The Evolution of Western Tattooing
Posted in ArticlesFor ArtistsTattoo Philosophy

I’ve had a weird summer but things have been in flux for almost 2 years now. Most of this coincides with my having children (who are fantastic) and being forced to travel a lot for work.

Along with these major life changes, I have also been going to school and doing a lot of reading about philosophical ideas. Lately, I have been reading some of the works from Peter Singer (Act Utilitarian). He is famous for many different thought experiments over the past 40+ years but the one I felt compelled to toss into this article was the drowning child problem. (Rewritten for simplicity – Source)

This experiment has many aspects but I will take only a single part of it to make a point further on:

“If you were walking by a stream and saw a child had fallen into the stream, would you stop and save that child from drowning?”

If you were to answer, “Yes, I would stop and save that child from drowning!”, ask yourself: Why?

Why would you take time out of your day, when your happiness and energies could be better spent increasing the experiences you only have one chance to obtain in this lifetime? If you spend time helping this child in need, you will never get that time back. How can you be sure that the child is a good person (here and forever forward) or that they will have a life of value? You have no idea. Yet, in most people’s case, they would take action to save a child because they are not (or do not want to be considered) what society would label a monster or heartless person.

I may have taken a bit of a leap there but, as a society (local or global), we look to the children as something pure and malleable. They are something that has been untouched by the efforts of work-life balance or the politic that make up our daily existence.

So let’s take another run at the previous thought experiment:

What if you are walking by a stream and you see two children drowning. You only have the ability to save a single child at a time. In saving one child you may neglect the other so there’s a chance that the other could perish.

If confronted with this dilemma, how would you act? How would you triage this? Would you check to see if one was bigger than the other in hopes that the bigger one may be able to save itself? Do you go to the closer or further one? Do you save a child based on hair color? Do you let them both drown? What if one was your own child? Or both?


Dark lit lake

Regardless of any action taken in this situation, a rational person must always attempt the best possible outcome, for any and all involved. Their actions must result in what gives the greatest utility to those involved, regardless of how it affects themselves. Without this effort, society is prone to disruption as the efforts of the individual fracture from the cohesion necessary for mutual benefit in society. When removing the idea of an individual ego, we are forced to look outside our own worldview to see how our actions create positives or negatives. This can be applied universally among groups of people, or people and the environment that they exist within.

The practice of considering what is good and bad by picking apart our actions seems to be less organic than it had in the past. In more recent years, I have observed a loss of identity, a greater hive-mind collective and a less objective society. Given our thought experiment above, I think there would be a greater crisis among members of society when presented with the need for immediate action. I believe this is due, in larger part, to social networks and the identity manufacturing that accompanies the use of such technology.


Social Networks

Our use of technology has been of benefit in many ways. We have been able to advance progress in every field of study. Schools are offered via institutions that have gone online; We can send correspondence across the world in milliseconds and we are able to modify genetic structures to assume a godlike control of the physical world. In most ways, technology has been of benefit for society but when applied individualistically, our lives have become a shadow of what is required to be a social being. Our use of social networks has removed the social aspects of society and is leading to the destruction of individuality altogether.

There are a few aspects of ethics and social networks that we can go over. First I look at social network. What I think is absurd about it and what people can do to avoid being sucked into the marketing machine I assume it to be. After that, a bit about language and how we can never be confident when presented with written/texted/typed representations. Finally we will look at what it means to be a responsible person when using these forms of social connections. Throughout this essay I will point out how to critically examine this social network machine and why we should offer a harsh critique to this new aspect of society.


Social Media and Responsible Viewing – My perspective

Social media is a linchpin of interpersonal connectedness in our modern world. Global citizens focus large amounts of their lives on the assumptions others will make when viewing an online portfolio of statements, pictures or videos of their lives. This exclusive access (in some ways, depending on your security settings) gives voyeurs an insight into your life. Your followers and prowlers can choose to live vicariously through you and you never know what they are up to behind their digital device’s screen..

