The point of tattoos: taking on time, stigma and gender

By Ryleigh Norgrove & Madelyn Jones
Features Editor & Lifestyles Editor

In American culture, tattoos have been a symbol of class, character and values. As millennials enter the workforce, the attitude about tattoos has shifted from one of general distaste to a social normality. Most if not all people have strong opinions on the subject, as tattoos are an individual and personal endeavor.

The origin of the word tattoo is still debated, though it is thought to be derived from the Polynesian “ta,” which means “to strike,” in combination with “tatau,” meaning “to mark.” The role of tattoos and body modifications in ancient civilizations is also debated, though in 1991 a fossil with over 57 tattoos was discovered. The fossil was discovered by German hikers in the Otzal Alps and was carbon dated has more than 5,300 years old.

The community has grown larger over the years as now people are getting tattooed more and more often, especially millennials. Growth of any community comes along with social changes and important conversations. We talked to some local tattoo artists and students to take a look into their experiences with tattoos.



Tattoos in general are eye catching, and it is not uncommon for people (especially females) to receive unwanted attention because of this. In social situations, having a tattoo can be seen as an invitation to ask questions.

One of the biggest questions tattooed people get is, “What does it mean?” It often seems like people, ones that are tattooed and ones that are not alike, feel like you need a deep, personal meaning to justify getting tattooed. However, while that is true for some, it is not for others.

For example, Asalia Arauz (‘19) said, “For the most part each one has a meaning or has been inspired by where I am/have been in my life.”

Zoë Jordan Oketch-Oduwo (‘20) explained another type of thinking that is also popular in the community, saying, “I don’t think your tattoos need meaning, I think they just have to be true to you. We are constantly changing and developing as humans and I feel tattoos can just be memories of who you were when you got the tattoo. They don’t have to have outside meaning attached, why can’t they just be good enough for you to love and appreciate?”

It is also not at all uncommon for people to have some tattoos that have deep, personal meanings, and others that are solely decoration.

It is important to remember these two ways of thinking when you are asking someone the meaning behind their tattoos. First, before you even ask, consider your relationship to the person and if you think it is actually your place to ask.

Some tattoos have incredibly personal stories behind that the owner might not want to share. No one is entitled to hearing the story. Even though the owner can always say they don’t want to talk about it, it can put them in a stressful situation or make them feel like they are obligated to. If this is your first conversation with the person or you do not know them well, consider not asking this potentially deeply personal question.

Giving voice to those experiences, Liam Chambers (‘21) expressed, “I know it’s generally a harmless question that comes from a good place, and people are curious about this subject that means so much to me. But usually when I feel like I’m put in a position to explain something with deep meaning to me, I feel as though I don’t give enough credit to the idea that motivated me, or that something very important to me is under fire.”

On the other hand, if you ask the meaning, someone might respond with the sentiment that it doesn’t have a meaning, they just wanted it. Even if you do not like this answer, remember that it is their body and as long as their tattoo isn’t offensive or inappropriate, as long as they like it that is all that matters.



Tattooing like any industry, grows and evolves with the times. The tattooing community is not excluded from unhealthy gender-based treatment, for both clients and artists. However, in line with the #MeToo and Hollywood’s #Times Up movement, we are seeing the tattoo community push back against abusers and various forms of gender discrimination. Now more than ever, people are telling their stories and exposing abuser’s names.

Platforms have been created to get survivor’s stories viewed by many and to allow more people to know what tattoo artists have acted as abusers. One such platform is the Instagram account @watchdogtattoos. While the page was not started long ago, it already has 25,300 followers.

A photo on their page was accompanied with a caption that explains its purpose as: “This page simply advocates awareness of predators in the tattoo industry and to connect survivors to resources.”

Women who pursue a career in tattooing can also face roadblocks and inappropriate behavior that male counterparts do not usually experience. Similar gender-based treatment appears in most communities, but here are some examples as to how it manifests in this community.

Becca Nushell, a tattoo artist at the Oregon Body Art Center, spoke to a point in her career where she was treated unfairly in a studio she used to work at.

