Are Tattoo Trends Influenced by  Location?

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It’s 2016, and tattoos are popular all over the world. You’d be hard-pressed to find a city that doesn’t have at least one tattoo parlor (although the legitimacy of said tattoo parlor might be in question). What’s been driving this rise in popularity? For one, tattoos are becoming more ubiquitous and losing a lot of the old negative stigma, but a number of factors are also making them more acceptable: pop culture’s influence, religious beliefs and tribal culture, and that same rebellious spirit that’s been driving the tattoo industry for decades. But when you start to look at tattoo trends as determined by location, that’s where things start to get really interesting.

Whether you’re examining how some people like to show their nationality via tattoo, or how others like to get inked in a foreign city to commemorate their trip, it’s fascinating to look at how certain places dictate tattoos trends. Let’s look at a few ways that tattoos trends are created, and some of the more prevalent themes depending on location.

How Tattoo Trends are Formed

It takes a group of people all engaging in the same behavior to make a trend, and all it takes is more than one person deciding to get the same tattoo (or variation) for a trend to grow. One of the earliest tattoo trends was born around the sailors arriving and departing from Hawaii during World War II, many of them getting the traditional anchors (the mark of a sailor) or a pig on the knee (“pig on the knee, safe at sea”). There’s even a Wikipedia entry on “sailor tattoos,” and here’s what it says about the trend’s originator: “Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, was a prolific tattoo artist for sailors. During the Second World War in Honolulu, Hawaii, the red-light district was ablaze with sailors and soldiers about to ship off, and in the very center of this was Collins. His skill and prolific work helped make tattoos an art form in America rather than merely a permanent souvenir for drunken sailors.”

Decades later, the wartime sailors of Honolulu have been replaced by anyone looking to get a “souvenir” on their body forever, particularly if they’re looking to emulate friends or famous celebrities. It only takes one celeb with a cool tattoo for customers to start flocking in to get a replica (think Angelina Jolie’s tiger, or any of Rihanna’s pieces). As Tota Volpe-Landi of London’s Happy Sailor Tattoo says in a Vice UK article, “It’s celebrity culture. Everyone wanted an anchor like Kate Moss for a while. Or the time that Rihanna had the rosary beads with the cross on her foot—generally, someone famous gets it, and then it goes viral.”

Alternatively, the trend happens when something becomes popular online, and BFFs decide they all need to get the same things done together – Volpe-Landi also notes that infinity symbols are huge, as well as “the little arrows, usually on girls, and usually on their ribs. Lots of girls are coming in with a picture of the little arrow they want – always from the same website.” Voila – a grassroots trend is born.

As for how various locations dictate tattoo trends, it generally comes down to whether a location has a predominantly specific culture (such as indigenous), a religion (Bible scripture tattoos, anyone?), or a subculture (think biker towns). Next, let’s take a look at what some of the more popular trends are in specific locations around the world.

Location Specific Trends

If you’re looking at tattoo parlors in major world cities – particularly ones populated by tourists – it’s fairly common to spot people getting tattoos in honor of their trip, or to serve as a memory of the city they were visiting. In the Vice UK piece, Ryan Sean Kelly of The Ink Factory in Dublin notes that, “Obviously working in Dublin means we’re inundated with requests for shamrocks. I’ve probably drawn about a million by now. But the people who want them are usually foreign tourists and are always up for a bit of a laugh.”

The opposite can be true, as well: You’ve likely heard of a Canadian who got a maple leaf tattooed so they can proudly show off their nationality while travelling. It may be more permanent than a flag pin, but for many, it’s a way to forever remind themselves – and others – of their homeland, no matter where they end up in the world.

Area-specific indigenous culture is also a huge influence on what tattoos become popular in what location. In a piece for the National Post, Lisa Colborne of Yellowknife Tattoo describes how a girl is getting a dream-catcher – a traditional tribal symbol – tattooed on her back: “With dream-catchers, there’s actually storytelling involved, depending on how the dreamcatcher is constructed. So she’s got to think about how she wants the tattoo to represent the people in her life. I would say that’s a pretty normal Northern tattoo that people would get up here.”

(Another thing to keep in mind is possibly stepping into racial or cultural appropriation in these areas; although a religious or cultural symbol might seem trendy, it could be considered in bad taste if you get a sacred symbol tattooed simply because it “looks cool” and not if you’re part of the culture. Think before you get inked!)

Of course, sometimes a trend appears that seems almost inexplicable, but tattoo artists from across a wide region can all attest that they’ve tattooed the same design on multiple people. The Vice UK article interviews artists from across Britain, and asks them what tattoos are currently popular in their shops – overwhelming common responses include clocks (Big Ben’s influence?), pocket watches, and owls for men, as well as infinity symbols and semicolons across both genders.

Tattoo trends also stay the same across wider countries like Canada – the National Post piece overwhelmingly mentions the idea of “feathers exploding into birds,” and includes this choice quote from Matthew Houston of Vancouver’s Gastown Tattoo Parlour: “I’ve done a feather exploding into a flock of birds more times than I’ve eaten meals this year.” Where did this image come from? Does a celebrity have it? Is it a popular picture somewhere on the Internet? We might never know – but if you’re getting a piece of feathers exploding into birds, just know that you may not be the only one (at least, not in Canada).

Following Tattoo Trends

For some people, it’s absolutely important that their tattoos are one-of-a-kind and unique only to them. Yet for others, it’s not a big deal to go along with the trends and pick something that’s popular in their hometown, or to get a common tourist-type tattoo done in a foreign city. Whatever you decide to choose, just remember that tattoos may last forever, but trends don’t. No matter where you’re located, be sure you pick a design that means something to you, rather than something that goes along with the crowd.

Have you noticed any common tattoo trends popping up in your city? Tell us about it in the comments!
Contributed By: Eric Korsh, MD has been a licensed physician since 1986.  He is originally from New Jersey and has lived in San Diego since 1997.  Dr. Korsh received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers College and his medical degree from New Jersey Medical School.  He completed a residency at Seton Hall University and a fellowship at Cornell University Medical Center in New York City. His interest in laser tattoo removal is personal and stems from a particularly bad ink job his son Cole had done when he turned 18.  Dr. Korsh is also a certified Laser Safety Officer.


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