A marked divide: tattooing rate varies by generation

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: July 22, 2003

Although they may be only skin deep, tattoos have caused a deep generational divide in America.

About one of every seven adults has a tattoo, according to a survey of 1,010 people conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. But young adults are 10 times more likely to sport permanent skin illustrations than are members of their parents' generation.

"Back in the 1950s, we were told we'd go to hell if we got a tattoo. Today we are a lot more open to these things," said Tom Cuthbert, 28, an artist at the Gotham Tattoo parlor in the rural Alabama town of Calera. "After all, these are our bodies and we can do what we want with them."

Cultural historians say that the rate at which people are getting tattoos has hit an all-time high in America, overcoming past stereotypes that permanent marks on the skin are a sign of immoral conduct, or worse. Tattoos have also had to contend with religious mandates, such as the oft-quoted instruction from the Book of Leviticus: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord!"

Many states outlawed tattooing following a 1961 outbreak of hepatitis, prohibitions that slowly have been lifted after tattoo artists lobbied for health standards mandating safer procedures.

"When the baby boomers were growing up, tattooing was something only outlaw bikers or nasty people did. But that began to change," said Amy Krakow, author of "The Total Tattoo Book" and recipient of a New York State Council on the Arts grant to study the phenomena.

"Then came 1967, the summer of peace and love. Janis Joplin had two tattoos when she went on national TV on 'The Dick Cavett Show.' All of a sudden, hippies started getting tattoos because it was anti-establishment," Krakow said.

The survey found that tattoos can be found among 9 percent of the so-called "boomer generation" _ people born between 1946 and 1964. That's about three times the tattooing rate of people born during or before World War II.

But the popularity of tattoos among hippies pales compared to the enormous leap in the use of skin art among the so-called MTV generation of the 1980s and early 1990s when rock stars, film actors and professional athletes by the dozens posed with their newest tattoos.

"I remember when a model on the cover of Elle magazine was photographed with an angel on her back; it seemed like I tattooed nothing but angels for nearly six months," said Carl "Shotsie" Gorman, owner of two parlors in New Jersey and founder of the Alliance of Professional Tattoo Artists.

Thirty percent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 have tattoos, the survey found. About 28 percent of adults younger than 25 have tattoos. In all, the post-baby-boom generations are more than three times as likely as boomers to have tattoos.

Gorman believes the X and Y generations have quite different motivations for getting tattooed than the anti-establishment-ism of the 1960s and 1970s.

"Some people look at tattooing as antisocial. But it's actually the most social and binding of things," he said. "The primal motivation has changed to something I call new tribalism. Young people are looking for rituals that tie them together to a belief structure that is greater than simple consumerism."

The poll found that 15 percent of America's adults have tattoos while 88 percent said they personally know at least one person who has a tattoo.

The survey asked, "Do you think it is a good idea or a bad idea for people to get tattoos or other kinds of permanent skin illustrations on their bodies?" Twenty-two percent said it is a good idea, 59 percent said it is a bad idea and 19 percent were undecided. Only 5 percent of people 65 or older approve of tattooing, compared to 45 percent of young adults.

Federal and private health authorities still issue warnings about the dangers of tattoos obtained in commercial tattoo parlors, although professional artists assure their clients that the rate of infections has declined.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a public health advisory three years ago warning that while the inks used in tattoos are subject to FDA regulation, the government "has not attempted to regulate the use of tattoo inks and the pigments used in them and does not control the actual practice of tattooing."

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone May 4-18 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

Further details of the poll and the operations of the Scripps Survey Research Center can be found at