Although Bodies of Inscription by Margo DeMello was published in 2000, it's still an excellent analysis of the stratified nature of the modern tattoo world. She begins with an overview of ancient tattoo history, bringing to light some nuanced views of the European "re-discovery" of Maori tattoo culture. She describes how these people were exploited for their traditions of preserving tattooed skulls and then subsequent exploitation for general European amusement.
The modern American evolution of tattoos are also discussed in depth -- from the first known professional tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt (who worked at a time when the tattoo artist was more of a craftsman than an artist) to the modern artistic renaissance starting with the likes of Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy.
Interestingly, her research also involves an analysis of tattoo's most voluminous written histories: tattoo magazines.
I had never thought about the intellectual and class warfare going on within the very tattoo magazines I've been buying for years. She details the difference between the "biker-style" tattoo magazines, such as Tattoo and the more "high brow" tattoo pubs like International Tattoo, each focusing on different aspects of the art.
It's this issue of "class" that DeMello particularly focuses on, as it is often overlooked in the context of tattoo culture. In fact, there are many class issues within the community that she brings to light: for one, she describes how the current renaissance in tattoo art is, in part, a class shift from tattooing being a working class art form to middle and upper class, evident in design and artistic choices. You can even see it today in the debates over the word choice of "tatted" or "tattooed" (in some circles, it's a faux pas to even acknowledge the existence of the word "tat.")
With the current explosion in acceptance and popularity of tattoos, the cultural shifts are becoming ever more evident, and thus, this book remains not only relevant but important to today's tattoo community.
Reading around the net, I've seen that Ms. DeMello does have her share of critics: some accuse her of being elitist, an outsider posing as an insider. I don't know about the merit of these critiques but I do know that she is a scholar who has given us a body of work to be discussed and debated as the tattoo community morphs and grows.
Buy Bodies of Inscription from Amazon.com for $17.21.