Tatoos: Fashion trend vs. social symbol of communication

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Cultural Tattoo History

3. Tattoos regarding Fashion and its role in society

4. Social symbols in human interaction

5. The meaning and function of tattoos
5.1 Signs of affiliation and initiation
5.1.1 Tattoos as a requirement for admittance
5.1.2 Tattoos as a voluntary aspect of group admittance
5.2 Distinction and exclusiveness

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In 1997, the Hartford Courant published the research results of the American Economic Information Service concerning those economic branches which have shown the highest rates of expansion in 1996. Among expected high-tech branches such as the Internet, for example, one branch, which had up to that point not even been regarded as an economic branch, appeared among first six ranks: the tattoo-industry (Stirn 285).

This example clearly shows that tattooing has intensely increased in popularity towards the end of the 20th century. Tattooing is no longer a rarity, but is present in everyday life. Tattoos can be detected on various kinds of parts on the human body, and the motives appear in uncountable varieties of shape and design, with colours ranging from plain black to gaudy.

Tattoos are especially popular among younger people between the age of 15 and 25. In general, the numbers range from seven to twenty million tattooed individuals for the United States, and state about two million for Germany (Stirn 285). These numbers are generally only rough estimations, because there is no reliable method of counting, and the results mainly rely upon accounts of recently developing tattoo associations.

The focus of this paper shall lie on the function of the tattoo, namely whether or not the tattoo is just an ephemeral fashion trend or a lasting constituent of the human culture.

It shall be analysed in what way tattooing can be regarded as fashion and to what degree it can be considered to be a social symbol in human interaction. First, a general history of tattooing shall be given, because the development is important for the comparison.

In order to avoid obscurities concerning the term tattoo or tattooing a short definition shall be given here.

According to Finke, several authors differ in their definition of tattoos. Some sources use tattooing as a general topic including all kinds of body modification, such as branding, scarification and body painting (Finke 15-17).

In the course of this paper, the term tattoo shall only be used to describe the pemanent embedding of pigments into the skin, excluding scarification, body painting and branding.a

The given definition excludes all other forms of body alteration but raises the need to differentiate further.

There are tattoos which have not been obtained voluntarily, so-called compulsive tattoos which have been put on prisoners or soldiers throughout history. These compulsive tattoos will be mentioned in the historical outline, but shall not be included in the later analysis.

In addition to this an embedding of pigments into the skin can also occur in an accident during which soot and dirt are brought into the skin by scraping over asphalt, for example. These tattoos shall not be included in the later analysis as well.

The given definition therefore only covers what is often called the decorative tattoo, which is acquired voluntarily and serves a decorative purpose as the name suggests.

2. Cultural Tattoo History

As already indicated above, tattooing is only one of many forms of body alteration, but it is probably the oldest one. In order to analyse tattooing in Europe and America, it is necessary to describe the history of the tattoo itself, because leaving out the historical roots of such an art form would simply deny its cultural constituents.

The tattoo, respectively its precursor body painting, is probably as old as mankind itself (Finke 30). Prehistorical findings in Europe of 8000 year old needles with remains of pigment lead to the conclusion that tattooing has already existed at this age. In Egypt, physical evidence in the form of the mummies of two tattooed girls has survived from around 2000 BC. The mummy called Ötzi, found in the Swiss Alps, showed several ornamental tattoos in the form of parallel lines and dates back to about 3000 BC (Friederich 16-18).1 Younger traces of tattooing can be found in virtually all parts of the world. However, according to Caplan, the history of European tattooing in terms of cultural anthropology has been barely researched (xi). Finke agrees with this statement (11). In general, the tattoo made an appearance in Europe in the archaeological and written record between prehistoric times until some point in the early Middle Ages. After that it almost completely vanished for several centuries, but reappeared in the 18th century (Caplan xv).

Finke doubts the reliability of accounts which claim that the origin of tattooing is either Southwest Asia or the South-Pacific region. He claims that tattooing actually originates from Europe, because it was there that the oldest evidence has been found up to today (34).