The idea of being a “follower” of a person or brand has always struck me as weird, maybe even a little awkward. In fact, as soon as I had written “follower” above, with those appended quotation marks, I felt a little sick. Why is it that without these markings I am less provoked by an emotional response but with them I feel more separate from the connection? If we look to the past, in our societies, the label of being a “follower” had been attached to something crazy like Purple Kool-Aid or compounds with militant weapon caches. It was a descriptor that labeled a person as being unable to think for themselves.

Followers were always an integral part of a larger mass that, while being led, shook the critical inquiry that accompanies life and disposed the efforts of free thinking while idolizing individuals that benefited from their obeisance. Our lives now fit perfectly into the idea of being a “follower” and we choose to propagate this lack of critical thinking.


From tattooing to social media

I work as a tattoo artist and part time as a thinker. My focus in the tattoo industry is putting what you think looks good into your skin. It is a permanent adornment that creates a myriad of emotions for some, and is quasi cathartic to me when doing a procedure. As tattooers, we utilize artistic skills and technical knowledge to make our clients happy – when they have the urge to make a permanent change to their body. As a free thinker I am always trying to understand what surrounds me and what my place in the world is. Combining these two efforts has been very difficult at times as I am forced to reconcile my want for understanding with the needs of my clientele.

As a tattoo artist, the focus for the business in modern times has been trying to figure out how best to adorn our clients body with an ageless piece of art. When we make a design for the skin we are always looking forward to ensure a tattoo looks great for the next 15+ years.
At least, this had been our effort in the past. We have slowly evolved away from this effort due to the amount of knowledge necessary when designing a piece. It is an insanely difficult endeavor.


Becoming a craftsperson

Growing as an artist combined the study and effort of generations who previously made mistakes so that the future could avoid them. The study of art, tattooing and the body was an immersive experience, wherein people wishing to achieve a mastery were forced to learn all aspects of the trade to become proficient. Once proficiency was obtained, a person practicing the craft was forced to understand their place in the industry. They developed their own “voice” in their artwork and honed this application so they could master their process. This process, once mastered, could be passed down to future generations and the art would evolve to fit a best practice that would ensure survivability and growth of the art form.

A mastery in tattooing included making pigment and needles; understanding and developing your tools of use; drafting and application of art to skin and the actual procedure; client management and running your business. Since the inception of regional and national supply companies, this practice of evolving a personal mastery has slowly devolved and an art-centric focus. The idea of mastery has shifted from the total knowledge accrued in a lifetime’s work to something that can be obtained through social media acceptance and a single applicable style of art. An artisan’s efforts can be so focused that mastery can be achieved in as little as a year.


Short term benefits

The industry has evolved away from mastery due to the inconvenience of time in everyday life. In many ways, it has become easier to learn with the invention of technologies that make designing a tattoo far easier. We also have the ability to capture lost hours with premade, pre dispersed pigments (although the safety of such products is of question), premade needles and, what are treated as disposable tattoo machines and supplies, that can be delivered to your door in a matter of days. Suppliers became an integral part of the operations and, in time, grew to service the entire industry, on demand.

With an increased amount of free time, what were tattoo artists in search of a mastery going to do to fill the time? Newly freed time was applied to becoming a better artist and learning how better to market their products. This is not as it always was…

This shift in free time occurred (in the west) at about the same time media started showcasing a new wave of personalities who sported tattoos. After that, television shows started to come out that introduced legions of captivated viewers the inner workings of a tattoo shop and, through careful manipulations and editing, humanized the tattoo artist. What was once considered an evil, drug-riddled trade for bikers and sailors, was being broadcast on networks across the globe. Viewers were given the chance to learn about the trade, become attached to the artist’s personal struggles and see that tattooing wasn’t occupied by fat-white-dudes riding Harleys. It was the normal folk that were getting tattooed.

This progress of acceptance was amazing for the wallets of those who were already established, competent artists. The influx of tattoo clientele created a ripple effect, where shops that were previously hidden in a basement or the back of a barber shop, were expanding into strip malls and large common areas. The money rolling in was exponentially greater than anything that had been seen before. It was like a biker rally on steroids, and it was happening everyday, all year long.