“I did work at a shop where the guy, when I got hired, told me it was a boys’ club, and I didn’t really understand what he meant at first and then I realized as I worked there it was because he was going to treat me like less because I was female… I worked there for about a year before I just couldn’t put up with it any more. I don’t like being down talked just because I am a female, and told I’m no good just because I’m female.”

She also spoke of a time where a woman told her that her husband would not be tattooed by a woman. Nushell pointed out the inherent sexism in that thinking, saying, “I don’t know what your gender has to do with the art that you do and the style that you do. I think that’s more important about picking the artist than the gender.”

She continued to explain that now she tattoos just as many male-identifying clients as female-identifying ones. However, some women will specifically seek out another woman artist.

“They want more personal tattoos [and to] that they feel more comfortable,” she explained.



Over the last thirty years, tattoos have become increasingly popular. Thus, the tattooing industry has grown and evolved with the society it serves. At first, tattoos were often seen as an act of social rebellion and associated with both labor unions and military men. Where and when a person is tattooed has great influence on the type of ink.

Like any industry, trends come and go. “We all remember the dolphins and the tattoos around the bellybuttons in the 90s when everyone was picking things off the wall,” said Nushell.

The internet and social media has also influenced trends in the industry. Inspiration boards and art sharing sites have greatly influenced how tattoos are chosen. “Now everyone is picking things off of Pinterest so whatever is popular on Pinterest is what’s popular so you’ll see a bunch of dragons in a wave, then a bunch of infinity symbols,” said Nushell.

As for current trends, they lean towards individuality and expression. “Right now people are really trying to be individualized. Right now we’ve got a lot of people who want very custom stuff, which is fun for me. I don’t really like doing things that people bring in, and they are like I want it exactly like this. I like to customize things and make them my own,” said Nushell.

The Internet has also helped transform the perception of tattooing at tattooed people. Since people are appreciating it as a visual form, tattooing is growing into its own as an artform. “I personally like that tattooing is going more in the direction of fine art, and hope it continues that path,” said Willamette alum Delan Canclini, owner and artist of Sa-lem’s The Underground Ink.

Both artists talked about how people are more often seeking custom art. While flash sheets— pre-drawn tattoos that are usually chosen by and tattooed on many people— are still popular, custom tattoos are in increasingly high demand. For these tattoos, clients usually describe their idea and the artists bring it to life. Sometimes people even let their artist run wild and give them a lot, or sometimes full, artistic freedom.



It is no secret that millennials are the most accepting generation when it comes to tattoos in the United States. However, this acceptance has also inspired people belonging to older generations to change their negative perspective.

“My mom definitely was not very accepting of my career when I first got into it, now she loves it and she thinks it’s great,” explained Nushell.

In older generations it was common to see someone with tattoos and judge them to be criminals or bad people because that is what they were associated with. However, it is getting harder to maintain that association with the amount of people that have them and have respected professions and stations in society.

Many students have felt the push and pull across generations. Arauz spoke to this, saying, “Most of my friends were really excited to see my tattoos they always like to hear the story behind them or when I got them. My family was a bit more different. My abuela was not to excited but she didn’t say much other than to not get anymore, my Dad was a bit more vocal about my not getting tattoos in super visible places and he never asks me why I get them nor attempts to talk about them.”

Zoë Jordan Oketch-Oduwo (‘20) was the first in her family to be tattooed, and spoke to this experience saying, “No one in my family has tattoos except for me! My parents are foreigners from very conservative backgrounds and by the time they were open to the idea of tattoos, they had grown out of wanting to get one.”

That being said, her family was very accepting of her artwork. “My mom and aunt actually took me to get my first one and they were very chill about it. I liked that I didn’t have to hide it from anyone. All of my extended family responded well to it too! My second one I did without telling anyone and they still were okay with it, which was surprising to me!” she explained.

A major reason people tell you not to get tattooed is because they believe it might bar you from being hired. However, “More people have tattoos on their faces and hands and can get jobs in regular places,” explained Nushell.

“I tattooed my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. She comes in and she brings her friends and the teachers at the school love to talk to my daughter about the fact that they are getting tattooed by me,” Nushell continued.

Of course, it is still not bad idea to think about if a tattoo will make you less employable before you get it.

