History 20th Century Tattoos
Subcultural Tendencies Tattoos as Bricolage Summary & Bibliography

click on thumbnails below to see

The Tattoos:


Freaky. Deviant. Dangerous. Erotic. Exotic. Primitive. Gross. Cool. Ugly. Beautiful. Inked. In the lexicon of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, tattoos and those who wear them have been described as all of these and many more.

The following website is a material culture study of the tattoo in 20th century North America. It is supplementary to a major research paper for History 1543, Topics in Material Culture at the University of Toronto. It will focus on the tattoos of selected groups of people who were and continue to be tattooed primarily as a symbol of group identity. These same groups used and continue to use today the body as a powerful symbol of expression, difference and identity. The groups are typically outside the mainstream culture; they are subcultures.

Throughout the twentieth century, tattooed subcultures continually borrowed mainstream or popular culture icons and imagery and incorporated them into their tattoo styles. They also incorporated symbols from other subcultures. This is “bricolage,” where cultural elements, objects and meanings are re-ordered and re-contextualized by another culture to create a new identity, unique and separate from the parent culture (Epstein 1998:13; Hebdige 1979:103-104).

This phenomenon reversed in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Through the mainstream appropriation of subcultural bricolage, tattoos became not only middle class icons of individuality, but consumer goods. This negated their power as counter-hegemonic icons of subcultural identity. But subcultures adapt, and groups like the neo-primitives have continued, through resisting the sanitized, safe version of tattoos and by engaging in bricolage themselves, to maintain a counter-hegemonic subculture punctuated by extreme forms of body-modification.

Navigation of this site is through the thumbnails along the top of your screen: Introduction, History, 20th Century Tattoos, Subcultural Tendencies and Tattoos as Bricolage. Navigate through the tattoos by using the thumbnails along the left side of your screen. To return to this page, click on the tattoo icon at the upper left hand corner.

To begin, psych yourself up with an Introduction on tattoos.







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