By Elvire Camus & Arnaud Aubry
Tattoos everywhere. On every arm, calf, neck, and back. On boys and on girls. Not only a tiny butterfly on a wrist or a “Mum” etched on a shoulder, but whole sleeves and chests covered with Japanese or traditional American tattoos. That’s what the “hipsters” of Williamsburg/Greenpoint proudly display as they stroll along the streets of their neighborhood. But not only hipsters. This phenomenon now decorates a much wider slice of the population, including lawyers, bankers, doctors, and cops. Interviews with tattoo artists, teachers, residents, and sociologists helped us to understand that tattoos—formerly for those on the margins—are now the new aesthetic for North Brooklyn.
You don’t have to go totally tribal like a Maori, or join a mob like the Russian Bratva, or tote a gun like the Yakuza (Japanese gangsters). You can just be yourself and have your whole chest and arms covered with anything—simply because it looks good.
The reasons for a tattoo can be trivial or profound, says Heidi Tüllmann, a 25-year-old artist from Williamsburg who got her first tattoo when she turned 18. “All my tattoos are on my left arm and shoulder. The reason I chose this side was because, back in California, I used to have a car, and the left arm is the one that faces the street when you’re driving… I wanted to show them off!”
As the corset and porcelain complexion used to constitute the aesthetic standards of the 19th century, tattoos may represent the beauty norm of the 21st century. It may even become a beauty criterion. “I find girls with two sleeves or a piece on the chest more attractive than ‘naked skin’ girls,” says Anthony Gillas, 24-year-old English teacher, who used to live in Williamsburg. Gillas got his first tattoo when he was 18, to look like his role models: the bands Blink 182 and New Found Glory. To him, tattoos truly are an aesthetic standard, even more important than hair color or figure. They are the first things that catch his attention when he meets a girl and the thing that will make him want to know her better.
Some girls are also attracted to guys with tattoos, as Camella Agabalyan, 22, a British band booker, says. “I definitely love guys with tattoos, but it all depends on the ones they have and where they have them. I love sleeves, for some reason, I find them so sexy.”
So why the growing popularity of tattoos among the general populace? “Tattoos used to be part of a scary and illicit world,” says Matty No Times (sic), co-owner of Three Kings Tattoo in Greenpoint. Before the 1996 law that allowed tattooing in New York, one could only get a tattoo at the back of a barbershop or in a basement. “Ultimately with its legalization tattoos became less terrifying, because tattoo shops were now legitimate businesses, and the hygiene rules were drastic,” adds Dave C. Wallin of 8 of Swords Tattoo, in Williamsburg.
But, the 1996 law was not the thing that helped tattoos gain acceptance. It was a gradual process dating back to the early 1930s, when tattooists began to create their own styles and invent new designs. Tattoos were perceived as beautiful as soon as tattooists were referred to as “artists.” No Times considers that “tattooists became artists when they began to go to art schools.
Nowadays, tattoo artists are artists period. Most of them do drawings, paintings, or sculptures on the side, as well.” Apart from the aesthetics, tattoos have always fascinated people. Even if they are no longer done in the back rooms with unsterilized needles, the special attraction comes from tattooing’s dodgy history. “I think that unconsciously, tattoos provide a kind of ‘street-cred.’ It’s a way to say that even if you come from a middle class American family, you have been through stuff, that your life has not always been happy. But no one will admit to that,” says Tüllmann.
In any case, it appears that the process of getting a tattoo is extremely personal and has a clearly defined meaning. The image itself is not as important as what it represents. “To me, tattoos are not about being attractive, they are about defining who I am,” explains Agabalyan, who got the first of her twelve tattoos, an “XO” (the title of an album by musician Elliot Smith), on her left wrist, when she was 19. She felt that this particular album characterized her.
Tüllmann finds that her tattoos are a way to express herself. “Each one is a symbol. I got my first one to grab a hold of my life. To stop being ‘just’ my parents’ daughter, and because they are permanent, tattoos are the best way to say, this is who I am and you can’t take it away from me.”
While tattoos are personal symbols for those who have them they also define a person to the world. “I have an anchor on my leg. For many people, it’s like ‘oh great another anchor.’ To others it gives an idea about the music I listen to and the things I like to do in life. Think about it. You know that a guy with a tribal tattoo probably likes sports and working out,” says Agabalyan.
The image that a tattoo carries can still be problematic for some. “In my high school, I wear cardigans and I took off my earrings, so that neither my colleagues nor my students will see this part of my private life,” says Russin, who found a way to combine his private and public life. “It is not unusual for me to do huge back or chest tattoos for doctors or lawyers. When they are working, no one suspects that they have enormous Japanese drawings under their uniforms,” says Wallin.
Some people, on the contrary, use the aspect of tattoos to exclude themselves from a certain social status. “The tattoos I did on my hands were a kind of safety for me. I will never have a boring corporate job in my life because my tattoos prevent me from it.” Indeed, hand or face tattoos are highly unadvisable by tattooists because they often close doors.
Regardless of their meaning, whether or not they are beautiful or socially accepted, what matters is what tattoos represent to each individual. Because, in the end, he or she will have to wear it forever.
Related Article: Tattoos: Why Here? Why Now?