Tattoos: Alternative Expression with Traditional Roots

Alice Carrier
figure 1 Tattoo by Alice Carrier

Tattoos– often a polarizing form of expression, with permanent ink as its medium and skin as its substrate, can be viewed as an act of defiance, a symbolic means of seriously considered self-expression, a living individual billboard, or increasingly an art form of admired acceptance. Once considered the domain of sea-faring sailors and fringe society, tattoos have in recent years gained mainstream following for men and women alike. An increase in art exhibitions that honor the tattoo art form, both old and new, point to an increased attitude of respect. Although this mainstreaming of human canvases continues to provide an ever-inclusive arena, the tattoo world still evokes an edgy and daring reputation. So it is interesting that within this envelope-pushing nocturnal world of tattoo parlors, that tattoos themselves, both in their subject matter and style, have largely favored a more traditional artistic bent.

Tattoos provide their wearers an avenue for personal expression and message, a way to leave a mark and take control over their bodies. This form of body art provides a living, breathing, walking method of communication. Can realism in the traditional sense be the most likely way to make a definitive visual statement, despite the alternative devotees? In a word, yes. Representational technique provides the clearest way to communicate a message, whether that message be counter-culture or status quo; lower, middle, or upper class. Realism in visual art, outside of the tattoo world, is often seen as the sphere of the boring and old-fashioned, whereas the avant-garde utilizes more unusual, conceptual, or abstract methods. This points to a fascinating oxymoron within the tattoo universe, one that in its mainstreaming oddly bucks protocol.

Tattoos, considered such a hip and contemporary form of self-expression today, have a long and storied past. Tattoos were found on a 5000 year-old frozen body, and 3000 year-old mummies. 1 Over 2000 years ago the men and women of Polynesia sported the tribal art as a rite of passage. The Samoan practice of applying of the tattoo, or tatau, was done by hand, by apprenticed artists also known as tufuga. In familial tradition, the artists used a tattooing comb made of sharp boar’s teeth, turtle shell, and wood to slowly tap their designs into their wearers using a mallet. 2 Death from infection was a reality. The permanent marks were indicators of rank, status, and courage. The process was arduous, excruciatingly painful, and long– sometimes lasting months, and healing could take as long as a year. (Skin Stories, 2) Typically inked at puberty, males displayed their designs from waist to ankle, the women on legs and hands. To refuse the mark of the tattoo comb was to be forever branded a coward; shame pointing to a failure to adhere to tribal ceremony, identity, and cultural tradition. Western Christian missionaries tried to halt the tattooing practice, labeling it barbaric, but the tradition prevailed. Designs swirled in non objective pattern, solid bands, and stylized nature motifs, often topped with a boat as a nod to ocean voyages. 3

By the 1700s sailors who travelled the Pacific Ocean on Captain Cook’s crew went under the tattooing comb to collect traditional mementos of Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Island culture. By World War II, the art form would get the attention of American servicemen near Pearl Harbor, partaking of the tattoo services of ambitious navy man Norman Collins, or Sailor Jerry. Changing the nature of tattoos, Sailor Jerry studied the techniques of tattoo masters from Japan, using bold, flat color and saucy imagery. Clearly outlined pin-up girls, ships, anchors, roses, hearts, daggers, were the order of the day. He also modernized tattoo machine use, making them safer, more sterile, and streamlined. 4 By the 1950’s and 60’s, American counterculture donned motifs that exemplified fringe society such as bikers and convicts. The late 1970’s brought punk stylizations with skulls and rock references. 5

Today, tattoo artists across the globe are hunched over their subjects making wide-ranging depictions that require traditional, formal facility and precision. Creating a believable three-dimensional image on mostly two-dimensional skin takes time-honored academic ability. This author was able to inspire an uninterested middle school art student into creative output through the cool factor of tattoo design. Elements of formalism– line, shape, value, shading, and more– held no interest for the student; representational imagery was too staid and lame in the form of sketching a face or vase. But under the guise of tattoo coolness, the traditional art lesson takes hold. Dusty lessons of yesteryear prove imperative for inked contemporary expression and identity, and form the foundation of the often rebellious impetus inherent in getting a tattoo.

