My husband, age almost-40, is hiding his tattoo from his parents. It's not his first, but they hated the first three so much that he's avoiding the tsk-tsks about the decoration now adorning his right shoulder. This amuses me. I can't get inked myself because I have keloids, a tendency for skin to over-produce scar tissue. I like to imagine that makes me objective when considering the meaning of tattoos, and my sweetie-pie in-laws must be the very last people for whom they signify the seedy margins of society.
In the summer we see a lot more of our fellow citizens, in part because we leave the house more and in part because everyone wears less clothing. Every other bare limb in my vision seems to be tattooed. Bike couriers, office managers and stay-at-home moms are all equally likely to be tatted, and it's a crapshoot as to which among them is displaying a naked lady, a red maple leaf or a cutesy-pie cupcake. Since I've never had a chance to contemplate tats (or piercings, or bum implants), I sit around judging whose body art is authentic, trendy, or just plain bad. I'm bored of cursive script, I'm iffy about reproductions of children's drawings, and I'm enamoured of the dude who rides Toronto's Queen streetcar decorated with Godzilla stomping out the Skydome (which has "Skydome" written on it) and attacking the CN Tower.
Once the permanent marker of an outlaw, tattoos are no longer illegal anywhere in North America. Removal, while costly, is an option. So it's easy to say they've lost their cool, especially when pop-star brat Justin Bieber has apparently got at least 80 pieces, making him individually responsible for eliminating a good percentage of the practice's renegade credibility.
Police officers are almost as likely to display serious ink as are criminals, and a 2013 labour decision gave Ottawa Hospital nurses the right to display their neck art while administering IVs. Pioneering tattoo artist Ed Hardy now hawks Jersey Shore-esque t-shirts and is responsible for turning Sailor Jerry into a mass-market rum (the sailor thing is definitely over, and I know because my toddler friend was just rocking a rub-on tattoo of Hello Kitty sitting on an anchor).
On the other sleeve, many tattoos are incredibly beautiful. While a handful of my friends regret the small, smudgy mementos of their twenties, far more of them display vibrant, thoughtful pieces with deep personal significance. A good tattoo is still a confident declaration of the wearer's personal aesthetic, a certainty that even as life brings its inevitable changes, they'll want to show the journeys they've taken. Many of the best artists justifiably have rabid followings, who book them weeks or months in advance, and pay hundreds, or thousands, for their skills.
Bouncing over to another 2010s trend, last spring a couple of evolutionary scientists declared that we'd reached "peak beard." Apparently, when face fuzz was a rarity, it highlighted particularly masculine specimens and lent wearers a special Darwinian advantage. But each new hairy chin diminished those erotic returns, and beards have moved from signaling "manly individual" to "bandwagon jumper," a less sexy proposition.
I'm going to declare that we've reached peak ink, and that tattoos are travelling on the downward slope of the 30-year fashion cycle. The mere act of letting a sharp needle pierce and mark your delicate skin is no longer enough to prove your edgy individuality, and formerly badass body art is acquiring a nostalgic, sepia tinge. As the old adage goes, you can buy fashion, but you can't buy style. When your grandchildren trawl through your old Instagrams, I hope your body ink looks timeless, not dated.