Tattooing is not a modern invention. Its origin dates back to around 5000 BC, the time when the Japanese adorned clay figurines with tattoo-like engravings. Since then, tattoos have been discovered in all corners of the world, from mummies with elaborate ornaments from ancient Egypt to European sailors who collected tattoos for remembrance along the grueling crossings of the South Sea.
Historically, the perception of tattooed bodies has been dynamic and flexible, with the geographical position, socio-economic condition and values constantly changing to determine if tattoos were considered symbols of individuality, signs of rank or shame or honors to be worn with pride. Whatever their function, tattoos have been omnipresent in history, but only recently have they become part of mainstream fashion.
From counterculture to dialogue: Issey Miyake’s Tattoo collection
For many decades, the supermodels who trod the world’s most prestigious catwalks in London, Paris, New York and Milan were nothing but tabulae rasae, immaculate and unspoiled. There was no place for tattoos in the fashion world – this until Issey Miyake unveiled his revolutionary Autumn Winter Tattoo collection in New York in 1971.
A cheeky celebration of youth culture, rock and roll and contemporary artistry, Tattoo, which marked the debut of the iconic hand-painted dress and men’s bodysuit using traditional Japanese tattoo techniques, has been widely recognized as a heartfelt tribute to the culture ofirezumi, the traditional Japanese tattoo, and to the musical idols of the younger generations – in particular, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Miyake, who witnessed the 1968 student protests against authority, was known to be unwilling to please society’s higher grades. On the contrary, his was an inclusive vision, which used subversive images to make high fashion accessible to everyone, not just the lucky few. Tattoos, which were legalized in Japan only in 1948, still have a negative connotation today in many areas of the country, as they are associated with Yakuza (a Japanese criminal organization). By making that subversive practice the beating heart of his collection, Miyake has ‘contaminated’ the catwalks, opening the way to a meaningful dialogue on the intersection between politics and fashion.
From the margins to the mainstream
In the footsteps of Miyake, other illustrious designers began inserting tattoo-like signs into their collections in the late 1970s. From the semitransparent shirt inspired by Martin Margiela’s tattoos (1989) to Jean Paul Gaultier’s Les Tatouages collection (1994) and the Maison Margiela Spring Summer 2014 couture collection inspired by Sailor Jerry, tattoos were no longer hidden under clothing; Now they embellished them with pride.
Likewise, far more widely accessible high street labels around the world have begun to artfully create ‘rebel’ DNA for their brands, on the wave of the new subversive spirit of fashion. Above all, the tribute of American brand Von Dutch to the nickname of the artist and mechanic Kenny Howard (‘Von Dutch’, precisely), who became famous in the early 2000s after the French designer Christian Audigier was called to lift the brand from oblivion. Audigier has maintained the distinctive style of Howard, imbued with the culture of bikers, with the characteristic truckers, the hats with the visor, and the washed-out shirts with the showy logo and the notorious winged eye tattoo. Ironically, from Britney Spears to Gwen Stefani to Fred Durst, at the beginning of the new millennium Von Dutch was considered a sign of bon goût.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 1994 RTW. Photo by Guy Marineau / Conde Nast via Getty Images
© Guy Marineau
In 2004, Audigier left Von Dutch to join what would become a global and multi-million dollar clothing giant: the eponymous fashion line – and in the beginning of 2000, omnipresent – of the prolific American tattoo artist Ed Hardy, with his designs flashy, all pierced hearts, burning flames and tattoo style writing interspersed with rhinestone applications.
Both brands, undeniably products of their time that fully capture their spirit, have marked a clear trend: body art had suddenly become high-street, synonymous with accessibility and individuality. No longer an indication of criminal culture, the tattoo was now accepted as a means of self-expression within everyone’s reach.
Tattoos on magazine covers
Even if fashion had transformed the tattoo into a desirable sartorial trope and the high street had made it a universally available product, at least as far as clothing was concerned, up until the ten years of the third millennium there were strangely few tattooed bodies appeared on the covers of world fashion magazines.
Today, practically nobody folds in front of almost invisible tattoos on the covers: a segment of tattoo on the back of Lady Gaga (American Tips Clear, October 2018), Katy Perry’s slender Sanskrit script (Tips Clear Japan, September 2015), the tiny heart that adorns the ring finger of Ariana Grande (British Tips Clear 2018). But until recently, the largest and most flashy tattoos were still typically relegated to the inside pages of high fashion magazines or publications considered avant-garde or niche.
Until the well-known March 2019 cover of American Tips Clear with Justin and Hailey Bieber, who alone could be responsible for clearing the large and showy tattoos, bringing them to the covers once and for all. Also the cover of British Tips Clear of May 2020 with Rihanna made history, establishing two new records in one fell swoop: not only was it the first issue of Tips Clear to put a large face tattoo on the cover (courtesy of make-up artist Isamaya French), but it was also the first time that British Tips Clear showed a woman wearing a durag.
In favor of temporary stay
Although tattoos have become part of acceptable social practices in many parts of the world, with the ambitious cover of a fashion magazine to symbolize the latest frontier, it is important to highlight the great cultural differences that still exist today. There are countries less prone to tattoos, such as Japan, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and North Korea, where they are still tied to negative images. However, overall, the tattoo seems to have finally lost its subversive aura, becoming an affirmation of beauty and individualism.
Interestingly, recent statistics show that it is not the younger generations who boast the most tattoos; a study shows that tattoo lovers fall between the ages of 30 and 49. Still, just spend five minutes scrolling through the Instagram pages and it quickly becomes clear that tattoos are omnipresent. So how do you explain all this? One theory is that body art is not losing blows, it is only taking a new, more temporary form.
Even the big pieces of beauty like Fenty and NYX seem to think so with their vast offer of ‘body paint’ strongly pigmented in a wide range of colors and shades; these palettes inspired heaps of social celebrities to experiment with temporary body art, showing their fake tattoos to their sizeable fan base. UK based makeup artist and streamer Sophia White (also known as Djarii) has garnered a huge following on Twitch and Instagram by sharing her passion for temporary body art. He describes his followers as a mixture of genres and identities who view changes to the body as a unique means of self-expression. “The younger generations, especially, are more open and inclined to abandon the stereotypes once associated with body art,” he says to Tips Clear by email.
Djarii knows that his followers, a generation that is growing in the golden age of social media, feel the pressure when it comes to how they look. The chameleon-like nature of Instagram’s aesthetic could help explain the transition to less permanent forms of body modification, allowing people to adhere to passing trends and to abandon them from time to time. “Creative body art is constantly growing in the make-up industry, and I think a lot of this success has to do with creative expression. Makeup has long been a means of transforming and expressing ourselves, ”explains Djarii. “Temporary body art allows me to push myself beyond my creative limits and safely explore my personal image. Today, more and more people try to express themselves in this way “.