With the exposure granted by TV and massive marketing campaigns, most tattoo shops became a place where hopeful artists would flock so as to gain a chance to be like the new stars on TV. Walking into a shop in the early 2000’s was not comparable to how things looked in the 80’s and 90’s. Church groups getting a tattoo for God were sitting next to Hells Angels getting a tattoo for Satan, and the hopeful apprentices walked into a scene that secreted a different lifestyle than previous generations. The industry was in the midst of an evolution.


The evolution

The free time that had been granted by the supply companies was again absent from the lives of tattoo artists everywhere as clients packed tattoo shop floors. Demands for new and exciting artwork forced tattooers to evolve into offering custom designs, otherwise they would lose the newly found financial security granted to them. That peaceful nights and weekdays off had vanished. They were being replaced with something tattooers were not prepared for:

Artwork. Lots of artwork.

With this influx of new client demands, shop owners were hungry to open up apprenticeships so new tattooers could fulfil the wants of clientele. Contrary to the demand placed on shop owners, the industry did not become easier to break into. Even if they were desperate, shop owners were what we call now, “old school”, and they were prone to distrusting new people in their shops. They had learned a trade that was far different than the one they resided in and, being overrun with new demands, they were a little cranky about the swift evolution of the industry. It became very difficult to train a new apprentice as the traditional tools and tricks one needed to acquire in an apprenticeship were, at times, meaningless or outdated. Couple this with the shop owners having been thrust into a position of needing to develop new skills, the apprentices were in a unique position to advocate for an exchange.

As soon as they were done scrubbing the toilet.


The exchange and eventual breakdown of the system

Most apprentices were not being utilized to the best of their abilities during the great expansion (I think I will coin that term for this era of tattooing). With new art being demanded by the increased clientele, apprentices were chosen based on their artistic abilities, as well as how their personalities meshed with shop owners. Artists were chosen based on what they were capable of artistically, not on their drive to become craftspeople. Due to this change, shop owners were placed in a role where the power dynamic would become upended and the masters of old were placed on a pedestal next to their apprentices.

In traditional apprenticeships, the master has acquired all necessary fundamental knowledge that will be passed down, as well as their own individual expression of the craft the have mastered. The apprentice is forced to learn by watching and asking questions. The apprentice is forced to learn at their own speed by slowly learning the foundational elements of the craft. But when confronted with the great expansion, shop owners were forced to take a demotion (in a way).

The master’s skills in artistry were subpar in comparison to those their agreed to train. They were put in a place where the apprentice, who had been chosen solely on how much the master was able to learn from their association, held as much power as the shop owner. The master and apprentice had become equals, and in doing so, masters, in desperate need of education, instilled a level of competency that was unearned by the new apprentice. It became easier for a new apprentice to challenge the master and, when conflicts arose, the exit of the apprentice did not accompany their exit from the industry, as it had in the past.


Tattoo Artists – The new masters

As the industry evolved and apprentices were forced out of shops that had started their apprenticeship, many of these new talents had little background knowledge of how to obtain mastery in the trade. The trade master being labeled as a tattooers had vanished. The new masters were tattoo artists.

These new masters had been promoted through the apprentice ranks quickly due to the shop owners need to grow as an artist. Their skills were traded for acceptance in the industry and a basic training the encompassed enough to ensure a modicum of quality in the least amount of time.

The new masters had been brought up in a time where “custom was king” and all the efforts of a tattooers were based solely on their artistic abilities. As the industry evolved, the passing of knowledge to the new masters left behind skills necessary to fully understand the craft.

Suppliers came in and filled the want of freedom for time consuming tasks. Shop owners outsourced all aspects of the operations so they could focus on their growth as an artist to meet the demands of clientele. This shift in applied mastery created a new baseline for artists wishing to join the industry. Art comes first. You can learn by mistake. As the new masters evolved and opened shops, previous shop owners were being run out of business by these dismissed, art focused new masters.


