Well Dang. It is my first blog entry and as I approach the end of my first month here at Speakeasy Tattoo I am full of… emotion? Strange as I feel like I had on average 1 or 2 emotions per week this time last year. Getting back into doing, well, anything consistently since emerging from the self-imposed exile of quarantine has been a herculean task. Not only that but I’ve got some massive size 12’s to fill following the former author’s departure from the blogosphere. (seen below me attempting to follow a certain goth giant’s bootprints.)
Nevertheless, we must press onward and so that brings us to me. What am I going to do with this small slice of the internet? Well in the days before I found my way to this lovely place I was somewhat of an art historian or at least I had a degree that says as much. And even though I went to art school and not real college the debt is certainly real so I might as well attempt to use some of that supposed know how to look at history and find the narrative through lines that connect my own personal journey to the history of tattoos. And because like any self-respecting gay I love needless self interrogation, let’s start there.
It’s summer in Los Angeles, and the mercury hasn’t dipped below 79 in my apartment all week. I don’t have central AC, just a noisy, overtaxed window unit, which must work extra hard as it is set into a south-facing window, meaning it is precisely located in the hottest part of the house. Still, I am camped in front of it, thinking of the summers of the late 90’s, before I knew exactly how disgusting water parks are and could while away the hours drifting along a lazy river, standing on my tiptoes to meet the height requirements for the big slides, or horking down hot dogs until I threw up in the wave pool. Those were the halcyon days, to be sure. But, aside from questionable sanitation standards and minimal supervision, there’s one other feature to my memories of water parks when I was but a wee lad: women with paw print tattoos decorating their décolletage.They truly were everywhere. Friends of mine have the same recollection. One says that during a trip to Soak City USA in 2004, she counted 14 separate women with this distinctive tattoo. So let’s talk about trendy tattoos, shall we?
The paw prints were popularized by American rapper Eve, whose 1999 debut album “Let There Be Eve… Ruff Ryders’ First Lady” hit #1 on the Billboard list, a rare feat for the first album of a female rapper (indeed, she was only the third female rapper to earn this distinction). Reportedly, she got the paw prints when she was 18, and had them placed on her chest on a dare. For her, they have become iconic. So much so, that even her mother, who initially hated the design and its placement, later objected to the idea of Eve having them removed, as they’ve become integral to Eve’s identity as a performer. Eve so far has decided not to have them removed, but says she won’t get them touched up, either. She likes that they’ve faded, and that they have ‘grown with her’, as she says, since she received the tattoo in 1998. They’re not her only tattoo, but they are her most recognizable, and they inspired countless women to ask for the same ink in tattoo shops across the country, perhaps seeking some of Eve’s success, or sex appeal. For me, they are an intrinsic part of the cultural tapestry of the early 2000s.
Eve was not the first celebrity to have inspired copycat tattoos, however.
After her sudden and tragic death in 1970 at the age of 27, superstar Janis Joplin was the emblem fans clamored to imitate, specifically, in the form of her Lyle Tuttle Florentine bracelet tattoo. She also had a small heart tattooed on her chest, but the bracelet, being more visible, was more iconic to her fans. Of the designs, Joplin once said, “I wanted some decoration. See, the one on my wrist is for everybody; the one on my tit is for me and my friends.” Her words would prove prescient, as that wrist tattoo took off among those seeking to mourn or model the famous singer.
And it isn’t just musicians, either. In the 1990s, after the splash success of Baywatch (see what I did there), both men and women went under the needle for barbed wire armbands, mimicking sex symbol Pamela Anderson. The trend became so widespread that George Carlin made some less than positive cracks about it, which I will not report here because I could do just as well just posting “old man yells at cloud”. People do like to comment on this motif, in a similar fashion as derogatory remarks about lower back tattoos, but personally, I hope everyone who has a barbed wire tattoo, whether they got it to look badass or to look Baywatch, is getting everything out of it that they wanted. Tangentially: did you know there is more than one barbed wire museum in the United States? If you are in the market for a barbed wire tattoo, you could stop into one of these museums (one is on historic Route 66) and buy a piece of barbed wire from the 1800s, even older than the tattoo machine, upon which to base your tattoo.
So why the topic of trendy tattoos? In a way trendy tattoos hit that sweet spot that all art strives to, that is the synthesis of the familiar and the unexpected. They are a meeting point between style and beauty. While beauty is a collective aesthetic generated from shared cultural values, style is more individualized. Style is generated from individual taste and is highly customizable and in that way the singular personal tattoo can be seen as the epitome of style. But what happens when that singular personalized notion gets used as a signifier over and over again, does it become collective or does it retain its individuality? Obviously I have no definitive answer to this question, but it is my belief that, because each individual has their own reasons for getting a tattoo that emulates a celebrity, whether it be celebratory or salacious, even the mass-represented tattoos become a personal attestation.
The folks who got paw print tattoos in the late 90s and early 2000s are now likely in their 40s and 50s. I wonder how many have had cover-ups on their cleavage clawmarks, or have them removed, versus how many, like Eve, have aged with them (gracefully, I might add). It seems fitting that Eve’s chart-topping single “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (2001) was a diss track on those who doubted her ability to have staying power. The tattoos she inspired, while their trendiness might have faded, are still sticking around.