Peter Aurisch
figure 2 Tattoo by Peter Aurisch

And as tattoos have gained more mainstream acceptance, the inky art form has intriguingly moved into more alternative, abstracted expression. Tattoo artists such as Peter Aurisch of Germany, with his gestural, inventive flair (figure 2,, and Chaim Machlev, also of Germany, utilizes primarily black dots and lines in accordance with the curves of the body, (figure 3, exemplify a less realistic style. Illustrative outlining is rarer in many contemporary tattoos, although Oregon artist Alice Carrier utilizes line in vintage exactitude with her beautifully rendered herbal botanical creations. (figure 1,

Watercolor, stippling, and pixel techniques, along with vibrant color emphasize newer, more evolved methods of artistic tattoo endeavor. (Buzzfeed)

figure 3 Tattoo by Chaim Machlev

Are these artful expressions able to communicate the wearer’s statement with clarity? The answer is a qualified yes, although the mind and hand print of the artist is perhaps clearer than the message of the human substrate. These contemporary works are beautiful, compelling designs that showcase the virtuosity of the artist to be sure. Every passing year brings more sophisticated, inventive techniques to a time-honored art form that is enjoying an increasingly robust following. With these more modern and abstracted depictions comes a more ambiguous expression. One that can elevate tattoos to a higher art form within mainstream acceptance…and be cause for edgy conversation.

Works Cited

  1. American Traditional Tattoos History – Sailor Jerry, accessed 11/30/16,
  2. Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo, History of Tattoo, accessed 11/30/16,
  3. Squires, John. Tribal Tattoos History and Meaning, September 8, 2013,
  4. American Traditional Tattoos History – Sailor Jerry, accessed 11/30/16,
  5. American Traditional Tattoos History – Sailor Jerry, accessed 11/30/16,

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  1. Mashine

    There are some truly beautiful Tattoos out there.

  2. I sometimes wish I had more skin to add to my collections.

  3. I love watching a couple of tattoo competitions on TV and have come to admire the artistry of those involved. The tattoo artists are judged strictly on skills required of any artist–dimension, line work, perspective, light source, proportion, gradation, style, genre–and on how well they employ techniques to achieve result. In fact, these shows are the best in showing how art is created. That these artists create their work on skin instead of paper is irrelevant. Most of them are quite capable of creating art on any surface and throughout the show often do; but they can make a living drawing on skin. In fact, those tattoo artists who “can’t draw” are usually derided and never advance.

  4. Do we own our own bodies like we do our houses and cars; are we right (not just entitled) to deface what has come down to us through generations? Is tattooing, in the final analysis, an act of hostility to ourselves and those around us? Is tattooing an intimate form of self-denegration and an admission of the meaninglessness we feel for life? I understand putting a bumper sticker on a car, I’ve done it myself, but, to trash our own skin seems like a form of giving-up on life, of nihilism, of turning your back on your own humanity.

    • No. It can represent something so deeply felt that it can only be honored by making it literally a permanent part of our physical selves. Sure, sometimes it’s a mistake, sometimes it’s badly (even dangerously) executed. But the initial motivation can be a powerful wish to display love, joy, homage, beauty – or rage, defiance, sorrow. It is one way of expressing how meaningful something is to us – the *opposite* of meaninglessness.

  5. Just because it’s on a living canvas does not devalue it’s artistic worth.

  6. It’s art. And art is an ever increasingly broad category. There is low art, high art, not art, art art. Art can be merely the aesthetic. Art can be merely the intellectual. But it is never limited by a fool’s lack of imagination. It loathes limitation and categorization. Art is seeing something in the context of craft. Art is looking. Art is the number immediately preceding infinity.

    • Tattoos are in the same category as art on velvet.

    • The definition of art in the 21st century is quite wide, I don’t think anyone could argue that. Yes, tattoos (competently done) may qualify as art but do you want to go through life with the same picture on the living room wall until the day you die?

  7. Tatoos are whatever you want them to be, art, flair, an unwillingness to conform to a society of laymen, or just the opposite – a desperate attempt to be like those around you. Tatoos are as subject as anything else in this world, to appreciate them fully you need to what your being subject to. Am I looking at art, flair, rebellion, conformity or something that is quite possibly unfathomable to my puny personality.

  8. What I’ve always found interesting as far as tattoos go is that, in this particular art form, not only does the artist speak for his artwork, but the canvas itself, or rather the person getting the tattoo, is actually the one you go to when asking what the purpose of it is. You go up to the artist, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you why that person asked for this particular tattoo, but once you ask the person, you find yourself getting absorbed into their story. It’s as if the art comes alive because it was laid down on a living canvas, as if the artist took a memory or a vision right out of his client’s head.