During the classic antiquity several Roman and Greek authors, such as Herodot, Caesar and Ovid, reported tattoos of barbarian people.4 The Romans and Greeks themselves tattooed only slaves, deserters and prisoners of war. This practice was modified over time in the form that, later, facial tattoos were forbidden due to religious reasons. The early Christians practised the technique, and it was quite common among the Crusaders, even though Pope Hadrian had prohibited tattoos in the year 787. The spread of Christianity virtually wiped out the tattoo in Europe for several centuries.

After this, the first tattooed people arriving had been shipped from Pacific islands by travellers and often served as circus or market-place attractions. Thomas Cook’s voyages are among the most well-known and are often considered to be the ones who brought tattooing to Europe. It was Cook who brought the Tahitian prince Omai to Britain, who was gaped at by the British upper class. Even though Cook’s return from his voyages to the Pacific islands marked the European tattoo boom, the first tattooed islander from the Pacific region had already set foot on European land in 1691(Friederich 19).[1]

It has not become clear who brought the term tattoo to the European world, therefore the origin of the word itself is quite controversial.3 Sailors acquired tattoos during their journeys to the islands, and some of them also learned the technique there, practised it on board the ships and then often later opened tattoo parlours in their home-harbours. From there it spread through all of Europe and the USA. Towards the end of the 18th century tattoos became more and more popular especially among sailors, for the skin-picture was the most permanent memory of their distant travels. The idyllic association the tattoos evoked soon caused more people to acquire them, especially craftsmen, as well as members of the military and the aristocracy (Stirn 294). In contrast to the common belief, tattoos were very popular among people of the upper class, as it was a quite rare and expensive process which often required long travelling. Most of the members of the British royalty and several other European princes obtained tattoos (Stirn 294).

From the middle of the 19th century till the end of the First World War, tattooing had reached its climax.c One fact contributing to the boom was the invention of the electrical tattoo machine in 1897 by Samuel F. O’Reilly (Friederich 20). After the 1920s tattooing became less and less popular. More and more people outside the upper class acquired tattoos, often in order to earn money with it in the circus. Besides that, rumours about insufficient hygienic practices spread and tattooing developed into a fair-ground attraction which did certainly not agree with the once extravagant and rare image tattoos had among aristocrats. Later, the public ostentation of tattooed people was regimented to a great extent and did therefore exclude the possibility to earn money with it (Stirn 294). The tattoos at that time were mainly simple and single pictures with a highly conventional content, such as skulls, animals, women, military signs, flags, patriotic symbols and names. The tattoo artists practised the technique for economic reasons and not for artistic ones (Stirn 296).

During the Nazi-regime in Germany, tattooing underwent a significant change. The so-called decorative –tattoo was strictly forbidden, but soldiers got their blood type and inmates of the concentration camps a serial number tattooed. This was the only time when tattooing was used as a method of bureaucracy in modern times (Friederich 21).

According to Friederich, tattooing almost vanished in the time between World War II and the 1970s (21). Reasons for this development were for example the negative association with criminals and gang members, mainly evoked through the media, the different sense for aesthetic which developed in the 1950s and 1960s and the hepatitis epidemic which surfaced in the tattoo parlours (Friederich 21-22). Stirn, however, mentions that the 60s marked the first renaissance-wave of the tattoo, because social countermovements, such as the Hippie-movement, paved the way for the social acceptance of tattooing by feminizing the motives and therefore making it more acceptable for the middle-class taste. Tattooed idols in the movie- and music-business nourished this development. Art in general became more body-oriented which also contributed to the change. The 70s brought forth the sado-masochist- and leather-subculture which often used tattoo motives with a background symbolising the transition, change and initiation of the self. The punk-movement of the 80s adopted this message. The general public later imitated the punk scene in terms of fashion and therefore also adopted this sense to a certain degree (Stirn 297).

