Tattoos, once the body art of choice for sailors, motorcycle gang members and other tough guys, have gone mainstream. As evidenced by any trip to the beach, tattoos are literally everywhere on today's youth. According to a Harris poll, almost one out of five Americans has tattoos, and, unlike the past, women are just as likely as men get to get tattooed, or "inked." VOA's Adam Phillips takes a look.

There are some common, all-too-human reasons why people choose to get "inked," whatever their gender.  For some, it is a broken heart. Others want to celebrate the birth of a child. Others just want to express some teenage angst.

According to master tattooist Scott Campbell, the proprietor of the upscale "Saved Tattoo" parlor in Brooklyn, people who get tattooed usually "have something they want to communicate with the rest of the world and tattooing is a way of putting a message out there."

There are plenty of ways to express that message. On Campbell's walls are displays of tattoo stencils and fantastical drawings varied enough to suit almost any customer - from wild fire-eating dragons to Polynesian geometrical motifs to portraits of famous artists, poets and playwrights such as Samuel Beckett. 

Memorial to a Loved One

Nick, a bicyclist from San Francisco, is preparing to get a giant tattoo of a redwood tree on his side. He says it will be in memory of his late brother, an avid California outdoorsman.

"My feelings for my brother and how much I loved him and cared about him are going to be with me for the rest of my life," he says.  "Now I can wake up in the morning, put my shirt on [see the redwood tree] tattoo and say 'Yeah! There is that thing my brother loved.'"

Nick's friend Liz has nearly life-sized owls grasping dandelions and thistles tattooed on her hips. She says they symbolize the wisdom and endurance she needed after a bad breakup. And Liz is especially proud of a large tattoo on her left arm, rendered in the style of a traditional Chinese watercolor.

"I originally started with just this bird," she says, pointing to the multi-colored image. "And it sort of has a seasonal theme where it's spring and then summer. And then, just two weeks ago, I got the top part finished with the winter and the fall with the horse and the rabbits."

For Liz says it is not the symbolism, but the style of the tattoo, that appeals to her most.

In Search of a Unique Image 

Personal styling in tattoos is important to today's young adults. Even a decade ago, many were content to get a simple rose, a butterfly, or some other stock tattoo image from a book. "That's no longer true," says Anna D'Agrosa, a consumer trends expert at the Zandl Group  in New York, who sports a visible and a hidden tattoo of her own.

"What we're finding is that young adults are not necessarily hopping into a tattoo shop on a Friday night, unplanned, and picking out something off the wall." "Rather," says D'Agrosa,  "they're intricately designing and thinking about what they want, and really planning it."

Because tattoos are permanent, caution is the byword for Jamie Dwyer, 29. Like many in his generation, he chose his first tattoo impulsively. So he carefully designed his next tattoo himself; it's an abstract pattern of leaves, birds and geometric shapes that covers parts of his right arm and shoulder. It took about six months to settle on that design.     
"It's my artwork. And that that's important to me, as far as choosing something that's going to be with you for the rest of your life." 

Customer trust is something that Myles Karr, a master tattooist with a giant octopus and fireflies on his arm, takes seriously. "You are working in an industry where there are no mistakes [and]  ?  no going backwards. You have to take your time and make sure it looks good!"

Modern health regulations require that tattoo shops keep their equipment clean. Needles must be sterile to prevent skin infections, blood borne diseases and other problems.

Tattoo Culture Steeped in Superstition

However, many aficionados still feel a nostalgic connection to American tattooing's early days, when sailors would get drunk in foreign ports and stumble into a back alley parlor. They'd emerge with crude hearts and anchors etched on their arms, or huge tattoo portraits of Jesus across their backs so their shipboard taskmasters might be a bit gentler when lashing them.

"There are all kinds of really amazing superstitions and stories that evolved from that culture," says tattooist Scott Campbell. "For example, old sailors used to get a rooster on one foot and a pig on the other foot and supposedly that was to protect you from drowning. Who knows how that got started?"

Campbell acknowledges that we live in a different era, but adds  "I'm still very proud to be a part of tattooing because of the history it has, and whatever it has evolved into now,"

Outsider Appeal Continues

Today, tattoos are part of the American mainstream. Some celebrities wear them proudly, and there are reality TV shows devoted to the art. Yet tattoos still retain some of their outsider appeal. They are popular with outlaw motorcycle clubs like the Hell's Angels, street gangs and prisoners.

Beau Velasco is a highly respected tattoo artist at the Black Ink Tattoo Gallery in Harlem whose body bears inked patterns and scrawls almost everywhere except his face. He says when he was a boy, he admired pirates, and that that, in a sense, is who he has grown up to be.

"By getting fully tattooed, past your collar line and down your hands, you are pretty much saying to the world 'I am not prepared to fall into line, with a regular 'nine to five' rat race sort of job," Velasco says with a chuckle. "It's your commitment to yourself to 'keep it real.'"