Lasting impressions: An inked generation

Millenials are turning more and more to tattoos as a way to build personal and social identity. It’s affecting how our employers see us, how we see each other, and how we view ourselves. Body modification and adornment is a part of the identity-building experience, and today’s youth and counterculture are using tattoos in more visible places as a way to do this.

According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of millennials have tattoos, compared to 15 percent of the Baby Boomer population (and 20 percent of total Americans). Thirty percent of these millennials say their tattoos are still visible when fully clothed.

However, tattoos are not a new trend. Body markings have been practiced in many cultures for religious and social purposes since antiquity. Otzi, the world’s oldest mummy found in 1991 in the Italian alps and estimated to have lived around 3200 BCE, is no exception to the tattoo craze – he had 61 of them, to be exact.

In most modern societies, tattoos serve as a way for fringe groups or ideologies to mark themselves as independent – from sailors to Russian prisoners to gang members to neo-Nazis. Even the millions of girls with infinity signs inked on their wrists are in some way trying to disassociate themselves from one group and publicly identify with another.

As tattoos become more mainstream and the taboo decreases, the truly rogue has to creep their marking outward, into more visible places – specifically the face, neck, and hands. Anna Felicity Friedman, a scholar who curates the site Tattoo Historian, believes the face is “the last frontier” of the tattooed. Brian Gutenkast, artist at Bucktown’s Insight Tattoo in Chicago for 20 years, agrees.

“Usually when people come in wanting something in a really visible spot, they’re older and already have a lot of tattoos, usually the fingers and neck are the thing they wait to get the last, because it’s so visible,” Gutenkast said. However, this trend has taken a turn in the younger customers at Insight Tattoo. “Nowadays, I see a lot of young people wanting their first or second tattoo and it’s on their wrist or neck. I would have never seen that in the ‘90s.”

The general consensus continues to be that tattoos on the face or fingers won’t result in anything better than a job in retail or food service. But kids today can see stars like Justin Bieber and Post Malone or models like Kat Von D enjoying success while promoting facial ink.

Face tattoos have become popular with rappers, especially within online communities on the platform SoundCloud. The rapper 6ix9ine has proved you can go multi-platinum with “69” tattooed across your forehead, inspiring many copycats looking for success in the hip- hop underground. Soundcloud musician Arnoldisdead recently got a portrait of Anne Frank tattooed on his cheek.

“A large amount of our clients want their tattoos removed for employment reasons. It depends on the industry they’re in – the military has rules against hand and neck tattoos.” said Dr. Howard Bennett, owner and medical director of Vamoose Tattoo Removal’s two Chicagoland locations.

When it comes to getting a job with a visible tattoo, “Yes, it matters,” Gutenkanst said. “I’m not gonna lie to anyone and tell them it doesn’t”

“I wanted it to be somewhere that would show,” Emily Kuperman, 21, said about the star on right hand. Her first tattoo, a gun on her ribcage, “isn’t really visible with clothes on.”

“It’s just a simple small star so I don’t think it’s anything I could ever, like, really regret.” Kuperman said. “I think it’s cute still. But I wish I’d taken the time to have [the artist] really perfect it and sharpen the edges. But I felt bad and thought I was being too picky or something so I didn’t say anything.”

Gutenkast discussed the moment when someone has tattoo regret while still sitting in the chair. “I’ll be doing an outline, and show them the outline before I move on to fill it in, and they’ll look at it for a while, and with this high pitched voice, ‘Um… you know, I think I actually like it like that. I think it looks great like that,’ and end the session right there.”

“For those who grow to dislike their tattoos, they have the options of cover-up and laser removal,” Gutenkast said. Insight offers both services, although customers tend to choose coverup, which is faster and cheaper.

The business of tattoo removal is huge, and is expected to double in value to over $20 billion by 2025. But the same 2016 study from Harris Interactive also shows that most people don’t regret their tattoos – less than a third say they’ve grown to dislike their ink. In fact, people with tattoos say that they give them a sense of confidence, and help establish their sense of self and identity.

“We have all kinds of people coming in wanting all kinds of tattoos removed for very different reasons,” said Bennett, who has been operating Vamoose Tattoo Removal for five years. “We don’t try and dig too deep or ask them ‘why?’ because it’s really not our business and tattoos and tattoo removal is really personal for a lot of people. Of course we have some classic cases we see a lot, like the tribal symbols or the band of flames around the arm which were both popular in the nineties but haven’t aged so well. And the names of ex-boyfriends or ex-wives. The really messed up ones that were clearly done by someone’s friend and not a tattoo artist.”

Madelyn Colvin got her first tattoo on the back of her neck when she was 18,a week before she moved from a small town in Michigan to Chicago to attend DePaul. The tattoo represents the spiritual law of karma and was modeled after a tattoo artist Corvin liked who had the symbol on her hand. “I knew that I always wanted a tattoo and when I finally came of legal age to get one, it was just the one I decided to go with.”

“I do regret the tattoo on my neck a bit. It feels appropriate to me now and I always cringe whenever someone asks me what it means – which understandably happens a lot,” Colvin said. Given the tattoo’s size and Corvin’s short hair that doesn’t go past her neck, it’s easy to notice.

“My first tattoo I got when I was 19  was two letters on the back of my neck, the initials of someone close to me who passed away,” said Clyde Munroe, a former DePaul student and videographer for Interscope Records. She now has six tattoos in total, five of which are on her arms. “I chose them to be in places that were semi-visible, where I could show them off if I wanted but also cover the up if the time ever came for that.”

Munroe struggles to think of a situation for which she would want to cover her tattoos. “Dinner with my grandma, maybe. But that’s pretty much it,” Munroe said. “Working in the film and music industry I’ve never worried that it would affect my career or job prospects.” Munroe dropped out of DePaul during her junior year to accept a full-time job offer at Interscope Records in Los Angeles.

Munroe brings up a good point. Whether your tattoos might affect your social or career prospects depends on your lifestyle and field of work. Many other millenials with visible tattoos confirmed this feeling to me, such as Zane Taylor, a 21-year-old college student whose first tattoo was a large patch of flowers on his forearm.

“For the longest time I hesitated to get this tattoo because I was worried I would regret it later for a job or something.” Taylor said. “But then I had this realization that any office environment that looked down on an arm tattoo of flowers is not a place I want to be working in the first place. So it’s almost like a cool little way to weed out who you even want to be around. If you don’t f*ck with my tats I don’t f*ck with you either.