has body modification gone mainstream?

Once anti-establishment symbols, tattoos and piercings have now become ubiquitous. We explore what this popularity means.

by Georgie Wright
05 August 2015, 2:40pm

When Miley graduated from 1.0 to 2.0, she lost a few things: her 'good girl' image, the support of parents worldwide, pants. But she gained a few, too: a fantastic LGBT charity initiative, some armpit hair, and of course, tattoos.

And while most of us don't have to distance ourselves from a former Disney-fied persona, Miley's transition reflects something many of us can relate to--playing human pin cushion to symbolize our crossover to being 'grown-up'. Or, at least, grown-up-er. In Western culture, piercings and tattoos are closely aligned with coming-of-age narratives. They recall moments when you begged your mom to take you to Claire's to get your lobes done, doodled potential chest fluttering butterflies in maths class, or drunkenly bonded with your college housemates via matching back tats.

Self-modification, however, differs from other coming-of-age milestones like getting your period or graduating high school or scoring your first proper job. Piercings and tattoos typify a specific sub-genre of the coming-of-age narrative: rebellion. Tattoos first trickled into to Western society through stereotypically subversive groups; prisoners, motorcycle gangs and sailors all became synonymous with body ink. More recently, tattoos and piercings have been aligned with various counterculture scenes like punk and metal, movements that goes hand in hand with body modification. It's the hangover from these associations that fueled your mom's frustration with your forbidden nose piercing. It's why getting a tattoo has been like pulling a metaphorical finger to the establishment, and oddly, still can be frowned upon amongst people in less progressive towns and cities.

Today, they're everywhere. Look at any liberal locale - East London, Williamsburg, Berlin - and there's ink and piercings a plenty. High fashion has also adopted them, from Balenciaga's nose rings of spring/summer 12, Givenchy's face jewelry and Anthony Vaccarello championing faux facial ink for fall/winter 15. It'd be quicker to name check the models sans tats than those with them. Fast fashion has gotten in on skin, too. Topshop and even Victoria's Secret are selling the temporary kind. They're as mainstream as a Billboard chart topper. One Direction, a boyb(r)and built on their beguiling PG-friendly charm, are walking etch-a-sketches. (Except you, Niall!).

In their ubiquity, tattoos have shed their anti-social stigma. So where does that leave them? Now that they can't lay claim to counterculture, what do they actually signify?

A cynic would argue that they still have a stigma, just one of a different kind: hipster cliché. That instead of being a symbol of going against the grain, they now represent joining the mainstream. "I just got it cause it looks cool" the bearded hipster says of his authentic Sailor Jerry flash design. Then, of course, there's simple math: more tattoos = more bad examples of the sheer stupidity your mom was worried about = more bad press for the tat world. At best, they're just fodder for lol-able Buzzfeed lists ridden with bad grammar and unfortunate fandom choices (#40 - Clay Aiken anyone?) At worst, they're permanent markers of ignorance. From Miley's dream catcher to Katy Perry's lotus flower, they're a brand of cultural insensitivity much harder to remove than that bindi you championed at Glasto this year. 

What's more, many indigenous cultures - like those of Polynesia and Japan - have developed and applied traditional tattoos over hundreds of years. These tattoos are imbued with significant cultural meaning, often carrying various social and spiritual associations. Unfortunately, they are also often appropriated, because again, they 'look cool.' In this light, yes - not only can tattoos be superficial, they can be ignorant and insensitive.

But to automatically cast the tattoo trend as wholly superficial denies the truth that when you choose to adorn your body with something permanent; you are doing something inherently individual. As tattoo artist and canvas Hannah Pixie Snowdon says, "I think it's near impossible for them not to [reflect who you are inside]. You pick something because you like it or it has a deep meaning to you personally." What you choose to put on the outside says something about who you are on the inside. Even if you pick something because it just 'looks cool' - your decision about what's cool and what isn't, says something about you. And while some people find it 'cool' not to use spellcheck/Google/their brain, others use their flesh to express themselves and their self-defined identities.

Through this lens, the popularization of tattoos and piercings is liberating. It gives you the chance to explore and define yourself on your own terms, free of debilitating stigma. You own your body, what you put in and on it, and you decide what you want to project to the world. As tattoo artist and queen of body modification Grace Neutral says, with her purple eyes, split tongue, and ink riddled skin, "life is one big dress up box, so why wouldn't you want to explore?"

So yes, tattoos and piercings may no longer be a badge of rebellion. But they do assert ownership and control over our bodies. And in a society that continues to try and govern our body image through censored nipples, pubes and periods, or the repetitive championing of a singular skinny white ideal - that is still radical.


Text Georgie Wright
Photography via

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