There’s been a nostalgic return to old-school designs that recall Sailor Jerry pin-up girls and retro-chic iconography. More people are getting hyperrealistic portraits and three-dimensional tattoos, which appear to literally leap off the skin. While there’s still interest in simpler imagery, such as anchors, feathers, text, and birds, much of the creativity comes in the application. Tattoos of flat hearts or plain text have been reinvented as the perfect recreation of a grandmother’s handwriting or an anatomically correct 3D human heart.
Why do people go to such great lengths to make their tattoos so perfect? The stakes are higher: Body art has taken on a greater significance, and people want their ink to say something about who they are. A good example is text. “A word, like faith or hope, is very easy and concrete,” said Gene Coffey, a resident tattoo artist at Brooklyn’s Tattoo Culture. It declares in the most literal way what a person finds important. “And a more abstract version of that, like a feather, is more of a free-spirited symbol.”
These considerations are fairly new, even if the images themselves aren’t always original. Many of the same requests keep popping up, Coffey says. “People think it’s unique to them because it spoke to them on this personal level. But to think outside of that box is very, very difficult.” Despite this limitation, which Coffey refers to as a “vocabulary of the art form,” in his experience the majority of people are getting tattoos to infuse meaning into their lives when a major event or feeling hits. “It’s like a time capsule for that feeling.”
It may also be a time capsule for identity. At the same time that people crave a sense of limitlessness, turning toward popular images like feathers, arrows, birds, and infinity symbols, they also want stability, which gets represented by dreamcatchers, anchors, a relative’s handwriting, or religious imagery. The most popular location for anchor tattoos, for instance, is on the feet, Coffey explains, owing to their symbolism. Tattoos give people, Millennials in particular, a way to prove to themselves and to others that a changing world is no match for them. The proof is right there, for all to see.
As people evolve and grow up, Anne Velliquette says, tattoo remorse isn’t always the go-to response. Instead, some people see old tattoos as a valuable reminder of a past self, although by Velliquette’s own admission, the gray cat she got tattooed on her ankle in her twenties as a way to remember a family pet is incongruous now. “I can’t say that I love that I have a cat on my ankle,” she said. “I don’t dislike having tattoos. But everyone sees it, and I’m 47 and I have a cat on my ankle.”
Even though tattoos might seem ubiquitous, 80 percent of the total population, and even a majority of Millennials (roughly 49 million people) are still without any ink. Many have no trouble establishing their identities via their families, religions, social lives, or careers, despite statistics that say modern influences should be steamrolling them all.