In the course of the 90s tattooing has undergone another change, namely one on the level of art which goes side by side with the changes of social perception. Tattoos are more and more regarded as a means of creative expression, and therefore certain values have developed in the tattoo community as well. The single tattoo is often regarded as a unique piece of art and the duplication of it is considered a taboo. Often, tattooists refer to themselves as tattoo artists, which clearly associates the practice of tattooing as an art form (Stirn 300). This aspect has immensely contributed to the acceptance of tattoos in today’s society. In the following parts this paper it shall be analysed in what way tattoos can be considered fashion and symbols of communication.

3. Tattoos regarding Fashion and its role in society

At the simplest level, clothing and fashions are adopted in order to display symbolically gender, social status, role, lifestyle values, personal interests, and other identity features (Sanders 4).

This statement names all the basic functions of fashion. In the following the sociological background of fashion and its role in society and culture shall be analysed, and it shall be examined in what way tattoos can be considered a fashion.

According to Simmel, every life form in the history of our species personates a special way to combine the interest in unity, endurance and equality with that in change, distinctiveness and uniqueness. The psychological tendency to use imitation in order to achieve this goal, is essential to this process. Simmel even goes as far as regarding imitation as a psychological heredity. Imitation gives the individual the certainty that he or she does not act alone, but that his actions are based on something he or she shares with a number of individuals, and the individual is not solely responsible for these actions.

Imitation fulfils one of the basic needs and directions of our being which is the melting of the single with universality. On the other hand, imitation contradicts with the human striving for distinction and uniqueness. This oppositional character defines fashion (Simmel 33).

Fashion is the imitation of a given structure and therefore satisfies the need for unity, but also that for distinction and change. It fulfils the latter requirement through the change in content, as the present fashion is always more individual than yesterday’s, and through the fact that it always separates the social classes to a certain extent (Simmel 34.

Fashion embodies the connection to the equal which is a circle characterised by the unit fashion and which excludes those who do not belong to it and therefore demotes them. Distinction and connection are the two vital basic functions of fashion which are inseparable.

Fashion always serves a functional purpose to a certain extent, but there is no apparent reason for its various ways of figuration. This fact most obviously proves that fashion is therefore a mere product of social or psychological necessities (Simmel 35).

A very typical aspect of fashion is the fact that the latest, the new, fashion is at first only available to the upper social classes due to the fact that new fashion items are at the beginning only produced in small numbers, mainly as single pieces, and are therefore very costly.

Clothing style is of sufficient symbolic importance that it often is controlled through sumptuary laws that allow only members of specific (usually high status) groups to wear certain materials or fashions (Sanders 4).


a It shall be mentioned beforehand that scarification is often combined with tattooing (in the above defined sense) as it is practised by the Maori people of New Zealand (Gilbert 67).

1 However, Gilbert notes that the mummy’s tattoos were probably done for therapeutic reasons (Gilbert 11).

4 Friederich also notes that it did not become clear whether a distinction between tattoos, body painting and scarification was made in those reports (Friederich 18).

[1] Friederich notes here that other tattooed people which had been discovered earlier, such as the Inuit, did not evoke any paradisean associations, and did therefore not contribute to the tattoo boom (Friederich 20).

3 Finke indicates that he does not agree with the common assumption (which Friederich suggests) that Cook also brought the term „tattoo“(tattaw or tatou) to Europe. He claims that the French traveller Antoine de Bougainsville mentioned the word “tatou” for the first time in his work Voyages autour du Monde 1766-69, which was before Cook’s first voyage (Finke 25).

c Oettermann suggests that it was already starting to boom at the beginningof the 19th century (Oettermann 58).

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Tatoos: Fashion trend vs. social symbol of communication
University of Bayreuth  (Faculty for Literature Science and Linguistics)
HS Dress Codes - Reading Fashion Cultures
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
543 KB
Tatoos, Fashion, Dress, Codes, Reading, Fashion, Cultures
Quote paper
Kerstin Müller (Author), 2002, Tatoos: Fashion trend vs. social symbol of communication, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/29991


  • guest on 5/14/2014

    nice one, pls i dont know if u can help me with the communication functions of tatoos, im writing it as my project

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