A break in the chain

The apprentice leaving with a lack of complete understanding left a rift in place where, historically, the master was invested in the success of their apprentice and was a part of their future expressions of the craft. By creating a situation where apprentices had moved into independent operations before fully understanding the craft, and by granting apprenticeships based solely on what they could take from the new generations, the masters of the past were dismissed and labelled as the outdated problems inside an evolving craft. To the new masters, the artistic skills of the past couldn’t compete with their own and they did not know what had been missed due to an incomplete education. In driving their own need of evolution towards a new expertise, the old masters created an environment where they were made obsolete.

The new masters had come into the craft without a bridge to the past. They were thrust into a position of power in an industry that was growing at an alarming rate. The new masters were left without a foundation for how to educate the next round of apprentices as mastery was only focused on a single aspect of the craft. Their own lack of apprenticeship was now something that had the potential to ruin the industry.

As it happened before, the growth in the industry made it difficult for these new masters to succeed, as they did not have a complete knowledge of the craft. They were bound to the failures of the previous generation, unable to make growth built on a solid foundation, and were forced to adapt to a new way that would leave a large gap in knowledge moving forward. Social media.


The evolution continues

In the last 10 years or so, tattooing has become something that is a part of who we are as individuals and allows us to better define who we are inside society. The efforts of the new masters created an industry in which a client had the freedom to design something that fit their personality. To the new masters, the collaboration between clients and artists was always present in the manufacture of designs. It was their goal to do something unique as this would set them apart from their competition. Not having a master to help guide their efforts had a positive effect on many in the industry in this way as customization became king. The individual voice of artists worldwide became more pronounced and defined the culture of tattooing we see today.

Without being tied to the techniques of the past, artists were able to push the boundaries in how designs were made and how they were applied. Innovations in style were consistently being shown through access made possible via social networks and were supported by the industry suppliers that made increasingly vivid products. These amazing feats of artistic ability led hungry artists, new to the craft, in making attempts to replicate these newly displayed tattoos. We had superstars of art in the industry, sponsored artists and a lifestyle that was being sold as a way to become something bigger and better than what had been seen before.

For the adventurous artist, there had been little effort to guide or instill a sense of mastery in the techniques being developed. Efforts to spread the information to the new generation were being hampered by what some have identified as “trade secrets “that were able to be purchased by going online, attending trade seminars or paying those in control of such knowledge to give wanting artists a tattoo.

For those who were unlucky, or had little funds to chase the information that was for sale, the guidance given was separate from this practice. Those without time or funds were told: practice on paper so you don’t make a mistake in the skin; clients will willingly give you money to learn on them; you can make mistakes; this is how we learn now; you must sacrifice your client to improve; you can be the best if you focus on one aspect of tattooing.


Social media makes it mark

Those in modern tattooing were faced with the dilemma of training the next generation of masters as the industry continued to grow and evolve. Art was still at the forefront and artistic applications of tattoos were continually being developed. The next generation came into their training in the same way the previous generation had, with a skill that was unknown to their masters; the use of social media as a way to market your ability.

What had happened before with the new apprentices happened again. The new masters fulfilled their obligations by developing the new apprentice in the same way they had been brought into the craft. Their teachings were focused on personal development in art. The training was focused on learning by making mistakes. The imbalance in the exchange of information continued to grow as the new masters exchanged their knowledge and the apprentice gave new techniques to improve the masters business. While this exchange happens, the apprentice slowly becomes detached from the master who is grooming their entry into an industry devoid of the history that holds the fabric of understanding together. There is not enough information left to pass along to the new members of the industry and a greater separation from the past occurs. The new apprentices are pushing the boundaries of evolution and leading the industry in a new direction, just as their were shown by the new masters. Alone.

I fear that this may continue to occur for the foreseeable future. With new innovations that accompany the growth of a new generation, there will always be a tool that the new apprentice can utilize to level the master-apprentice interaction. This aspect of devolution is ever apparent in modern western tattooing. Social media became the new tool that the new masters did not understand and the apprentice was able to utilize these evolutions of society to their favor.


The new class – social networks

We have delved into the idea that modern apprenticeships are undertaken by a master who has less than the necessary experience to pass along an adequate foundational understanding. Now let’s look to the future.