  9. Andre Fernandez

    I think tattoos are a form of art and it is interesting to see how the perception of tattoos has changed through time and how the techniques have changed as well. But what it hasn’t changed is its purpose. It is also interesting to see how some tattoo artists have become celebrities like Doctor Woo that has over one million followers on his Instagram account (@_dr_woo_) I really like his designs.

  10. Shepard

    In Japan the tattoo is the preserve of the Yakuza, try going into a bath house with one. In Britain in my lifetime it changed. As a lad it was RN and ex cons, now many Professors I know have tattoos.

  11. Reminds me of Roald Dahl’s excellent short story – “Skin”

  12. Its the ugliest form of art, where many in later on in life will have deep regrets for what they’ve done to their bodies.

  13. Tattoos have been a part of human decoration for a long long time. Just like piercings, hair braiding, scarring and other body modifications.

  14. Regalader

    Personally I would not want a tattoo, however I have seen some beautiful works of art, on too many individuals to say that tattoo artists are not artists; many tattoo artists are indeed amazing artists.

  15. It’s very interesting to think of the art of tattooing as a more traditional practice, for like the author referred in the article, it is seen primarily on those of the fringe society status. As of late, however, more have become open to the aesthetics of tattooing. Employers have become less strict about tattoos being seen, and the art has reached a more broad audience.

  16. mazzamura

    There many tattoo artists who are truly artists, both in the traditional sense (drawing/painting), as well as the more contemporary sense, as they take their artistry onto a person’s skin. There is likely a complex parallel in relation to discussing tattoo as art, or street graffiti as art, mostly because both can spark such great debate as to who/what actually constitute art in the process of “destruction” on one’s body and/or public property. A topic that leads to rich conversations on both sides.

  17. Never found any value to it. I have known several people that wished they had not got them when they start to bluer and look like an ink blot test. To each his own.

  18. I find the generational differences in views toward tattoos really interesting. For many baby boomers, I think, there is still a stigma toward them; I’ve heard a lot of arguments from my parents against them, including “Well, everyone has them now, so they’re not even that unique anymore… and wasn’t that the point to begin with?” But I think what this misses is that maybe having a tattoo isn’t quite as unique anymore; but the tattoo you have and what it means to you is yours and yours alone.

  19. I agree wholeheartedly. I love the fact that people can look at my visible tattoos and get a sense of who I am as a person. I’m currently a graduate student and a teacher. My tattoos, which are often displayed during class, d not hinder me in any way. I feel it actually helps to lift some of the stigma that is still there.

  20. BreannaWaldrop

    Tattoos are such a beautiful means of self expression, cultural practice, and even therapy. It’s wonderful to see how the perception of this art form has changed through the decades.

  21. This piece is intriguing. It makes me ponder if the stigma against tattoos will disappear from a workplace environment as this generation grows and becomes the bosses.

  22. I completely agree I have tattoos and there are more then just ink in your skin

  23. As someone who has always wanted to express creative freedom on my skin with tattoos, and who has parents strongly against such a thing, I certainly do wish that the negative stigma against tattoos will decrease and that it will eventually become an accepted form of artistic freedom.

  24. Tattoos are the ultimate expression of self – a permanent representation of your personality written across your skin. I want a tattoo badly but have yet to decide what image or phrase means enough to me to make it a part of my skin.

  25. I love tattoos, have 4 myself and will keep getting them. As long as their important to you and serve a message to you thats all that matters.

  26. It is so interesting to think about tattoos. The fact that society follows this unwritten standard where only certain tattoos in certain places are allowed in the workplace – if allowed at all – is astounding. To think of tattoos at their most basic level, a form of art permanently sewn into the skin, then the idea that they’re not ‘professional’ is bizarre. We receive all this blank canvas at our birth and many people choose not to decorate it. I like to compare the body to a house in this aspect; you wouldn’t want to live in a boring, undecorated house right? Why would we look down on a decorated body? Now, I can see when one has tattoos of naked women or men or the corpse of a human being that that may be seen as a bit much, but nonetheless I think tattoos are so important to who we are as human beings. The tattoo is something so meaningful and personal, it takes a lot of guts (and heart) to don one, cause that shit lasts forever (unless you get it lasered off).

  27. Tattoos have a wide use in many cultures, I am from a small pueblo tribe in New Mexico that doesn’t see tattoos in the same light. Specifically, they never have had any kind of body modification in their culture, when someone such as myself who has a lot of tattoos shows up, my body art is seen as “non traditional” even though many native cultures use tattoos in traditional ceremonies. It comes down to human expression which is the very definition of culture.

