Are tattoos a fashion or an identity?

In ancient times tattoos represented social stratification, later they were stigmatized; today they are a form of expression. Tattooing is expressing yourself, it is passion, time, and effort.

Are tattoos a fashion or an identity?
To get a tattoo, a fad or an identifier? Images and text: UNAM

Tattoos are an ancient practice, whose origin is documented five thousand years ago; nowadays they have an identity resignification, said Héctor Castillo Berthier, a researcher at UNAM's Institute of Social Research (IIS).

"Ötzi, the oldest evidence of permanent subdermal pigmentation, dates from 5,300 years ago. It was a frozen mummified character that was at minus 40 degrees during that long period and was found in the Ötztal Alps, Italy," he said. Today it is kept at the Institute of Mummies in Italy, where its skin, organs, clothing, tools, and 61 tattoos are preserved.

According to the coordinator of Youth Studies of the IIS, tattoos had a social stratification; in ancient times they were used to distinguish between different ethnic groups or as a symbol of prestige. Etymologically, the word comes from the word tataú of the Maori of New Zealand, which means to hit. Those first drawings were small lines to identify themselves, a meaningful name, or a drawing like a ship for sailors.

"From the 17th century to the middle of the 20th century there was a phenomenon of rejection and stigmatization of tattooed people since there was the idea that those who had a drawing on their body were criminals or had been in jail, but that has changed nowadays". Today there is a resignification that is identity-based. Now it is well seen, there are soccer players, artists and a lot of people who are tattooed; it is no longer frowned upon", commented Castillo Berthier.

This resignification began at the end of the fifties with the youth mobilizations that began to identify the body as a way of expression, of coexistence, where tattoos began to proliferate and acquire symbolism as a new form of identity. "There are some weddings you go to and they hire a tattoo artist who makes a small figurine on your hand or arm, placing some symbol related to the bride and groom so that you never forget that you went to that wedding. So this identity identification of the tattoo has a new life and form of expression," explained the researcher.

Drawing on the body is a growing practice

Drawing on the body is a practice that is on the rise. Although there is no official figure, it is estimated that in 2002 there were one thousand ink professionals in our country; in 2019 they totaled six thousand, according to Tattoo Organizations in Mexico.

Some of them started this activity just to try or out of necessity, but today most of them are trained artists who see the skin as a canvas.

In this regard, the university researcher affirmed that tattoo artists are professionals who relate to the industry as a profession and at the same time find a form of artistic expression. "There are thousands of tattoo artists, but within them, there are many who are true artists in their work, they professionalize it and do it spectacularly."

In the global context, Italy is the country with the most tattooed people in the world, 48 percent of its population has at least one; followed by Sweden, the United States, Australia, and Argentina, which have 43 to 47 percent. In Mexico, 32 percent of the population has at least one.

Tattoos in Mexico: The Future of the Industry
Tattoos in Mexico: The Future of the Industry

An ink artist

Enrique Ruiz is a visual artist who graduated from the National School of Plastic Arts, today the Faculty of Arts and Design of the UNAM, and a professional tattoo artist for eight years. At an early age, he showed a taste for body modifications and tattoos, and without planning it, he found in this industry a profession.

For the young 31-year-old artist, it is an art from the point of view of both the one who tattoos and the tattooed one. "It's expressing yourself, it's giving a little bit of your work, your passion, your time, your effort to another person who will ideally keep it for the rest of his or her life," he said.

Customers and friends know Enrique as Holy Bitch.
Customers and friends know Enrique as Holy Bitch.

Clients and friends know Enrique as Holy Bitch, who started his tattoo studio due to a lack of job opportunities and found his passion. He knows that like any profession he has to update his skills and has taken courses in artistic anatomy at the San Carlos Academy to give realism to his designs. He specializes in covering tattoos and portraits. "We must express ourselves or create a style that identifies us and that can mark us as a specific tattoo artist," he said.

He celebrated that the industry is growing, that drawing the body is recognized as an art and that more and more tattoo artists are seeking professionalization, but be reminded that there is still the challenge of expanding the sanitary regulation of the studios and thus guaranteeing the safety and health of people.

To conclude, Castillo Berthier said: "if anything has favored the development of tattooing, it is this individualization of our culture. If you are thinking of getting one, do it very carefully and choose the right place".