In my opinion, this degradation of knowledge has accelerated in the past decade This is due to the influence of social networks and mass media representations of the tattoo industry. The media is a tool with great power over the populations that choose to enjoy its benefits. Our civilizations have evolved in magnificent ways that allow transfer of knowledge and ideas at lightning speed. We have evolved to know each other over great distances. Our lives are moving towards the true expression of a global society wherein our lives are inextricably intertwined. We will be forced to fight common threats together or face extinction.

While all of this is going on, a cult of personality is raging rampant in many industries. People are held aloft based on “likes” and “followers” and trends that define the generation are bought and sold as commodities to the highest bidder. The media giants have shifted from those who presented ideas on television or radio to those who sell space on portable devices. The new idols of a generation are those who sell lifestyles or products that guarantee – fame if emulated or happiness and longevity if purchased. The lifestyles of the rich an famous are at your fingertips. If you like and follow, you can be a part of it.


Social Media and Ethical Standards

We are confronted with images of what we want by large technology companies that sell advertising space. This spaces of influence are available for a price and are gobbled up by those in society that wish to extort a level of control or influence on others. Advertising is a monster that has adapted to the changes in society better than any industry. Billions are spent so that companies know how to get you, the potential client, to purchase things you do not need. Social networks are a culmination of this knowledge, spanning decades, that collectively alter our perceptions to influence our behavior. As the tech companies has evolved, the idea of social connections have deteriorated as well. Now, our societies are more comparable to the 1984 version of existence. We love the Company and they will tell us what to do.

These companies have little regard to change their practices, regardless of the pressure civilizations, politicians or global alliances put on them. Not to be separated from the global society of this new age, the new class of tattooers are fully entrenched in their grasp. They have mastered navigating this new realm of representation and are rewriting the idea of success hand-in-hand with the social networks and they have brought this mastery to the table when negotiating their apprenticeship.


Social networks and influencers

Since the inception of social networks, our focus has slowly turned towards what I interpret as instant gratification of our cult of personality. We are focused on building followers like a non-sanctioned church. To do this, we develop a personality that is far separate from who we are in reality and sell a story that falsely implies our mastery.

Most of our efforts inside the social network realm are focused not on stealing money or selling products that are misleading or fake; our efforts are focused on building an Image…(dramatic typing there). They are here to influence opinions and trends and to manipulate the followers that hold them aloft. For a price, they can select a product and deliver its benefit to millions of enrapt individuals with nothing better to do than look at a screen while waiting for a social update.

Social networking Influencers are forced to make a product that has a limited shelf life as the media, being delivered to billions globally, must adapt to keep people’s attention. The influencer’s focus is to bring in as many likes as possible and offer a service that is so exclusive that it has bloated industry. So many products are being represented by egocentric individuals who utilize their fame as a way to reconcile their high cost of service.

Influencers are skilled at building a persona that attracts people who are less than willing to think critically. Followers accept the image that is displayed on their phone/computer screen and seek validation of such images by evading critical inquiry. Validation is presented by agreements presented by influenced followers.

We see the numbers associated with an account and determine validity through insecurity. If numbers are great enough, those without mind enough to question will blindly follow representations put forth by the influencers to be a part of the “in crowd”. By denying inquiry, a person can be a part of something larger. They gain acceptance where otherwise they would be denied and, regardless if there is a physical presence to associate the person with the group, commenting on social networks allows users to segregate their ideals, likes, and beliefs to ensure less confrontation when interaction does occur.


Attempts to mislead

New apprentices or young artists in tattooing utilize social networks and media in the same way as influencers. Efforts made to display work that is impossible is a constant and misleads the public by imbuing a level of trust in clientele that is impossible to uphold, while misleading the populace under the guise of mastery. The new artists working towards mastery supplant the ideas of the past and extort a new version of true mastery. To obtain new mastery, follow these simple rules – The process and design are personal possessions of the artist. The client is no longer required to have input; they are canvasses utilized to impress or gain acceptance from competitors. This may seem Machiavellian in away but social networks are not a true representation of quality. The ability of a person to mislead the populace to increase personal value is theft.

