What makes tattoos cool?
How did tattoos, something that was common in rural India, become fashionable in the swankiest of malls?
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Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Laureate, became the youngest person—at the age of 19—to be conferred the Honorary Canadian Citizenship. In her very short and highly engaging acceptance speech, that went viral, she made one interesting comment about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. She said that Prime Minister Trudeau sports a tattoo and it was indeed special that she was receiving the Honorary Citizenship from such a ‘cool’ leader.
So what makes tattoos cool? To start with, they were once banned. New York City had banned any form of tattoos in the year 1961 and—hold on to your seats—the ban was only revoked in the year 1997. A recent report in BusinessWeek says, citing a Harris Poll, that three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo, and the number has moved up from two in 10 in the year 2010. The prevalence is as high as 47% with the millennials (born after 1981) and 36% with the Gen Xers. The practice has become so wide spread in the US that US Food and Drug Administration is probing into the harmful effects of tattoo inks.
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In India too, we have had the tattoo fixation for centuries. Religious motifs were commonly tattooed on to hands and chest. In the south, film stars’ names and faces often went on to decorate their fan’s chest and arms.
This ancient art of tattoo is now being re-imagined in India. A few years ago, a colleague spoke to me about an M. Tech in Information Technology who gave up his good job in an IT services firm to set up a high-end tattoo parlour. He does custom designed tattoos for special clients. My friend’s son, an up and coming, highly talented drummer, was getting his whole back inked with a complex tattoo. We even invited him to come and do a demo as a special session.
Film stars, TV stars and cricket players are today seen sporting varied forms of tattoos, the small innocuous ones have given way to more colourful and elaborate ones. (Which Indian cricket captain before Virat Kohli sported such a large tattoo? None, is my guess.)
An ad for a mobile services company had a girl asking her mom what she thought of her new tattoo, a dragon, tattooed on her back. To which her orthodox mom, dressed in a saree, listening to religious music, replies ‘Nice, Very Nice’. May be the dragon reminded her of some mythological character.
Studies in London have shown that a tattoo improves your chances of getting hired in certain jobs. For example in an experiment, managers were told to rate faces (with and without a tattoo) for their suitability for taking on the job of a bartender. Tattooed face scored 5.07 as against non-tattooed face scoring a 4.38; the scores were even better for tattooed women. If the same candidate was being looked at for a waiter’s job in an upmarket restaurant with an older clientele, the ratings reversed. So there are certain jobs where tattoos mattered and some where they dragged you down, at least in ‘propah’ London.
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What to make of the tattoo mania in big towns of India?
Psychologists are worried that these could be a demonstration of attention-seeking behaviour, or even masochism.
They point towards addiction to tattooing as seen in some cases where the youngster has repeatedly gone for tattoos, a series of them, coloured and black. I would submit that tattoo is now mainstream and we should see it as mainstream.
I know of a very successful head hunter in one of India’s smaller cities going in for a butterfly tattoo as a show of companionship with her daughter who went in for a dragon tattoo.
There is also the hidden bonding among tattooed folks, just as there is a bonding among cigarette smokers; they belong to an exclusive club of people who are bold enough to get their body inked.
Look at it this way. You now have a world leader who sports a tattoo. And a Nobel Laureate who decided to speak about it at a sober felicitation ceremony.
Where does brand marketing come in all this you may wonder. One primary job of every marketing manager is to understand and track socio-cultural trends. There are many lessons hidden in the rise of the Tattoo Cult.
How did something that was common in rural India become fashionable in the swankiest of malls? Is it just an ‘aping the west’ phenomenon? Or is there something more to it, something Indian?
Finally, New York did well by revoking the ban on tattoos. But why did it even try and ban it, I wonder.
Ambi Parameswaran is Brand Strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com. He is the author of eight books including ‘Nawabs Nudes Noodles – India Through 50 Years of Advertising’.