At seventeen, I began to collect tattoos. Growing up in Spokane, Washington, it seemed that everyone had tattoos in the mid-1990s, or at least, everyone downtown in the alternative scene. Over the years, my collection grew. As I collected tattoos that were more publicly visible, certain social interactions became based on this part of my newly developing identity. Did other heavily tattooed women receive the same questions and treatment that I did? In 2006, I began working on a documentary about heavily tattooed women and female tattooists, called Covered. By then, tattoos had become so much more widespread and popular, yet outdated stigmas continued to linger.
It was also undeniable that the new crop of tattoo industry reality television shows, such as Hart & Huntington and Miami Ink, were beginning to affect tattoo artists, collectors and the general non-tattooed public. For audience members for whom viewing the shows was as close to a tattoo studio as they have gotten, these representations became a stand-in for the reality of the industry. It also de-stigmatized the process and brought hordes of new collectors into the doors of studios. For tattoo artists, this was a mixed blessing: while grateful for the business, there were plenty of misconceptions created by the shows that the artists would have to correct. In the Covered videoclip posted below, tattoo artists discuss aspects of their job and compare that against the representations in television shows. The shows created more stereotypes that were imposed upon real tattooed people. But the magnitude of the tattoos shows is undeniable; there are nearly too many to count.
In this blog, I aim to overview, from a sociological and critical media studies perspective, the impacts of tattoo reality television shows upon the real people of the industry.
Beverly Yuen Thompson, Ph.D.