Tattoos have seen a steady increase in their popularity over the last twenty years and the tattoo craze is still going strong. With over 145 million Americans having tattoos, the tattoo industry has seen a 10% increase year after year for the last decade and no end is in sight. COVID-19 stuck a big blow to the tattoo industry, but the bounce back is expected to exceed the revenue losses of 2020. Tattoos started their rise in popularity in the 1960's in the USA. Tattoos had been in American counterculture way before then but the rise in biker culture and hippie culture of the 1960's saw a boom in tattooing across the USA. In those days, tattoos were seen as signs of rebellion, worn by the outcasts of society. Today tattooed people can be found in every walk of like from celebrities, sports figures, musicians, to the chef at the local restaurant.
At one time tattoos were banned in New York. From 1961 to 1997, tattooing was deemed illegal in all five boroughs of New York. The New York City Health Department alleged a series of blood-borne Hepatitis-B cases were attributed to tattoo parlors mostly in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn. So, for 36 years, all tattooing done in the boroughs of New York was considered illegal. Just like liquor prohibition of the 1920's, tattoos where still done in New York, it just went underground. Done from apartments, or in blacked out storefronts, nothing stopped tattoo artists from working. In the suburbs on New York tattooing was still legal. Growing up in the 80's, I could remember my first experience, as a teenager, entering a tattoo studio. Getting a tattoo today, is usually a good experience and the client is appreciated. Back then, it was a pretty intimidating experience. In my area, everybody went to one tattoo shop if you wanted a tattoo. I don't remember him having any competition from other tattoo shops in the area. That tattoo shop was the only option you had if you wanted a tattoo in our area. You walked up a dark flight of stairs to the second floor, you were buzzed in once you got to the top door. Back in the 80's, with the exception of banks, very few businesses used security cameras and buzzed door locks, but the owner had the place super secure. No appointments, you just showed up, you were either buzzed in or told to come back another day through the intercom. If you were let in, you walked into a big room, with tattoo flash designs on every wall from floor to ceiling. There was no custom work done, if it wasn't on the wall, then it doesn't get tattooed. The owner was a big guy, with a no time for bullshit attitude. There would always be some 1% ers hanging out to add to uneasiness of the whole experience. Besides the walls lined with flash, the owner, was a big collector of torture devices from WW2 and before, so this made for some interesting display items.
I went with a friend, who his Father died suddenly when he was 16. He wanted a In Memory tattoo of his Dad. Back then, a Jesus head was the tattoo of choice to coumarate this type of tattoo occasion. The price was marked next to the design on the flash sheet. This was the price if you wanted it on your arm, any other location placement would cost you double the cost listed on the flash sheet. Inking the words "In Memory of Dad" was another charge. Don't remember exactly the cost, but somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 for the whole tattoo. My friend was directed to a small side room, where the owner asked him if he was over 18, a simple yes would do, not proof of age required. Cash up front, tattoo given, now get the F@ck out, was pretty much the way it went. The tattoo was done exactly how it looked on the flash sheet, same colors, same design.
Fast forward to 1997, my friend served a tattoo apprenticeship under the owner, which was not an easy thing to get. In those days, the trade of tattooing was a guarded secret and only taught to a select few. There were no tattoo classes, or YouTube tattoo tutorials. The Tattoo ban ended in 1997, and my friend, with the blessing of his mentor, opened up a tattoo studio in Da Bronx. His shop had a welcoming atmosphere and offered custom work in addition to the standard flash designs. Always a creative buzz going on at his shop. He assembled and taught a good team of tattoo artists that soon gave the shop at top reputation in Da Bronx for the best tattoo artists around. The shop always had its share of characters hanging around. I remember a young guy who worked around the shop, not for money, but for tattoos. Part of the deal was, in exchange for shop clean up, he could pick what he wanted tattooed, but also it was up to my friend, every now and then, to tattoo what he wanted. My friend, Seen, who owned the tattoo studio, was always up for a laugh, inked everything from a winged penis to cartoon characters engaging in sex acts, but all done in good fun. For the employee paid in ink, he took the crazy designs as part of the deal with the ones he wanted.
With the success of the first shop, my friend opened up a second location, on Fordham Road in Da Bronx. Fordham Road is a very high crime area in the Bronx, the shop lasted about a year in the second location. The last straw was when the tattoo shop manager got stabbed one night trying to keep a bunch of rowdy stoned gang bangers out of the shop. His first location is still going strong some 30 years later.
Some interesting facts about the world of tattoos. The Millennial generation, those born between 1980 to 1994, have embraced tattoos more than any other generation. One out of every two millennials have a tattoo, 50% of this age group. The country with highest percentage of tattooed people, 48%, is Italy. Followed by Sweden, with 47% of its population tattooed, and then by the USA with 46% of its population tattooed. The countries where tattoos are not widely accepted are Denmark, Turkey, Iran, Japan, UAE and North and South Korea. Worldwide the top designs for tattoos are Dragons, Butterflies, Wings, Stars, Hearts, Skulls and Flowers. Some amazing tattoos are being done nowadays, everything from realistic portraits to motivational messages. Tattoos that have the look of stickers applied to your skin or an embroidered patch are just incredible.
TV shows like Ink Masters and Bad Ink, to name a few, have exposed the tattoo culture to a larger worldwide audience and making celebrities of the top tattoo artists. Clients pay big money and wait months or even years for a tattoo appointment with the most sought-after tattoo artists. Also, there are many people who have taken getting a tattoo to the next level. No part of the body is off limits for a tattoo. One 24 year old girl in Australia had her eyes tattooed blue, she went temporarily blind for weeks, she described getting her eyeballs tattooed like getting shreds of glass scraped across her eyes. Face tattoos, neck tattoos, hand tattoos, and full arm sleeves can be found at any tattoo convention. I remember a teardrop tattoo was the only face tattoos I had ever seen in the 80's, and these tattoos where only worn by a select few. Tommy Lee of Motley Crue, was the first well known celebrity who had full sleeve tattoos, back in the 1980's. When Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, got his upper back bird tattoo, it was like Wow. Nobody at the time had seen a full upper back tattoo like his. Times have changed for sure. Many extreme tattoo collectors have turned their fully covered ink bodies into a way to support themselves. Tattooed models are sought out for fashion photo shoots, hosts at night clubs, brand ambassadors, and sought after at tattoo conventions around the world.
The world is coming out from under the COVID lockdowns and a desire to get back to life in a new normal is happening. Tattoo shops are opening and the need for new ink is being satisfied. Tattoo conventions probably won't return till next year, but they will return. The sound of buzzing tattoo machines will be heard from New York to Amsterdam and all places far and wide soon enough.