“I would like to imagine that the social feeling around tattoos is becoming more positive and inclusive, so that people don’t have to worry about getting tattoos and getting a ‘good’ job or being profiled as dangerous and less professional, especially when thinking of certain cultures that use tattoos in ritualistic, traditional and/or celebratory ways,” said Arauz.

However, if tattoos continue to grow as they have been and more people get them in noticeable places, people still need to be hired and it will be less of a problem if it is more common. As millenials grow older and are granted more positions of power, they will probably hire more people with noticeable tattoos since they belong to a generation with much less bias against them.

In general we’d hope that employers are moving away from things such as gender, appearance, and other physical characteristics to determine who to hire. In theory, these things should be determined by one’s credibility, experience and work ethic. Outward appearances do not always determine one’s character. Tattoos as a notorious grey area, on one hand they can demonstrate one’s creativity or acceptance of their body. On the other, they were originally associated with labor unions and members of the armed forces, so to see a 5’3 girl with tattoos defies these social conventions. Whether you see this as a negative or positive thing is your opinion, but it shouldn’t affect how someone contributes to the workplace.

As for acceptance within the community, many artists have found a group they feel easily accepted into and happy in. “I started six years ago so my feelings of ‘acceptance’ haven’t really changed. I have always felt like I found my home when I found tattoo-ng and no one has made me feel otherwise,” Canclini explained.



Looking forward, tattoos are on the track to become more thoroughly accepted in society. While it is not currently too common to see the elderly with tattoos, as current younger generations age. That will no longer be an uncommon sight. If tattoos remain popular in upcoming generations, and it is hard to imagine an art form with so much history disappear any time soon, that will mean a larger amount of tattooed people than ever. More visibility almost always comes with more acceptance.

As for the industry in general, Canclini predicts more social acceptance. “In the future of tattooing… [there] will probably [be] slight technological advances. It really hasn’t changed much in a century except sanitation, and definitely more social growth. More people are getting them and they are becoming more accepted in the workplace.”

That does not mean people are not trying to develop new techniques and types of ink, they just might not prove to be popular or stick around.

Nushell explained an example of an invention she does not think will take off: “A lot of people are telling me about the tattoo machines that tattoo automatically, I don’t think those are going to go anywhere… There is something different about personal art that someone creates then being stamped by a computer.”

Following Canclini’s idea that tattoos are following the fine art track, Nushell commented that artist quality will continue to improve because, “there are so many people willing to help you, it’s not trade secrets any more… so people are advancing really quickly.”

When artists’ talent are more fully recognized, Nushell believes, “people are going to be more trusting of their tattoo artists… [There will be less of] I want this exact piece and I want it right here. There will be more this is my idea, what can we come up with.” While people already do this, more people are likely to start as the experience of getting tattooed becomes increasingly becomes more mainstream.



Humanity has always been wrapped up in images, and now more than ever we place value upon iconography. Whether it be cave paintings, street art or tattooing, iconography has held a prominent role in our traditions, ceremonies and cultures. With the expansion of social media, it is no surprise we’ve taken images from the screen to our skin. As more and more tattooed millennials enter the workforce, the perception of tattooed individuals is shifting. Tattooed individuals hold less of a negative connotation in the workplace, and are seen as individuals, separate from their ink.

While these changes are positive, it is important to remember that body modification is a personal and intimate process. As the perception of tattooed individuals changes, so will the etiquette when asking about someone’s artwork. As time goes on, tattooing will most likely continue to expand into the world of fine art, and be recognized as a valid form of expression for both artist and client.



To get tattooed by Delan Canclini, visit The Underground Ink at 189 N. Liberty St. B7, Salem, OR 9730. To take a look at his portfolio you can visit their website or find his Instagram at @delan_c.

“[We] specialize in custom artwork and unique tattoos… if anyone has questions about tattoos, the process, or anything else to let me know,” he said.

You can find Becca Nushell at Oregon Body Art Center, 1705 State St, Salem, OR 97301. Her favorite style of tattoos are watercolor or ones that have bright colors. She also is the host of Tiny Tattoo Tuesday, a popular event around Willamette students. You can schedule a free consultation with her on the website Schedulicity at Tattoos by Becca Nushell. Her Instagram is @tattoos-bybecca and Facebook is Tattoos by Becca Nushell.