On March 23, 2017, Amy Bleuel committed suicide after a life full of trauma and struggles with mental health. You may not know Amy Bleuel by name, but you have probably seen a product of her life’s work in the form of a tattoo of a semicolon. The creator of the mental illness awareness organization Project Semicolon, Bleuel is the person who began this tattoo “trend.” I am fascinated by the way that the semicolon tattoo has spread over social media, creating a seemingly contradictory blend of physical permanence and viral communication. Bleuel’s semicolon tattoo is a perfect case study with which to ponder larger questions about what types of tattoos become trends and the way that these trends are received. Tattoo trends, like fashion trends, are nothing new. However, we can look back on fashion trends from a safe distance, with the clothing no longer near our bodies. Tattoo trends go out of style in the same way, with the obvious difference of their permanence. It’s hard to say what makes a tattoo “trendy” and which concepts will endure over time. Often the answer seems to be that you may not realize it’s a trend until it’s no longer cool. Undeniably, though, tattoo trends have a gendered element to them. “Trendy” tattoos are often synonymous with “bad,” “girly” tattoos, even though they take many forms. For example, lower back tattoos are now horrendously deemed “tramp stamps” and conceptualized as a mark of embarrassment. And while “tribal” style tattoos from the same time are definitively no longer cool, I don’t ever hear anyone being made fun of with true animosity for having them. And it’s certainly no coincidence that lower back tattoos are the only one of these two examples that is associated with a woman’s sexuality.
Modern tattoo trends for girls like infinity symbols, birds, music notes and arrows are also fodder for gendered ridicule. And though these may not always be the best tattoos in concept or execution, the criticism is often just an excuse to make fun of girls for things they enjoy. We certainly don’t harass men in the same way for getting shitty tattoos of sports logos or crosses at the same frequency. Tattoos are art, and to my personal taste, all of these tattoos are lazy and often not done with very much skill. It’s more complicated than that, though, and I will always defend girls who choose to get these kinds of tattoos that are deemed “basic” in an expression of misogyny regardless of whether or not I personally enjoy them. There’s definitely an element of class that is constantly at work when it comes to tattooing as well.
The tattoos that I see at Vassar and the tattoos that I see in my humble hometown are incredibly different. Lower class people often either do not have access to more skilled tattoo artists or are perfectly happy getting the work that they do. The things that I sneer at as someone who has “moved up” on the cultural ladder from my own roots are things that can mean the world to someone else (so I should probably stop sneering at Phillies tats, to be honest). Tattoos are a reflection of the culture of their recipients, a way to identify oneself with a social group. And besides their value as an art form, this is their social importance. The semicolon tattoo has become popular because it allows the tattooed person to process their pain by empowering themselves through identification with the movement that the tattoo stands for.
Tattooing as it currently stands in the U.S. and the West in general is a monopoly of cisgender white men, but this is hopefully beginning to change; tattoo culture is undergoing a revolution as tattoos become more acceptable as a casual body modifications among millennials. Instagram in particular has changed tattooing dramatically. Designs are easily spread on the platform, creating more opportunity for trendy tattoos. Although this results in much art theft, overall, tattoo artists have greatly benefited from Instagram because it allows them to reach potential clients who admire their work. Young people are no longer stuck going to the closest shop and hoping for the best, risking not only getting something completely hideous tattooed on them by an inexperienced artist but also their health in a potentially unsafe shop.
The hope is that as tattooing becomes more acceptable and popular, it will become more accessible to more people at a higher-quality and safer rate. Women getting generic infinity symbol tattoos can learn about the further creative options available to them by good and affordable artists as tattoo shops become more comfortable spaces for women. The development benefits not only patrons, but also artists. More women and queer people are gaining visibility in mainstream tattoo discourse due to social media exposure and an expanded number of potential clients, allowing them to connect with clients who feel connected to their identity and their art. Spirited Tattooing Coalition is a tattoo studio opened about two years ago in Philadelphia that is owned by a non-binary person of color named Jasmine T. Morrell. It is the first queer-owned tattoo studio in Philadelphia and one of the few in the country.
The mission of the shop is to provide a comfortable and welcoming space in which to get tattooed, particularly for people who may be made to feel uncomfortable in other shops for aspects of their identity (Spirited Tattooing Coalition Indiegogo page). Spirited Tattooing Coalition’s existence is an incredibly encouraging sign that social dynamics of tattooing are changing. Race, however, remains a huge problem in the tattoo world—and a problem whose future does not seem as optimistic. While female tattoo artists are booming in popularity, it is comparably rare to be able to find an artist who is a person of color, or even examples of an artist’s work on dark skin on their Instagram. Tattooing remains incredibly white-dominated in the west. And while people of color certainly don’t have to be interested in tattoos, representation is incredibly important, and white tattoo artists need to begin to support their fellow artists who are people of color and make clear that they foster a welcoming, safe environment for anyone who may be interested in becoming a client. Amy Bluel will live forever on the skin of those who have found meaning in her Project Semicolon movement. She leaves behind her a legacy that is a perfect example of a tattoo design that resonates with many people becoming a trend as social media allows it to spread. As they spread in popularity, with some work—namely, encouraging conversations that aren’t happening and enacting conscious tattoo-related choices—we will see developments against social structures that are currently being upheld in power dynamics associated with tattooing.