BODIES OF INSCRIPTION by Margo DeMello

BODIES OF INSCRIPTION

A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Nonprofit fundraiser and tattoo enthusiast DeMello offers an academic account of the history and evolution of body tattoos

and their sociocultural roles through the years.

Tattooing in North America originated with voyages to the Pacific islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, when explorers

encountered tattooing in the cultures of Tahiti, Polynesia, and New Zealand. The European explorers borrowed the native

islanders’ designs along with their practice, and soon what was thought of as works by savages became more widely accepted.

Sailors’ tattoos were regarded as an exotic symbol of an adventurous, free-spirited lifestyle that appealed to the European working

class; tattooed men and women became popular attractions at freak shows. But it was during the period between the two World

Wars, "the Golden Age of Tattooing," that tattooing achieved its highest level of social approval when the designs became more

patriotic in tone. In the postwar years, tattoos were viewed negatively as a form of defiance for such marginal subcultures as

bikers, gangstas, and hippies. Today, mainstream acceptance has been won through the work of elite tattoo artists, the popular

media, Internet newsgroups, Generation X-ers, and leaders of the tattoo community. Describing the leading designs and sources

of inspiration, and considering how an individual’s choice is motivated by personal preference and peer pressure, DeMello argues

the tattoo’s emergence as "a powerful symbol of affiliation and identity." Although she sets the stage for another revival period

for the tattoo, she has a closer affinity for the more traditional tattooists—who apprenticed with still older artists and treated their

own work like folk art—than the contemporary artisans who rely on tattoo supply companies for equipment and who hearken

back to non-Western designs for an allegedly "primitive" look.

A respectful look at an aspect of pop culture not normally treated in such unsensational terms. (22 b&w photos)

Pub Date: March 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-8223-2432-6
Page count: 248pp
Publisher: Duke Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2000