By Amy Mindell
Today, one in five U.S. adults — approximately 45 million — have at least one tattoo, with women slightly more likely to invest in skin art. This $1.65-billion-a-year (and growing) industry has a rich history as an ancient art form dating back nearly 5,000 years.
Throughout Polynesia, tattooing flourished, from Hawaii to New Zealand and hundreds of islands between. Polynesian tattooing is considered the most intricate and skillful tattooing of the ancient world. In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoo, or tatau, has been unbroken for two millennia, and passed from generation to generation. Although missionaries tried to squelch the practice, visiting sailors exported tattoos outside of these cultures.
Passion for tattoos flared among European aristocracy, particularly at the British Royal Court. King George V was inked with a “Cross of Jerusalem” in 1892 when he traveled to the Middle East, then with a dragon during a visit to Japan.
An 1898 British publication stated that as many as one in five members of the gentry were tattooed. It was said the social elite would gather quietly in their great country estates and partially disrobe to show off their ink. Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, was said to have a tattoo of a snake around her wrist, which she covered with a specially crafted diamond bracelet.
In the United States, Martin Hildebrandt set up a tattoo shop in New York City in 1846 and began a tradition of tattooing sailors and soldiers from both sides of the U.S. Civil War. Tattooing became mechanized in 1891 when New York inventor Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine.
Today’s American tattoo devotees cover a broad spectrum — from those from the fringe wanting to make a rebellious statement, to the glitterati — professional athletes and actors — sporting trendy skin art, and an increasing number of regular folk.
Detroit hosts one of the country’s top tattoo conventions. Last winter, the 17th Annual Motor City Tattoo Expo featured more than 200 artists from around the world selected by Terry (Tramp) Welker, owner of the Livonia, MI-based Eternal Tattoo. Contests included best tribal, best traditional, best arm sleeve, best leg sleeve, best full back and most patriotic.
But — reflecting on Jimmy Buffett’s song about a tattooed teenage girl who was “no marine back from the Philippines” — many tattooed individuals come to realize: “It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”
And, while tattoo removal is still not easy, a new procedure promises a quicker result than the conventional method of laser removal. Known as “R20,” the protocol involves multiple passes over the tattoo, 20 minutes apart, during one office visit rather than making one pass per office visit. That way, more ink is lifted and disintegrated per visit. But, as tattoo removal professionals discover, many customers lining up for tattoo removal simply want to make room for new ones.