Once domain of sailors, tattoos now part of mainstream

Wed Jul 15, 2009 11:51am EDT
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By Nick Olivari

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The sad lament of every great tattoo artist is that their work will never be preserved for future generations -- their canvases die and turn to dust sooner than almost any other medium.

But Jeff Johnson, author of "Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink" and co-owner of The Sea Tramp Tattoo Company in Portland, Oregon, still loves to go to work.

"It's the people," said Johnson, 39, of his 18 years in the business. "You sit down with strangers and hear where they came from, about their jobs, hear their stories."

The people he sees represent a greater cross section of society than ever before with tattoos, once the domain of outlaw bikers and sailors, very much a part of the mainstream.

About 36 percent of Americans between age 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo. Of those aged 26 to 40, some 40 percent have a tattoo, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center.

"College students to physicians, weirdo bikers to BMW mechanics," Johnson said of his clientele.

The most memorable for Johnson was an 88-year-old woman suffering arthritis five years ago. The woman, who could no longer wear jewelry, had Johnson tattoo the image of one her bracelets on a wrist.

Tattooing is more popular because Western society has become homogenous, Johnson said, and a tattoo is individual.   Continued...

<p>A tattoo by Jeff Johnson is seen in this undated handout photograph released July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Jeff Johnson/Handout</p>