Related topics

Tattoos: A Discreet Declaration of Independence From the Status Quo

January 12, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ They lurk beneath the threads of respectability, hidden under crisp Brooks Brothers suits and trendy Donna Karan dresses.

Call them a declaration of independence from the status quo or a permanent needlepoint counterpoint to the demands of conformity. Tattoos, no longer just a mark of rebellion among the biker set, criminals and sailors, are making their way into corporate settings.

″Typpies,″ tattooed young professionals, don’t go in for the usual brightly colored, whimsical depictions of tigers, dragons, unicorns and other images that recall late 1960s poster art. Instead, they’re big on ethnic themes: Maori armbands, Celtic symbols and Egyptian fertility signs.

Tattoos are especially popular among people in the arts, but they’re getting under the skin of those in the mainstream as well.

Nurses, doctors, stockbrokers and corporate writers are rolling up their sleeves, lowering their pants or otherwise baring their flesh to allow a needle to insert ink about a sixteenth of an inch below the skin’s surface.

Television is full of inky skin. Bart Simpson got a tattoo. He wanted one to say ″mother,″ but Marge discovered him while he was getting it and yanked him out with only the word ″moth″ inscribed. Ellyn on ″thirtysomething″ has a yellow rose on her derriere. And almost everyone knows about Roseanne Barr’s real-life declaration of love for her husband, branded on her posterior.

Cher graced the cover of November’s Vanity Fair baring her latest tattoo at the top of her left arm, a snaking silver chain with three dangling ornaments. At the Red Devil Studios in Los Angeles, Cher’s favorite tattoo spot, the clientele are ″lots of people in professional jobs that you wouldn’t know have tattoos,″ said the studio’s owner, Jill Jordan. (Don’t call them ″parlors″ anymore. Tattoo artists prefer ″studio″ over ″parlor,″ which they feel carries more tawdry connotations.)

Most of Jordan’s clients are discreet and want their tattoos on their upper arms or other spots rarely bared in office attire, she said.

″They don’t feel a need to show it off,″ Jordan said. ″I’ve done many actors and actresses, lawyers, a dentist and then his dental hygenist, who came in after her boss got his. You can’t really type people anymore.″

Shotsie Gorman, a former art instructor who now owns a tattoo studio in Haledon, N.J., and publishes the high-gloss, semiannual ″Tattoo Advocate,″ agrees: Typpies are everywhere.

″I’ve tattooed a number of professional people - from surgeons to people involved in arbitrage and multimillion dollar-deals who once they take their business suits off are virtually covered,″ Gorman said. ″They lead a very schizophrenic life.″

But if tattoos signify rebellion and a certain degree of recklessness, can a surgeon be trusted with a knife? A stockbroker with someone’s life savings?

One Wall Street broker with elaborate tattoos on both shoulders says he never considers his arm art a handicap.

″If you’re making the person money, they don’t care if you have a third eye in the middle of your forehead,″ said the broker, whose firm requested that he not be identified. ″Greed will overcome any stigma. I once told a guy, ‘Oh, I made you $500,000 and, oh, by the way, I got a new tattoo.’ He just said, ’Great.‴

Some say their tattoos are a literal sign of the times - a reaction to a new sobriety of the 1990s in which drugs are considered destructive, three- martini lunches are about as popular as S&Ls, and sex has evolved from a three-letter word to a dreaded four-letter one: AIDS.

Those who once embraced life in the fast lane are looking for safer kicks, and breaking the tattoo taboo offers a cautious stride on the wild side.

Pati Pavlic, owner of the Laguna Tattoo Studio in California, estimated 60 percent of her customers are professionals - a big shift from when she began tattooing in 1979.

″I came from a time when only bad girls and bikers got tattoos,″ she said.

″It’s not like a biker thing at all now,″ agreed Regina Casagrande, an agent who represents high-fashion stlyist Sante D’Oranzio and fashion photographer Patti Wilson. ″Once you get one, you feel special. You’re not just a naked body anymore, you’re distinct. It proves to me that I’m different.″

Casagrande has a small heart with a sun superimposed on her ankle, a design she created for the tattoo artist.

While traveling in Morocco, Joe Dolce, the arts and entertainment editor at Harper’s Bazaar, was taken by the local women’s custom of tattooing their faces.

″They had this beautiful filigree, especially on their chins,″ Dolce said. Back in New York City, he was thumbing through a magazine when a friend called to ask him along while he got a tattoo. Dolce agreed and decided to get one of his own, a checkerboard armband that somewhat resembles the geometric patterns worn by New Zealand’s Maori warriors.

He plans to get another one, more in an Indian motif.

″That’s the thing about tattoos,″ Dolce said. ″They are so addictive.″

Just what motivates people to spend up to $100 an hour to have an original piece of artwork implanted on their bodies?

Dr. Gerald Grumet, director of Psychiatric Emergency Services at Rochester General Hospital, in Rochester, N.Y., speculates that tattoos help define identity.

″Of all the various motives for bearing a tattoo, the quest for personal identity is central,″ Grumet wrote in an article called ″Psychodynamic Implications of Tattoos″ published in a professional journal.

The tattoo can be a ″pictoral quest for self-definition,″ he wrote. ″It offers the tangible promise of a final identity, the clarified picture of a diffused ego.″

One of Grumet’s colleagues calls tattoos a ″personalized Rorschach of its wearer.″

Tattooing also is an effective rite-of-passage ritual, said Gorman, the studio owner. Many people come to him after overcoming an especially rough or stressful time in their lives, such as weathering a divorce, he said.

″Tattoos are like an ‘X’ for those who look at their lives in a linear way,″ Gorman said. ″That ‘X’ marks the spot in their lives when they have made some passage. And a tattoo, unlike other things, can’t be denied by memory or time.″

Tattoos, however, can be denied by lasers. A treatment developed in 1989 uses a ruby laser to blast away the color beneath the skin, apparently without leaving a telltale scar. Ironically, the option of being able to remove tattoos has made more people willing to get one, those in the industry say.

Although many in the twentysomething generation may not have a problem with tattoos, telling the fiftysomething generation - their parents - can be more prickly than getting the tattoo.

Carolyn Sanderson, a 28-year-old graphic designer, literally lost sleep while preparing to tell her parents about the Celtic triangle tattooed on the upper crest of her right arm.

″It means you’re in the Navy,″ her father told her after he got the news. ″No, it’s like artwork now,″ Sanderson replied.

Shelley Camhi, a computer artist at Newsday who sports a small heart with an arrow through it on her ankle, had a similar story.

Camhi, 28, buying her first house with her parents’ help, said she planned to tell them about her tattoo ″after the paperwork is signed.″

Update hourly