History of Tattooing in the West

3. Appropriation and Transformation
The Origins of the Renaissance

4. Discourse and Differentiation
Media Representation and Tattoo Organizations

5. The Creation of Meaning I
The New Text

6. The Creation of Meaning II
The Tattoo Narratives

Conclusion: The Future of a Movement




What People are Saying About This

Kathleen Stewart

The histories of tattoo traditions presented in this book are fascinating and rich. DeMello has many insights into tattoos’ complexity of meaning, brought out in precise ethnographic and historical fashion.
—(Kathleen Stewart, author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America)

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Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When reading Bodies of Inscription, the major themes are present with how the book is lined out… in chapters. Each chapter lays out different problems or situations that accrue to the everyday tattoo artist/person receiving tattoos. The book spans a wide range of topics including tattoo conventions to the everyday life as a tattoo artist. The only thing that I liked was the pictures in the middle of the book to give me a visual to what their describing. The read was very dry and hard to follow for someone with no knowledge of the subject. I would recommend this to someone who has an interest in tattoos or maybe thinking about starting a business in tattoos. For the common man or someone who doesn’t not know the subject very well, I would suggest not reading this book. Because of these  reasons I would have to give the book a two out of ten.     
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In the past 30 years, tattooing has become very popular in our culture. Bodies of Inscription is a very good book. it gives you a new insight to the world of tattoos. She takes us through the everyday world of a tattoo artist. She shows us the perspective and difficulties of tattoo artist. She even takes us through both amateur and pro tattoo artist.She shows both sides of societies opinions along with the history of tattoos and how they have transformed over the years which was very interesting to learn about. Some people who would like this book are people with tattoos or soon going to get a tattoo. Something I really like about this book is how informational it is on everything that goes into tattoos and the different styles. Someone should read this if they want to learn more about where tattoos originated from or what all goes into creating a tattoo. What I dislike about this book is that it is more about her experiences with the tattoo world but some stories about what made people want to get tattoos or why they wanted to be tattoo artists would've been very entertaining to read about. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A whole new look on the world of tattooing. That is what i have after reading Bodies of inscription by Margo DeMello. Throughout the book Margo gives us accounts of her experience with the tattooing world. She takes us through the daily lives of tattoo artist, both professional and more amateur. We see all the problems they must face, mostly from the fact that customers can and will be very difficult. Margo also takes us to the world of tattooing conventions where all the styles and social groups can come together and display their artwork. Lastly Margo gives the reader a very in-depth description of the history of tattooing that was very informative.  overall Bodies of Inscription was a good book. I felt as though it was a bit dry but still easy to read. I did really enjoy the contrast she provided with almost everything that she wrote about. When talking about the customers she could write about how some were just great. They knew what they wanted and what was going to happen and they came out with great peaces of work. Then she could go right into the other side of the coin where people would come in with a terrible idea and argue with the tattooist non stop.  The most interesting part of the book would have to be the portion on the tattooing community. This is where the readers can really get a good look into what it is that tattoos can really mean to people. It’s really interesting to see how some people think that tattoos are a sort of badge that brings all that have them into a family, and others think that that idea is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard and that tattoo’s are just meant to be a peace of art, nothing more.  Bodies of Inscription is not a book for everyone. It’s only going to be worth a read if you are truly interested in tattoos and what the world of tattoos really holds. it can be a bit dry and since it is a book about tattooing, something thats not dry at all i have a bit of a problem with that, so because of that i’d give it a 3
Cody_Gomes More than 1 year ago
     In the last 30 years, tattooing has become very popular in the United States in the cultural, artistic, and social form. In Bodies of Inscription Margo DeMello explains how elite tattooists, magazine editors, and leaders of tattoo organizations have downplayed the working-class roots of tattooing in order to make it more attractive for middle-class . She shows how a completely new set of meanings derived primarily from non-Western cultures has been created to give tattoos an exotic, primitive flavor.      The major themes are explaining the importance of tattoos as an art form and how tattoo’s are now a highly acceptable expression for people of different socio economic backgrounds.  The description how the tattoo has moved from a mark of rebellion to a symbol of exploration and status, the author goes back to the middle-class movement that celebrates its skin art as spiritual, poetic, and self-empowering.       I really enjoyed the contrast between ‘bikers’/’scratchers’ and the ’artists’. On one hand you have the self-taught scratchers who set up ‘street shops’, and on the other you have the professionals who were trained in apprenticeships and art schools.  The ‘biker’ attitude towards tattooing seems to be related to tattooing of the sixties when many cities banned tattooing outright. The ‘fine art’ tattooers’ attitude can be linked to various liberation movements of the seventies and beyond.        One part of the book that got a little long was the deep history of tattooing.  The history is interesting, no doubt, but this book went into unneeded detail.         Anyone one who wants to know more about where this craft comes from and how it became what it is today should definitely read this book. However, if you are looking for a book with a lot of photos of  good tattoos, I would look elsewhere. This book does have some pictures, but only a few.      I would give this book an overall rating of 3 out of 5 stars.  I felt the long description of the old history went on a little long.  However, other aspects of this book were very interesting and engaging.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My thoughts and Ideas about Tattooing where challenged and put to the test when I opened this book. It doesnt tell you that you should view Tattooing as Ok or Not, But it does inform you about what the Artisits sees in a Tattoo's and what the customer see's and wants. While talking about Tattoos, I find it interesting that it goes into depth to show us the history and struggles of this culture. At parts it was slow and draged on. But if you are un-sure about Tattooing or love it, the author has done a great job capturing this Culture.