Tattooing is an art that has enjoyed a history in the U.S. as colorful and checkered as the myriad designs tattoo artists ink into their patrons. While over the decades it is a practice that has risen and fallen in the American popular consciousness, tattooing has firmly established itself in the annals of U.S. subculture.
Whatever the current popular national attitude toward tattooing may be, it's grown into a legitimate industry in its own right. A published report indicated that, while no official figures have been uncovered, estimates around the year 2010 saw the tattoo industry bringing in around $2.3 billion annually between the approximately 15,000 tattoo parlors across the nation, according to Daily Finance.
July 17 has been decreed National Tattoo Day, a day to recognize the growth and influence of the tattoo industry in U.S. sociocultural development. In recent years, the industry has developed alongside the parallel yet still somewhat nascent field of tattoo removal, a field enjoying rapid growth in both technological innovation and sheer size.
Red, white and tattoo
The practice of tattooing is almost as old as humanity. Frequently observed by archeologists studying ancient Egypt as an art form popularized by many women of the time, The Smithsonian reported that tattoos have been discovered on human remains that date back as far as 3000 B.C., largely believed to serve therapeutic purposes in a similar vein to acupuncture today.
However, it wasn't until centuries later that the practice made its way to the U.S. by way of Europe. PBS tells us that 18th century explorers to Polynesia discovered natives who practiced the art, and many returned to their home continent with unique souvenirs inked into their skin. The Civil War was a prime breeding ground for the art of tattooing, and many of the first modern professional tattoo artists originated during this time.
In an article written in 1897 for The Strand magazine, English author, photographer and naturalist Gambier Bolton spoke of the influence of the burgeoning Western tattoo scene, writing, "But to come down to more modern times, we find England, America, Burmah, and Japan the centres of really artistic tattooing."
During World War II, sailors and soldiers traveling abroad played a significant role in elevating the prominence of tattooing, receiving them as wartime souvenirs and ways to commemorate deeds and fallen comrades, and the practice has remained largely entrenched in sailor culture ever since. The 20th century was a boomtime for the tattoo industry, with particular growth centered around Detroit. As The Detroit News claimed, the transportation hub saw its fair share of sailors and transient workers who made a habit of patronizing the city's tattoo parlors while on furlough, and the city's attitude toward the process remains today – the Motor City boasts the most tattoo shops per capita out of any city in the nation.
Getting under the nation's skin
Despite the fact that tattooing has managed to thrive within the bounds of its subculture, it is a practice that has struggled to gain a foothold in the larger social consciousness. The U.S. tattoo industry has weathered impediments of all sorts, ranging from social and professional stigma to anti-tattoo campaigns led by public health agencies – many of the nation's major cities have enforced bans on the practice of tattooing up until mere years ago. Even New York City put a stopper in tattooing until the '90s.
Unfortunately for tattooists, hepatitis concerns and sociocultural dissonance didn't do much to endear body art to the public at large, and tattooing fell back into the fringe in recent decades. Banned by many of the standard social channels, tattooing became, for better or worse, synonymous with criminal organizations, biker gangs and other undesirables. Old perceptions die hard, and a study conducted by Career Builder found that tattoos were cited as the third most common factor that could limit a candidate's hiring potential as recent as 2011, with nearly a third of respondents citing aversion to visible tattoos.
Wary parents often cite tattoos' permanence as a reason for rebellious kids to veer away from seeking them out. Fortunately for impulsive youths, the process isn't strictly speaking irreversible. Unfortunately, tattoo removal has, until recently, been a crude and often painful affair. In fact, while tattooing technology has progressed significantly, the technology involved in tattoo removal has historically been spotty, inefficient or dangerous as recently as a decade ago.
According to an account from Bolton in 1897, "The only case in which this painful ordeal has been borne, so far as the writer's experience goes, was at the hospital at Singapore, when the scar left behind was infinitely worse that the original tattooed design of an anchor on the back of the hand."
Fortunately, those experiencing tattoo regret have more and better options available than ever before. Laser tattoo removal represents the future of the industry, both technologically and financially. Previously an expensive and time-consuming process – often taking up to a year to remove a single tattoo – accessibility of new technology has boosted tattoo removal from a niche market to a $66 million dollar industry, The Boston Globe reported.