Percy Waters tattoos on Frenchie, 1921, Detroit, Michigan. Source: Schiffmacher and Riemschneider (1996).
History 20th Century Tattoos
Subcultural Tendencies Tattoos as Bricolage Summary & Bibliography

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The Tattoos:

Tattoos as Bricolage

Subcultures are conspicuous consumers; it is through the act of bricolage that they construct their styles that define their respective identity (Hebdige 1979:103). For a brief description of punk subcultural bricolage, click here.

The act of bricolage, using elements of both popular culture and other subcultures, is obvious in the tattoo styles and designs of the subcultures discussed here. U.S. servicemen tattooed patriotic and wartime symbols available in First and Second World War American popular culture; they also appropriated symbols and tattoos styles most commonly associated with circus “freaks” and performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Biker and prison tattoos rely heavily on popular Christian imagery and, from the east, Asian-styled tattoo dragons and animals. Neo-primitives openly borrow symbols and tattoo styles from various indigenous peoples from around the world.

Mainstream popular culture in America today has used tattoos in its construction of the image of western individuality. In the process of becoming mainstream, however, tattoos were sanitized; they were stripped of their power as subcultural and counter-hegemonic icons. They were commodified and ultimately made “safe.” No longer attached to the “deviant” or dangerous subcultures, tattoos came to symbolize middle-class values incorporated with late 20th century concepts of the body.

Popular mainstream culture in America in fact actively shuns anything but the sanitized version of the tattoo as a symbol of middle-class fashion and identity. Tattoos are, if not worn in acceptable middle-class and mainstream ways, icons still to be not trusted at best and feared at worst. Recent Hollywood films such as Cape Fear (1991) and Memento (2000) delegate “other” forms of tattooing to that of the criminal or perhaps the insane.

Maybe before you decide on a tattoo, do some more reading in the Summary and Bibliography.










'Under the Skin', Copyright 2004, Tony Hewer.