We, as an industry cannot fault the new generation for taking such actions. This is our fault. We walked away from our responsibilities in search of fame and riches and were taken into the industry in the same vein. We are focused on personal growth rather than the growth of the industry collectively. The efforts of this new generation in utilizing ignorance to build a brand is reminiscent of how the new masters were used to gain artistic ability by previous generations. This epidemic is cyclic and the industry (as well as the majority of the world) is faced with a choice: Slow down and fix what is broken – or – kick it into high gear and get out before the ship sinks.

Sound familiar?


It’s all about appearance

When I go onto a social network, I am always presented with well groomed pages when searching for something entertaining. It is rare that I find many followers on pages that aren’t built to look a specific way and those that aren’t well groomed are not the first to appear in a search. When looking at my social networking pages, or those of some of my friends, we are not spending time developing an image or brand that represents our position in the world. Comparing our pages to influencers is like comparing fire and ice. Normal social media pages are utilized for updating close proximal relations and sharing statuses so friends and family can stay in touch with each other. Influencer pages are polished and are prime real estate for paying companies. I feel that this is due to grooming tactics these social networks have worked tirelessly to promote. In practice, you are attracted to a specific cult, or style, and the pages that have the most “followers” are delivering products more efficiently than others.

When a person joins a social networks, they only want to follow what mirrors what they feel mostly resembles who they are, what they like or who they wish to embody. In joining the ranks of a social media influencer, a person becomes attached to those who release entertaining material. Some wish to emulate it. For those who are bringing forth the next generation of tattooing, their ability to manipulate social networks has become key in their success and those who are not willing or able to competent on this new battlefield are left to fail.


Where the future lies

We are moving ever forward in society. Tattooing has evolved in so many ways that the art form it is today is a mere shadow of what it had once been, in some ways. Artists are marching forward towards a more efficient manner in delivering works of art to wanting clientele. Looking at social networks, tattooers are creating a platform wherein the “flash” of the past is what currently pays the bills. They are creating images, posting them online and clients are free to pick and choose the designs that hand on a digital wall. Social networking has turned our practices into a giant marketplace where social connections are ignored and the idea of customization is absent.

It’s funny when you look at it. We have come full circle and are reduced to the same practices that were commonplace before the great expansion. The only thing that is missing is the link to the past.

As the industry moves forward, they are confronted with a problem: Continue the march of progress and further remove themselves from the idea of mastery or, critically question the practices currently in use to rebuild the knowledge lost from the past.


Final Thoughts

I see the next generation of tattooers evolving in one of two ways:
One Way. I see the same mistakes being remade again. The master will need skills from the apprentice therefore creating an imbalance in power during training. Once the apprentice feels they have gleaned enough knowledge, they will break from the master and lose a little more of the past as the industry evolves. This will continue until tattooing becomes something lost in the translation of society’s evolution.
The Other Way. Tattooing slows down and becomes intertwined with the idea of mastery again. The new apprentices are given a full foundational experience when introduced to the industry and new knowledge is introduced as it becomes available. The industry works together in a way that promotes specialization and spreads knowledge effectively. Artists become attached to the process with their clientele. Insert a whole bunch of goodness!

This leads me back to the thought experiment we started with: If you come upon someone or something that is drowning, do you make an effort to save it?

Or do you just continue walking by?

Without our intervention in this industry, it will likely drown.

Hello and thanks for taking the time to read some of the ideas I have bouncing around in this
“gettin’ -older” head. I haven’t written in awhile due to the work that was being put into the pigment articles. Funny enough, the depth of work that went into that study put me into a bit of a crisis. Professionals around the world were taking the time to talk with me and I feel so much more informed about the safety and efficacy of products that are being used in the U.S.


Authors Note*

Regarding the efforts moving forward with the website, I will stick to describing the ethics and philosophy of tattooing in the west (in my interpretation), tattoo history and some aspects of technical tattooing. I will not be doing the in-depth science articles that have little effect on people’s actions or choices. This may seem like a defeatist attitude, which is not something that I espouse, but in the future I may revisit them. If anyone is interested in what was found during my pigment research, please feel free to send me an email and I will give you a link to the references I had collected over the past 6 months.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


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