“But, oh, the things that I’ve seen,” Rudy trails off. “It’s all very different now. There are owners of tattoo shops who don’t even have tattoos. It’s like a vegan owning a steakhouse.”
Rudy remembers back when there were only four tattoo parlors in East L.A.; when tattoos were the mark of sailors or Marines, of which he was one. Rudy wasn’t called an artist in 1975, but that’s what people call him now, along with a “godfather of black and grey style,” a sort of chiaroscuro technique in tattoo art.
Indeed, there are movements in the craft, celebrated on the pages of coffee table books and blogs, that helped tattoo art creep into the art world via the usual drivers of recognition — talent, popularity, even lawsuits.
“In the mainstream world, the value of tattoo art, as folk art and fine art is recognized,” said Margot Mifflin, author of “Bodies of Subversion,” whose third edition was published in January. “I would say tattooing is considered an art form everywhere except in the art world . . . there’s a class bias at play in that arena.”
Still, tattoo artists are basking in the rise of their craft. Since the 1970s, tattooing has grown into a $2 billion industry in the United States. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that a third of Americans age 18 to 25 have a tattoo, and about 40 percent of Americans ages 26 to 40 have at least one. Though there are no official numbers, some estimates say there are 15,000 to 20,000 tattoo shops in the country. Television shows such as “Miami Ink” and “America’s Worst Tattoos” have made the craft ever more popular, even if remorse sometimes leads to removal. And according to Mifflin, in 2012, tattooed women outnumbered men for the first time. Americans of different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes have taken to tattoos of all styles, price points and sizes, with custom work selling for thousands of dollars. Arguably, tattoos are no longer a symbol of anything in themselves, just as oil paintings or sculptures represent the subjects and scenes they depict.
Few would argue that a subculture doesn’t exist in the tattoo world, but the vast majority of the tattooed masses — the 40 percent under 40 — resemble amateur art lovers or collectors who hang watercolors in their living rooms.
“It is less meaningful as a gesture that defines you as countercultural or subversive in a way,” Mifflin said. “They don’t define individuals as a type anymore.”