Everywhere I look I see tattoos. Plain brown-wrapped bodies seem to be soooo 20th century. It was hard not to notice during the summer Olympics that the number of tattooed athletes bore an uncanny similarity to the statistics I came upon regarding the phenomenon: 40% of Americans aged 18-40 have at least one permanent tattoo (Pew Research Center). When I go to my local yoga studio, where bodies are on display, the trend seems to be right up there with the propensity Americans showed in the recent election to go black. A recent email in my inbox showed a large picture of Barack Obama in the background, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the foreground declaring: "I may not be black yet, but I am a little more tanned!" This was a play on words, which referred to his wife's name, Carla Bruni (bruni means tanned). Thanks to our new president, it will soon be hip to be African-American (for those who thought it was anything but); to have black friends, black spouses, black cats, black cars and kinky hair. In the same way, it's hip to have tattoos now, whereas not so long ago, tattoos meant you were a sailor, an ex-con, a biker, part of a gang, or someone really stupid 'cause an old girlfriend's name was permanently inked across your penis.
I've been thinking a lot about this whole tattoo explosion because, even though I don't have one, I coast on the fringes of the trend. Years ago, I helped introduce the temporary henna tattoo craze to the West Coast, and then co-created an easy-to-use henna tattoo kit, which still enjoys a surprising but welcome popularity eleven years later. Most recently, we introduced a kit that offers people what they've been asking us for years: a temporary tattoo that looks exactly like a real tattoo because it's courtesy of the Jagua fruit, which grows in the Amazon and stains the skin black (designs last fifteen days before fading away).
I've been researching the issue, and the reasons people go for permanent ink are as varied as, well, people themselves: to shape a unique mythology; to communicate a personal vision; to enhance one's allure; to embody art; to resist social norms; to defy authority; to control personal chaos; as a badge of stoicism; to take a stand; as proof of freedom; to take ownership of one's life; to stand out; to fit in. In some cases, cultural imperatives (or lack of) come into play; in instances of extreme body art, (extra)ordinary addiction may be a factor. These are by no means exhaustive; but, in studying the motivations of indigenous peoples' tendencies toward body modification--whether indelible or short-term--a pattern also emerges: to mark a tribe's origin; to display a tribal perspective; for beautification purposes; to attract love; to be part of a group; to show strength and valor; to display fierceness; to call upon the spirits; in one case, using Jagua to paint the entire body black is for the purpose of camouflage, or simply, to disappear. Come to think of it, though on a different scale, the impulse behind the temporary tattoo's popularity may not be all that different from the one that drives a desire for permanent ink.
In the end, for all our modernity, our motives for self-adornment are not so different from those of our brothers and sisters in the jungle. I'm not so in love with the idea of tattoos as fashion statements. In fact, I think that particular explanation for the tattoo's steadfast and improbable march into the everyday lives of hockey moms, executives and heretofore pristine Olympic athletes is probably just a lazy myth made up by somebody who works for the tabloids. After all, can marking one's body really be equated with mini skirts and baggy jeans? For clothing and accessories, you walk into a store, plunk down your dollars and walk away with something that will mostly sit in your closet. The tattoo--even if it's just for fun--demands thought, a little or a lot of soul searching, and is a statement that begs the question: why?