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Edgy goes mainstream


Edgy goes mainstream

Jane Stephens considers how temporary expressions of rebellion can last a lifetime in permanent piercing holes and tattoos.

Remember when tattoos were a sign of rebellion? The time when to be inked was to be anti- establishment, a rogue, or edgy with a splash of criminality?

Those days are long gone. Tattoos are very mainstream – to the point where among the youngsters, it is becoming a statement to be a cleanskin.

Tattoos are like piercings used to be. The punk movement, which emerged in the 1970s when Britain was in a deep recession, began with radicals putting multiple holes in their faces and showing them boldly to the world. But pretty soon, what was edgy became mainstream and by the 1990s, plenty of men as well as women had holes in brows, noses, lips and especially ears. But now, piercings are much less numerous or a reason to raise an eyebrow.

Tattoos are on a similar path. There may be some differences in perception, depending on the professional or cultural context but, overall, tattoos are considered a common part of modern Australian culture. Unless they are facial tattoos or otherwise confronting, tattoos are considered completely unremarkable – no longer screaming ‘rebel’ or ‘rocker’.

Some of the most conservative men and women I know have inscriptions and pictures on their skin. And even though Australia has no national laws that make it illegal for employers to ban visible body ink in their workplace or a venue to deny entry because of ink, rejections are relatively rare.

There is now some suggestion the trend is abating. Micro tattoos – with tiny pictures, fine lines and two dimensions – are cool now. But it was once hip to get tribal bands on arms, moustaches on fingers and sailor-style anchors on shoulders. Those images have fallen from favour. Perhaps the micro art is the last gasp of the tattoo trend. Maybe the mini movement means we are past the point of peak tattoo. Or maybe people have run out of unblemished skin.

One thing is for sure: we are in an era where those in their late teens are likely to have a parent with tattoos, and that makes them less attractive to those who want to rebel. Unlike piercings, you can’t just take a tattoo out. Absolute removal is impossible. Prevention is certainly better than cure.

I like this axiom that my pretty, classy young friend used to explain her lack of tattoos: you would not put a bumper sticker on a Bentley.


Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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