“So Long Dolphins, Tribal Arm Bands and Lower Back Tattoos…Hello Inside Fingers!”
Thought I would take us all back through a couple of decades of what has been “In & Out” as far as trends in the tattoo industry. Let us see where we have traveled, stayed awhile, then said a fond “fair well” to.
Tattooing as well as piercing has hit quite the stride in the last 6 years. Meaning it is trendy and soared in popularity. Tattooing in the United States has boomed before, yet never like this. That’s why there is an over supply of walk in shops and new “tattooers” everywhere you turn. The current situation will right it self over time. Shops that under serve clients with mediocre tattoos and piercing will fumble along and quietly close when the surge slows. Those who are great at what they do with rise to the top like cream, and continue to grow in skills, attracting customers along the way.
While this has all been happening tattooing and piercing trends have come and (thankfully) gone. Designs and ideas that once were very popular and a “must have”- then after a few years time burned itself out and left many with something they dig. That reminds them of a time and place in their life - or sadly- a decision made in haste and looking more dated then a pair of Sassoon High Waist Mom Jeans.
Back in the early 1990’s as shops started to be less “Biker Bobs” and younger, hipper artists and spaces sprouted up, a surge of “New Skool” designs began to develop. This style of tattoos took the tried and true staple of “Americana” tattoos that had been around forever and spun them with modern color palates, edgy design ideas and developed familiar yet a completely new feeling about them. Tattoo Artists themselves dug creating traditional styles without it seeming to be just like everything else that had been done the last 50 years. The public saw that tattoos could be something different than the same old same old they have seen forever. Over the next 5 years these tattoos broke open the pre-conceived fixed beliefs of what could be tattooed.
By the year 2000 these “gotta have it” - new style ink had waned. What had once seemed crazy and cool didn’t age so well. Looked a bit silly on a middle aged man working at Whole Foods. But it had served a great purpose of getting everyone out of the rut of the same styles since the Korean War. This art is still gracing the flash racks and watercolor paintings of many a shop. Free standing “tits with bones” and “kewpie doll heads in roses” will be a part of most new artist programs forever. Coming up with these types of funky ideas and art are the second rung of the ladder in developing basic street shop skill sets this class of artists need.
In the mid 90’s Little Green Men, Alien Heads and their spaceships had a solid 3 year run. Aliens were always colored some shade of green, shaped with pointy chins and enormous, empty black almond shaped eyes. Customers made this sticker type tat a prominent part in sleeves of the lower arm. Seemed to be favored by young males under 24 years of age who fostered a deep affection for Graphix Water pipes - and that never met a sack of weed they didn’t like. Side note: I once worked with a chick who’s primary tattoo artist was famous for his well executed alien tattoos. This co worker decided she wanted a Vargas style female pin up on her upper arm. Sadly the pin up tattoo head looked pretty much like an alien head with human features. This design did not come out as she had hoped. She knew it, I knew it, yet it went unspoken that she had a pin up with the skull of an alien. So, like most trends, by the year 2000 these designs had completely disappeared from flash racks.
During the Clinton Presidency “Bio Mechanical” aka “BIOMEC” for you hip kids out there - became the “IT“ tattoo for fellas. This design style of “robot innards” being seen through torn away human skin looked wicked bad ass in the years of TERMINATOR movies. Like tearing apart your dads first COMPAQ computer, peering in to see what makes it tick. A few very creative artists took this to a crazy level, imagining entire limbs of their clients body as a futuristic nightmare. Well executed and containing more ins and outs than a Pat Fish Celtic back piece. So that it seemed as if their clients body and some crazy humanistic mechanics were fused.
Then we have the scratchers who sadly attempted this very difficult style, hacking people to bits…..making a sad attempt to further their “tattoo skills.” These poor folks who asked the under skilled tattooers for what they clearly were not capable of got terrible tattoos that you could not even hedge a guess as to what the tattooer was trying to convey with the design. Those attempts at mechanical realism brought the whole trend to a crashing halt. Now and then I will hear about an artist in Ohio or Delaware that “kicks ass” at Biomec….and I always thing about how great that would have been…… 14 years ago.
Being a water sign myself, I have always had an attraction to the sea and other bodies of water. Doesn’t matter how cold, windy, rainy, whatever. If water is nearby I want to go and wade knee deep or watch it while sipping on a cold water or hot coffee. Something primal in me digs it…any how I guess that’s why I can relate to folks who desire dolphin tattoos. The certainly come across as friendly creatures from the sea, kinda like the “dog of the oceans.” Man’s friend on cruise ships and ship wrecks. In tattoo designing dolphins can also be made into various secondary designs such as hearts and yin / yang’s. Seems pretty simple….but our ocean friends certainly are not easy to tattoo and make them look good. Matter of fact some of the worst tattoos I have seen are poorly done are dolphins. Monochromatic with one bright blue swipe of pigment - no highlights or contrast. Zero consideration or thought to the creatures expression or movement. EEK. Well, these gracefully mammals had a great ride appearing on ankles, lower backs and shoulders for about 6 years….but now they sadly have been pushed into the “not too cool” category by the very women who use to get weepy eyed over the “mother and baby dolphin swimming” flash.
