Tattooing is a practice that appears to be shared by most human cultures, historic and prehistoric. The oldest tattooed human remains date from 6,000 years ago, and what we take to be tattooing tools have been found in archaeological sites dating back 60,000 or more years. At different times and in different societies, everyone has been a candidate for being tattooed—both women and men, young and old, as well as all economic and social classes—though there was never (to our knowledge) a culture in which all social and economic classes and both genders simultaneously sought tattoos. Never, that is, until contemporary Western culture, which has embraced this inclusive attitude toward tattoos since the 1980s, an inclusive approach that is central to the global tattooing phenomenon.
Many people have noticed the obvious fact that tattoos have exploded in popularity during the past several decades, but few have asked what drives this popularity or what brought about this inclusive attitude to tattooing. To answer these questions, we have to look at what seems to be the common characteristics of getting a tattoo.
I’ve been tattooing for over fourteen years and I’ve tattooed a wide variety of people in a range of venues. I’ve tattooed at busy flash-oriented shops as well as custom shops, at motorcycle festivals, and currently at one of New York City’s best and oldest shops. This experience has given me a chance to observe many tattoo clients and to note many commonalities in their experiences. Among the typical physical aspects of getting tattooed, the person receiving the tattoo initially winces at the relatively minor pain at the start of the tattooing session. Within fifteen to thirty minutes, most clients report a feeling of numbness accompanied by a general calmness and this calming is almost always followed by an uplift in mood. This sounds very much like what we understand to be the dynamic of an endorphin rush. Endorphins are opioid neuropeptides, protein-like molecules used by brain cells—neurons—to communicate with one another. Their principal function is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals. After someone begins to feel pain, the central nervous system signals the pituitary gland to release endorphins to deaden that pain. Having deadened the pain, endorphins then produce a feeling of euphoria.
That the tattoo customer is the subject of an endorphin high appears fairly straightforward. More interesting is that endorphins have been used to treat anxiety, depression, and even to enhance creativity. This use of endorphins as therapeutic tools aligns with my experience in working with tattoo customers as most customers state verbatim that, for them, getting tattooed is a form of therapy. Endorphins have also been linked to the production of alpha brain-wave patterns. Alpha waves correspond to a state of combined relaxation and mental alertness, a state sought by meditation practitioners. And alpha wave therapy has been used, like endorphin-based therapy, to combat stress and anxiety as well as enhance focus.
Endorphin therapy is also used to treat a psychiatric disorder known as depersonalization disorder or derealization disorder (the two share many features whether or not they are the same malady). In both disorders, the person experiences herself or himself as living through a screen, as if watching his or her life from a distance. This feeling makes sense given that our culture seems to depend on the use of screens in cell phones, televisions, and computers. I say “our culture” in reference to the metaculture of the United States, but it would be more accurate to speak of a global culture that is shared through the use of screens. This global culture of screens mediates our world for us and distances us from our experience of being alive, of existing in the present moment, of our experience of our bodies and our senses. This global culture presents us with the same images and programs and news, and thus it homogenizes us. It presents these things across the country and globe at the same time so that our experiences themselves are synchronized as well as homogenized. This homogenization and synchronization of global culture renders it a monoculture like a single, genetically modified crop and serves to produce consistent reaction patterns which function as a stable target for advertising efforts and sales expectations as well as political decisions and preferences. The collections of opinions and beliefs, emotions and reactions and desires cultivated through the network of screens develops a standardized human personality, an authorized global human profile.
The experience of receiving a tattoo is undeniably immediate, personal, and unscreened, and so it works against the pressure of the global, human monoculture by grounding us in our bodies and in this moment in time. These sorts of experiences are becoming more difficult to find and enjoy within the confines of the global monoculture. Having sex and playing sports, for instance, can both be grounding practices, but both are in competition from computer pornography addiction and video gaming technology.
There are cognitive as well as physical commonalities in the experience of getting tattooed, though the former are not as immediately apparent as the later. These cognitive elements are responses to the pressures of the global monoculture, which are very different than the demands of traditional cultures. In traditional cultures, tattoos bind an individual to a group, and the group to which the individual is bound is usually a very specific subculture such as military personnel, royalty, or extended families. Since everyone is getting tattooed contemporarily, there is no subculture that holds a unique claim to being tattooed, and therefore this function of tattoos linking someone to a subculture cannot be the case. In my experience, contemporary tattooing, especially custom work, actually appears to work in the opposite manner from traditional purposes. Rather than binding an individual to a group, tattoos separate a person from the crowd and distinguish that person as an individual.
This is significant since the pressure to be absorbed by the group and lose one’s individuality is stronger than ever. That is because not only is the group bigger due to population increase and therefore a stronger relative threat to the individual, but the global monoculture requires us as individuals to remain as infantile as possible so that our assembly of predictable reaction patterns can be focused on easily met desires and needs and not on complex existential, critical, or creative pursuits.
This need for infantilization is realized in part through a lack of rites of passage, those specific, bracketing rituals that previously structured life in most human societies. Most traditional cultures included some ritual involving minor to moderate pain, and these rituals marked off the beginnings and endings of the various stages of an individual’s life. Scarification and tattooing were two of these rituals. Both scarification and tattooing marked events in time along the path of the individual’s as well as the group’s evolution. Contemporary global monoculture contains no such rituals, and so we remain psychologically and emotionally underdeveloped and even internally unformed; we remain childish. As psychologically infantilized people, we are more dependent on external authority and easy solutions, less self-reliant and less questioning, and much more preoccupied with toys of various sorts. The resurgence of tattooing and its global spread may be seen in part as a response to this lack of rites of passage and our need for psychological structure and personal maturity. This makes sense with the subcategory of tattoos that are used to commemorate an occasion such as a birth, a move, a marriage, or a death.
The global popularity of tattooing can be seen in general as a response to the demands put upon us by the global monoculture, specifically as this culture removes us from our physical selves and immediate experience through the mediation of ubiquitous screens, as this culture puts greater and greater pressure on the individual person to conform to a standardized human profile, and in the requirement by this culture that we remain psychologically infantile. The fact that tattoos are seen as acceptable and are available to nearly everyone supports this idea of tattooing as a response to global monoculture since that culture spreads these pressures across the board indiscriminately without respect to such things as economic privilege, race, gender, or geographical locale.
While it’s possible and appropriate to see tattoos in this way—as a response to the global monoculture—it’s simultaneously possible to see the current universal popularity of tattoos in reverse fashion—that is, not as a means of distinguishing an individual, but as yet another way the global monoculture homogenizes us. This is particularly true in the case of popular tattoo designs and of course with flash, the predesigned tattoos displayed in many shops and sold on the market. I would argue that this use of tattoos is a form of “mass individualism,” one of the ways the global monoculture attempts to minimize some of the resistance to its own pressures to conform as well as to screen out irregularities in the accepted human profile. Mass individualism is far more powerful than traditional conformism or the pressures put upon individuals through institutions. In the case of mass individualism, there appears to be no institution commanding conforming to an ideal or set of behavior or thought; mass individualism actually presents itself as a liberation from these forces. But the restricted emotional and responsive patterning of mass individualism like its clichés and slogans—usually printed on posters, hats, or T-shirts—is at best no less authoritarian than previous methods of control. In the case of mass individualism, the hidden institution is the market itself and its need for a limited version of human potential communicated to us through a billion screens.