Danielle Rondeau, 22, a senior sociology major at Northeastern University, calmly lies on her side on top of a black, padded table. She sighs quietly, her body relaxed. “Ready?” asks her aunt Marie. Rondeau lifts up her black V-neck T-shirt, revealing her midriff and a small metal post through her bellybutton.
Rondeau remains still and collected, seemingly unaffected by the constant sound of needles buzzing in the narrow cubicles surrounding her. “Good to go,” she says. The small, silver tattoo gun meets her pale flesh, and the buzzing becomes louder. But Rondeau doesn’t flinch; she nonchalantly continues her conversation about her upcoming college graduation and post-graduation plans with tattoo artist Jamie Clinton of Stingray Body Art, in Allston.
“You’re doing great,” says Marie.
“It’s my fourth one, so I’d hope so,” says Rondeau, still ignoring the humming needle penetrating her ribcage. “I have one on my hip that’s a crest with a star and my mother’s initials. She passed away when I was 15, so that’s a tribute to her. Another one is a butterfly with a breast cancer ribbon as the body, and I got that because my mother loved butterflies. The third one says ‘Always the Optimistic’ in French, and that’s for me. It’s a constant reminder of where my head should be.”
The outline of a small blue bird is now complete on Rondeau’s side, anticipating the detailing of Clinton’s steady hand. “The blue bird is kind of a family tradition,” explains Rondeau over the harmonious sound of buzzing. “My grandmother gave all of her children blue bird figurines when they moved in with their boyfriends or husbands as a housewarming gift. It represents eternal love and happiness in relationships. And this tattoo is a reminder of permanent happiness.”
Today, Rondeau is not alone in getting permanent ink. “My 78-year-old grandma is getting one, too,” she says. “I’m also here with my three aunts, who are in their late 40s and early 50s, and my godmother, who’s in her 60s. We’re doing this together because it’s such an important part of our family. We’ve got our blue birds in our homes and now we have them on ourselves forever.”
For Rondeau and many of her contemporaries, tattoos, piercings and body modifications are standard, even a staple in one’s appearance. Their evolution from a deviant art form to a widely accepted part of pop culture has progressed immensely within the past five years.
From A-list celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp to rap stars like Lil Wayne and 50 Cent, body art is anything but unusual, and for some, it’s a way of life. Television shows such as “Miami Ink” and “LA Ink,” and their respective characters like Kat Von D, as well as Internet celebrities like the inked-up indie icons the Suicide Girls, have made body modification their trademark look.
These public figures have provided most of the population with the notion that constant body alternations are not only normal, but necessary. Tattoos and piercings have moved so far into mainstream culture that their “taboo” appeal is lost, leaving the shock-loving society of America begging for more.
“As it becomes more popular and less annoying to normal people, it loses its power,” said Clinton Sanders, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut. “The issue then becomes, ‘What new things do you find and how do you make this more extreme?’ It’s very clear that there are attempts to modify one’s body in ways that are more extreme than just tattoos. People have implanted bladders into their foreheads, added horns, had digits removed, split their tongues. It’s only progressing,” he said. Sanders is also the author of “Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing.”
According to a 2006 study conducted by Northwestern University that was published in the “Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology,” nearly a quarter of men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 have tattoos, and nearly 15 percent have at least one body piercing.
Tattoos and other forms of body modification serve the purpose of recorded human expression, according to Shannon Larratt, creator and former editor and publisher of BMEzine.com, the oldest and largest body modification site on the Internet, and the companion of the online community site, IAM.BMEzine.com. Larratt is also the author of “ModCon: The Secret World of Extreme Body Modification” and “Opening Up: Body Modification Interviews.”
The earliest known tattoos were found on Otzi the Iceman, whose mummified body, which dates back to about 3300 B.C., was discovered in October of 1991 somewhere between Italy and Austria, according to Margo DeMello, author of “Bodies of Inscription,” and a sociology, cultural studies and anthropology professor at Central New Mexico Community College.
According to an article in “Smithsonian Magazine” by Cate Lineberry, the Iceman bore tattoos of dots and small crosses on his right knee, ankle joints and lower spine. The symbols “may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic.”
Tattoos were also a prevalent part of Egyptian culture in 2000 B.C., especially among women. “The Egyptians really helped spread tattooing throughout the world,” said DeMello. As the Egyptians expanded their empire, their ritual of body art spread, too. In Africa, however, the popular mode of body modification was scarification.
Though each culture had its own reason for body art, the connotation was generally negative, explained Sanders. For example, the Greeks used tattooing as a means of communication among spies. The markings were also used as an indication of ranking and skill. Similarly, the Romans used tattoos to mark and differentiate citizens, specifically criminals and slaves.
These, Sanders said, are significant reasons why tattooing had negative associations when it finally entered America in the late 1800s, early 1900s. “It’s an interesting time period, because people in the military would go overseas and return with tattoos, either of anchors or another symbol to represent their service. And because they were not upper class, tattooing became perceived as lower class,” he said.
The trend of tattooing came in waves, said DeMello. “The sailors brought it back from Polynesia first, so at that time it was really popular. And then like any trend, it died out only to be brought back again. But because the trend was never permanent, tattooing was never able to become a mainstream part of society,” she explained.
During this time period, tattoos also acted as a way to identify with a group or disaffiliate with another, said Sanders. “In all cultures, body modification of all forms is a way for people to say, ‘I am part of this group,'” he said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m not with these people who are normal or conventional.'”
