In the distant past, tattoos had the smallest modicum of acceptance, primarily based on the people who wore them. When military men came back to the States after serving overseas, it was difficult to express too much negativity about the names of their sweethearts or “Mom and Dad” emblazoned on their arms. It’s likely that the acceptance was more for the wearer than the tattoo, though, for tattoos had not attained a degree of respectability with the American public in general. As syphilis became more widespread, and with the less-than-sanitary tattooing procedures adding to its increase, New York City eventually banned tattooing, and did not make the practice legal again until 1997.
As disdain for the military began to spread across the United States, so did a new counter-culture. To most Americans during that time-period, the word “tattoo” was synonymous for those who were outside of the mainstream of America, thumbing their noses at society. It brought to mind the fringe-element of undesirables, from the widely-movie “Easy Rider” to the infamous Hell’s Angels. Greasy individuals who rode motorcycles and displayed obnoxious artwork on various parts of their bodies– bikers were only “cool” amongst their own kind, and thought of in a very unfavorable light by most of the American population. In general, tattoos were limited to that range of individuals; and both the bikers and their “sleeves” was something the population at large preferred to do without.
Although in some locales, especially those with Navy bases, tattoos continued to enjoy a moderate degree of acceptance throughout the ‘seventies, they still were not considered a respectable means of personal expression within the mainstream population. The younger generation who lived in these areas, with the usual curiosity of youth, often frequented tattoo parlors and began to make tattoos a part of their lifestyle. As these were usually young adults whose lifestyle included drug use and too much alcohol, their embracing the practice of tattoos did not assist in convincing the older generation that there was anything positive about it. One tattoo artist who practiced in the Navy town of Port Hueneme, California, remarked that the types of individuals whose lifestyle included tattoos were the kind of people who “don’t usually make it to forty years old.”
Also commenting that tattoos are “a fever,” he shed some light on the most negative aspects of this practice. Even though by law artists were not supposed to do such artwork on individuals who were in any state of intoxication, his clients were usually in either of two categories: those who requested tattoos while seriously under-the-influence, and the fainters. His tattoo studio had a large couch for the benefit of the latter. Young drug users and Navy men made up the majority of his customers.
It was not until the early eighties that tattoos began to gain positive exposure. With the Long Island based band “The Stray Cats” appearing on the cover of the music magazine Rolling Stone, not only did this bring the rockabilly music style back into popularity it was also one of the first steps in helping tattoos gain widespread appeal. In stepping away from the coarse music of that particular time-period, the Stray Cats’ scope was that of good clean music and good clean fun; and tattoos were a part of that image. Suddenly everybody wanted to be a part of it all, including the tattoos; and although it was often to the chagrin of the older generation, tattoos began to have less negativity attached to them.
As tattoos ceased to be solely connected to the counter-culture, they started to appear on everybody. In the following years they started showing up on average Americans all across the United States. Tattoo studios sprung up in cities that had colleges and universities, making tattoos an accepted part of life for students. As the people in that age group became older, their tattoos remained, as well as the interest in tattoos developing amongst the newer younger generation. In most parts of the United States they are now commonplace, and considered to be just a basic form of self-expression.