  28. I think tattoos have become more accepting over the years due to their sense of self expression. Tattoos can be more than just a drawing on your body. Some may show your way in remembering those you lost in life, commemorate your love for something/someone, or be fresh idea of walking art. In short, tattoos can be anything, and everything in the eye of anyone.

  29. MarkMatinson

    Tattoos provide their wearers an avenue for personal expression and message, a way to leave a mark and take control over their bodies.

  30. AaronJRobert

    While trends have changed dramatically in the past decade, this one study from UC-Irvine ( finds that adolescents with tattoos are significantly less likely to go to college than their non-tattood peers, after controlling for many variables. Granted, this study uses data from the late 90s and early 00s, but it is an interesting correlation nonetheless.

  31. I think tattoos are a form of art and a way for people to express themselves through art.

  32. I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Always great to read an article that doesn’t outright judge them.

  33. I love my tattoos and they mean a lot to me. They are incredibly well done and I would definitely call them art. The pieces I have are very valuable to me and I’m happy I can express myself this way.

  34. I got a tattoo for my 18th birthday as a present to myself, it is always nice seeing other people with them and swapping stories and meanings behind them. My former high school theater teacher was practically covered in them and he was one of the nicest and smartest people I have ever known who had some of the coolest tattoos.

  35. Ness

    As someone with a passion for tattoo artistry, I think it is important to know the history behind the ink. Being aware of both the symbolism of particular tattoos and the cultural values they may possess is essential, given how popular tattooing has become within mainstream culture. Great to read an article that details those elements so thoroughly.

  36. Like food is to a chef, or a piece of music to a composer, I feel like art can be found and created anywhere and tattoos are no different.

  37. As a heavily tattooed person I’ve found that people have polarising views of tattoos. They either love them or hate them. The people who love them feel the need to go out of their way to tell me how much they like them and it makes me quite uncomfortable. To me, it makes me uncomfortable to have someone make comments about my body and for them to ask me what they symbolise. I’ve had to introduce a blanket policy of not telling people what my tattoos mean. On the other hand it also makes me uncomfortable when people who don’t like tattoos stare at them (mostly elderly people). I like my tattoos but I do not like the attention they draw from other people.

  38. I have no tattoos myself – I am far too fickle. However, I love seeing them on other people bold enough to make such a permanent statement.

  39. I think it is great how tattoos have evolved into a form of self-expression with less of a negative connotation. As a form of art, what better way to display your personality than a lifetime commitment using your own skin.

  40. Wonderful article. I have a four year fine art degree with a concentration in oil painting. With jobs being few and far in between for my particular skill set I have begun to tattoo. There is no doubt in my mind that to execute a well done tattoo the artist must possess the same amount of skill as any painter would to produce a beautiful painting.

  41. Thank you for going into detail the history of tattoos. I greatly enjoy hearing that they have been around so long. That length should make them less taboo. I have one and agree that it is a personal communication of myself to others, however I agree with the point

  42. Thank you for going into detail the history of tattoos. I greatly enjoy hearing that they have been around so long. That length should make them less taboo. I have one and agree that it is a personal communication of myself to others, however I agree with the point that it can also be personal for the artist. Great article!

  43. Preferences are personal opinions, art is art, don’t be a d***.

  44. Fascinating article with great examples of tattoos that challenge stereotypical designs and showcase the idea of the body as a blank canvas. Tattoos can be a statement to others about our identities, hopes and passions. They can also serve as emblems to remind ourselves of things, people or places we care about as a form of armour. While I don’t yet have any tattoos myself, I use jewellery in similar ways and can appreciate them as a form of personalisation.

  45. I always find it interesting when people talk about tattoos as if they are the absolute blasphemy of society. Who cares what someone puts on their body? It doesn’t affect the way they utilize their brain. I was really intrigued by your work and the tattoos you presented.

  46. I believe art can be expressed in so many ways. Like the old saying, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Tattoos can be a journey of ones life and experiences. If we are all the same, life would be boring, embrace your own choices.

  47. This article was informative and revealing. The history of tattoos is very enlightening. It is a positive approach to tattoos as apoint of communication and self articulation.

  48. This article was informative and revealing. The history of tattoos is very enlightening. It is a positive approach to tattoos as a point of communication and self articulation.

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