Did you know that tattooing was a fad among elites in the late 1800s in Europe and the United States? Did you know that Rowland H. Macy, Winston Churchill, and even the British Royal Family were all tattooed? Some of the oldest bodies that have been recovered also have tattoos, including Ötzi the Ice Man, who had 57 of them.

None of this is news to Dr. David Lane, assistant professor of Criminal Justice Sciences. Lane grew up “surfing, skateboarding, around a hardcore punk scene that included lots of heavily tattooed people.” His friend’s brother became a tattoo artist, and eventually, so did other friends. “It was always around my social circle.”

Appears In

While finishing his Ph.D. studies, Lane had mentors encourage him to study tattooing. He resisted for a while, and then realized that they had a good idea.

While the art of tattooing is not new, the body of research around it is still relatively recent. Most of the research that does exist focuses on tattooed bodies. “I woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t want to read another article about people’s bodies and tattoos,” said Lane. “I realized the tattoo artist angle was very underexplored in the research, and I decided to dive in.”

Lane’s new book, The Other End of the Needle: Continuity and Change among Tattoo Workers (Bucknell University Press, 2020), focuses on how tattoo artists sustain their world.

  • Brad Peiffer got these tattoos on his arms from tattoo artist Roger Franco as a memorial to the twin girls he and his wife lost.
  • Brad Peiffer's tattoo on his back, created by Ricky Sturdivant, also symbolizes a feeling of loss.

“There is no clear-cut, linear path to becoming a tattoo artist,” Lane said. “Typically, you go to a tattoo shop, get tattooed, spend time convincing people there that they want to have you around.”

There are tattoo schools, but most tattoo artists view them as financial scams. “It’s more accepted to do an apprenticeship for free and pay your dues. It is to show that you are dedicated,” said Lane.

Tattooists have to learn and get feedback from other artists; having other artists regard them legitimately is a big part of the word-of-mouth advertising that is necessary to be successful. Essentially, tattoo artists have to have their identities verified by other members of the occupation in order to prosper.

“One of the things that makes the tattoo industry so interesting is that there is really no formal institution or professional development group in place,” said Lane. Many conventional professions and occupations require members to have formal schooling or various credentials to be effective within the field.

Despite the fact that the industry has no labor unions, official guidelines, or strong professional associations in place, there is still a high degree of continuity in the work, and a set of core values that is prevalent across the industry. “Because so many artists learn the occupation through apprenticing, they learn to value the past and the history of the industry,” Lane said. “It is common for artists to reference its history and past masters of the industry since they learn a cultural code that helps them to make sense of the world around them. It is a cultural code that values tradition.”

During his research, Lane developed the typology of different types of tattooists:

  • Legends or masters have high degrees of skill and “have established themselves in the collective memory of the occupation,” said Lane. “They have large followings of people that consider them to be the epitome of a tattoo artist.”
  • Artists and craftsmen are underneath legends/masters. Craftsmen value the traditional way of doing things, including passing traditions on from mentor to mentee. “Contemporary tattooists work within established channels to uphold these traditions as an honorific component of the occupation,” said Lane. Artists use tattooing as a medium to explore their artistic talents and value creative and artistic freedom. “There is overlap between craftsmen and artists. Artists rely on the craftsmen to produce tools and materials. Craftsmen rely on artists to create new aesthetics and push the boundaries of the craft.”
  • The shopless and scratchers are at the bottom of the tattoo stratification system. The shopless are “all those cast as outsiders by the established tattoo world,” said Lane. They are typically untrained or self-taught. Scratchers are “folk devils whom established tattooists pin the evils of tattooing upon. Shopless and scratchers are pejorative terms related to the tattoo world; no one admits to being part of this group.”

One important point Lane wants people to realize is that tattoo artists work really hard at their jobs. “Tattoo shows on television underestimate the seriousness of the job,” he said.

While it might be a different job than others, there are many similarities. Tattooists have to learn the job, as well as the system of stratification attached to it. They have to learn the tools and where to purchase them as well, which is easier said than done.

“Tattooists will not sell their machines to just anyone off of the street,” said Lane. “If you don’t know who builds high-quality machines, or how to talk to who is building the machines, you will struggle to find quality tools and materials.”

Humans have been getting tattooed for thousands of years. In his new book, Dr. David Lane explores the world of tattoo artists.

By controlling access to the machines, and therefore limiting who can become a member of the industry, the tattoo world has remained relatively safe, with very few disease outbreaks. “Somehow, tattoo artists have maintained this aspect of safety in the industry, when it could be very easy to do it poorly and make it an unsafe experience,” said Lane.

In addition, members of the occupation have to ward off threats and some change to the industry. Tattoo artists worry about television shows, new laws, and forces of capitalism, to name a few.

Tattooists work on building a following, as it is the personal, human connections that tattoo artists make that spread the word of their work and grow their brand. Building a reputation is two-fold for tattoo artists: On one side, they need to develop a strong reputation among other artists in the industry in order to access machines and build credibility. On the other side, they need to build a public following in order to make a living. “Consumers of tattoos are apt to tell others, ‘I had a great time, and you will, too,’” said Lane.

Lane’s new research project focuses on people who have gotten tattoos in relation to a trauma in their life. He admits that the project can be emotionally draining, as people have a lot happen in their lives and use tattoos as a process of recovery and developing a new conception of themselves.

“Getting a tattoo as a way to mark a traumatic event is interesting, because it is a very permanent way to mark something that a person is moving away from,” Lane said. “The time period when they choose to get a tattoo seems to be when they feel that they have regained control over a set of events in their lives.

Lane said tattooing is more popular now: “This is not a surprise, because it values human connection and authenticity. It allows people to carve out a little bit of themselves and build their own identity.”