Tattoos have been around for thousands of years, but their popularity has risen greatly over the past several decades. Once only found on sailors and ex-convicts (you know it’s true), tattoos have evolved into a way for people to mark their identities externally. Only 20 percent of the total American population has tattoos, but with each generation, the percentage of those with tattoos decreases drastically — from 47 percent of Millennials to just 10 percent of people over the age of 70.
Young people especially grapple with their identities and understanding who they are. Tattoos are a physical way of expressing and defining oneself. Now that tattoos are so mainstream and easily accessible, the Millennial generation is inking themselves as a way of attaching permanent meaning to personal life events and feelings. The very idea of a tattoo is symbolic: while everything else in life is temporary, a tattoo lasts forever. (Unless, of course, you’re one of the thousands of Americans undergoing removal procedures each year.)
“We continue to be struck by rapid and unpredictable change — we found that tattoos provide this anchor,” said Jeff Murray, researcher at the University of Arkansas. “Their popularity reflects a need for stability, predictability, permanence. Even when everything else about the world – right down to the body – changes, tattoos are constants. They assure a link to the past.”
As such, we live in a time of “cosmetic identification,” where we use bodies to cement aspects of our individuality. Millennials aspire to stand out as individuals, and three out of four tattooed Millennials believe that their tattoos do indeed make them unique. Prior to the end of the 20th century, tattoos were often stock images chosen from a catalog at a tattoo parlor. Those types of tattoos haven’t faded into obscurity, but the tattoos that have skyrocketed in popularity are more creative, intricate pieces of art. Tattoos have become a means of communication and expression, as they commemorate one’s own story and passions externally.
The majority of people with tattoos also have more than one, weaving together various important aspects of their lives. Not every tattoo has a deeper meaning, of course, but many of those with tattoos do have an anecdote or philosophy that inspired their tattoo. It’s not a rare occurrence in today’s culture to be asked, “What does your tattoo mean?”
Millennial singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, 26, boasts of having more than 60 tattoos, ranging from the Heinz ketchup logo to a Henri Matisse tattoo for his mom. All of his tattoos are souvenirs meant to commemorate his accomplishments. “I get one done for anything I’m proud of or for something I want to remember,” Sheeran said of his ink.
Despite tattoos becoming more commonplace, the bias against them still exists, especially in the workplace. Seventy percent of tattooed Millennials make sure their body art can be covered up in the office. However, Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce, and as they rise up in management positions, what role will permanent body art play? Only time will tell as Millennials continue to build their personal and external stories.