In the 90’s, Chinese Symbols, or KANJI were inked on occasion. Customers working on sleeves that resembled patch work quilts liked to cram that design type in areas with very little room for something bigger. These symbols were around most shops, but having a large collection on hand not very common. By 2000, they suddenly became THE TATTOO. No lie, at Lucky 7 we inked a minimum of 3 a week, and that is when it was off season, with only 2 full time artist working. When this tattoo started to catch fire Lucky 7 took extra time to research where to buy flash designs we could trust. That all the symbols meant what the person who produced the flash sheets said. However not every shop was that ethical….far too many customers ended up with “Chicken Chow Mein” rather than the “Serenity” or “Love” they had dreamed of. In addition to these misbegotten words, poor execution of the brush stroke used to build the symbols could mistakenly turn a character that was suppose to mean “Family”, and morph that into “Fornicator.” Furthermore it seems that some Asian people delighted in scaring black, middle class kids in sushi joints by telling them the design meant something completely different than what they had thought when the tattoo was inked. Funny, but mean. So by 2004 these clean little tats were everywhere and became too mainstream for the trendsetters and followers to want any longer. We do have one client with a sleeve who got a couple of them that were very funny. One said “Golden Shower” and the other said “Fecal Matter.” Now that’s comedy!
And finally we have the Grand Daddy of trendy. The number one with a bullet! Can you guess what it is? I know some of you were wondering if I was going to bring it up, some of you have completely erased it from your minds, and other may still secretly want one. We are talking about the Tribal ARM Band.
Tribal had been creeping into the 90’s at a slow and steady rate since the late 80’s. A few well known and talented tattoo artists brought this style to the attention of their customers. Many people who didn’t care much for the traditional Americana tattoos “clicked” with the well executed clean line work, body forming aesthetics and the way the tattoo could represent “something“, though the designs were not straight forward images. Now you could get a cool design that was new and original…..until it caught on with the sports crowds.
Tribal Arm Band Flash
A few sports stars chose tribal to be a “rebel“ in their leagues. Once that action took place look the hell out! These sports stars were seen every weekend by lots of male fans nationwide, so an explosion of tribal arm bands began. Easy to cover for work, yet looked good hanging out it bars with a cut off sleeve t shirt. Adding gasoline to the inferno was George Clooney. Rocking a very large tribal piece that crept its way on to Georges neck in the movie “From Dusk Til Dawn.”
The ladies were not left out of this party either. Some females opted for a smaller, thinner more delicate looking version of the guys tribal arm bands - (with the section under the arm missing because it hurt too much there.) In these feminine designed bands flowers, hearts or their beloveds name in tiny letters were added….which I believe morphed into what many call the lower back “Tramp Stamp” - I prefer the name “California License Plate.” Sounds classier some how…This hybrid design style located ,near a ladies undies, shot out like a cannon. Everywhere you looked low rise jeans and g strings were giving way to an abundance of ink splashing out each time a lady kneeled down in front of you.
Sometimes it looked amazing, but sometimes it hurt the eyes. Especially when the carrier and/or the ink were not put together too well. Catch my drift.!?!
Once again a backlash began around 2004. For the men, a few clever beer commercials made them feel bad about their once “cool” band. Shirt sleeves were no longer lifted in victory when asked “ Do you have any tattoos?” by drunk, divorced single mothers at the local watering hole. Now the defeated ESPN junkies slowly replied “ Yeah, but I am going to cover it up with a big family crest soon, so I don’t want to show it to anyone.
For females the tribal art tattoos held on loosely a bit longer. Lower back tats still had an element of tribal. However it was thinned into more of a filigree or vine look. Hawaiian flowers, bluebirds and banners began to grace the center, etc…yet the dye was cast when too many d list celebrities, over the hill porn stars and Saturday Night Live skits had the tramp stamp emerge as part of their look or joke. So, like a 70’s tube top they were put away, no longer wanted - as well as many chicks second guessing whether it should have been donned at all. “Did I ever really think it looked good wearing it?!”
I still love the lower back tattoos. The area is perfect for small or large ideas. Large flat canvas with only a bit of curve. Tattoos peeked out only if you looked at the wrong/right moment. Furthermore a great deal of woman were afraid getting any tattoo until this area became popular. Weight gain and loss doesn’t affect the overall look of the ink. Yet it will take another decade at the least to let the current stigma wear off enough to let it come back around in the great glory it once enjoyed.
Hey, thanks for reading. Would love to hear from you about the trends you saw come and go in the last decade or 2. Kathleen @ Lucky 7 tattoo & Piercing