But as time progressed, tattoos and other types of body modification began to rise into the realm of “normal.” “At the same time that American tattoo artists were becoming popular, America was in the mist of the gay and lesbian movement and the women’s movement,” said DeMello. “Post 1960s, everyone was more introspective and trying to find themselves.”
Because self-discovery was a prominent part of society during the ’60s and ’70s, said DeMello, people felt it necessary to express their “personal narratives.” And what better way to do so than with permanent pictures and inscriptions?
“There are as many different kinds of tattoos as there are young people with their own stories,” said Paul Robertson, a Youth Culture Specialist for Youth Unlimited, a non-profit organization that helps connect adults and adolescents. Robertson has done extensive research and lectures on explaining tattoo culture to adults in a positive light.
Tattoo culture continued to expand yet still remained on the outskirts of pop culture throughout the ’80s, said Sanders. “I started studying it during the ’80s because it still wasn’t terribly popular and I was interested in it as a kind of rebellious art form.”
It wasn’t until the mid to late ’90s that tattooing finally departed from its “on the fringe” reputation and into a more accepted part of life. “In 1994, tattoos were definitely starting to become more popular,” said Larratt. “If you had them, you weren’t deemed ‘obscene’ anymore. In the past you’d never get a normal job if you had a tattoo on your neck, but by this time you weren’t being pushed out of society because of body art.”
Today, society seeks for the ultimate “something new” with a wow-factor that outweighs its predecessors. So what is the future for body art and modification?
“I have magnetic implants, very small magnets implanted in my fingertips,” said Larratt. “They vibrate in electromagnetic fields. I can feel power running through power cords; I can feel the frequency. I imagine it in my head as a separate sense. That’s why I did it, to give myself a sixth sense,” he said.
But how far will body modification will go before half of the population looks like a character from “Avatar”? Larratt doesn’t think that will happen any time soon.
“I feel like body modification is at a pretty stable point right now,” he added.
DeMello agrees. She explained a similar trend in the late 1800s, when it was fairly common to be tattooed, and then it started to die out again. Similarly, there was a piercing trend in the late 1600s, which, according to DeMello, is noticeable in paintings from that era. But like any trend, that eventually ended, too.
According to tattoo artist Jamie Clinton, 31, of Stingray Body Art, nothing is too extreme for modern culture. “I only do tattoos,” he said. “But just from working in a body art shop, I’ve seen people come in to get surface piercings, metal spikes in their heads, gauged ears, you name it.”
Chris Richards, a sophomore at Massachusetts College of Art, is more than familiar with these types of drastic modifications. His array of silver studded earrings on both ears compliment the two metal bars he has pierced through the skin directly above his hipbones. Parallel to his hip piercings are two life-size handgun tattoos, with the barrels pointed towards his inner thighs.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t about the look,” laughed Richards. “I like being different and I don’t mind if people think it’s strange. But I don’t usually get weird looks, and nobody gives me a hard time at work, so it’s a good balance of individuality while not looking like a freak in public. I think it’s just accepted.”
The workplace, as Richards mentioned, used to be a problematic place for young adults with visible tattoos and piercings, which were seen as inappropriate and unprofessional.
But Samantha Guertin, a sophomore economics major at Northeastern University, said that her body modification has yet to cause a problem at work, a financial analysis company. “I have four big tattoos and I have my tongue and bellybutton pierced, and someone has yet to say something negative to me about it,” she said. “My tattooed ‘sleeve’ takes up half of my upper arm, but nobody seems to care.”
Guertin recalled a time when an elderly co-worker commented on her tattoo of Holden and Phoebe Caulfield, characters in J.D. Salinger’s ” Catcher and the Rye.” “She said to me, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I was so surprised to hear that from somebody her age; I figured she thought I was some ‘bad ass’ kid, so it was really nice to hear that she actually liked it,” said Guertin.
“Generally speaking, because it’s a personal medium, a lot of people who get tattoos are looking for someone to take an interest in them. One way for people to engage in a conversation, especially between adults and kids, is to ask for them to tell the story of their tattoo, and I think that’s the motivation to get tattoos where people can see them,” said Robertson.
But besides the personal yearning for attention, there are several other motivations to get body art.
“My ‘Catcher and the Rye’ tattoo is obviously about the book, but a lot of it is also about my family,” explained Guertin. “The flowers over here are for my mom, because they’re her favorite. The Jameson bottle is for my older brother, because that’s his favorite alcohol,” she laughed. “The neon signs are to represent New York City, which is part of the book, but inside the signs are my brothers initials. “And this,” she said, pointing to the small stars running underneath her arm, “is for my dad. It’s his favorite constellation.”
“I think for a lot of young people,” said Richards, “wanting to pay a tribute to their family or loved ones is a huge driving factor in getting a tattoo. It’s permanent, like family. It’s a constant reminder of those important people in your life.”
Back in Allston, Rondeau’s tattoo, a bright blue bird with a burnt orange underbelly, is finished. Clinton wipes away the excess ink with a paper towel. “Who’s next?” he asks the group of women surrounding Rondeau.
“That’s me,” says Rondeau’s grandmother. Rondeau rises from the table and allows her grandmother to sit down. Clinton starts up the gun and the sound of buzzing fills the room once again.
“You sure you’re alright with this?” Rondeau asks her grandmother. “Only for you,” she says.