Tattoos and the rebranding of class identity

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Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

The image of tattoos has changed, in more ways than one. They have gone from simple and standardised to high-quality pieces of artwork, and they have also gone from working-class, tacky, and hipster, to relatively normalised. Yet the modern surge of ‘tattoo art’ is not just the typical mainstreaming of taboos. It is also a response to the fragmentation of class identities and part of a class identity creation that simultaneous idealises the traditional working class while denigrating poorer people.

As old class typologies have become outdated, they have been replaced by a seven-class system developed in the Great British Class Survey, published in 2013. An analysis of economic, social, and cultural capital on a data set of 160,000 people produced the class labels of elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and precariat. The economic changes this new system reflects have been pivotal in a transforming self-identity for many in the less affluent sections of society.

One key fact to note from the Class Survey is that the average age of the traditional working class was, at the time, 66; the traditional working class is ageing, and their children are entering different classes. Many are entering the new affluent workers class, a younger group of people primarily located in old manufacturing districts and with moderate economic capital. Yet class self-identification does not reflect this change in status. The British Social Attitudes Survey in 2013 established that approximately 60% of people identify as working class, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1983. With younger generations continuing to identify themselves as working class despite having greater economic capital, it’s not surprising that tattoos continue to be popular.

Yet while tattoos remain popular, they have also undergone dramatic changes. Traditionally simple and with few thematic variations, now the number of styles and categories has exploded. Partly this is due to improved technology enabling complex designs that just weren’t possible a few decades ago. Yet it is also due to a new way of thinking about tattoos. Now, many people want tattoo art. They want classy tattoos—and I’m using the word classy for a reason.

Although the traditional working class is ageing and their children are often getting wealthier, that doesn’t mean the UK has lost its poorer section of the population. Instead, the emergent service worker and the precariat classes are filling that gap. The precariat class had low scores in all the categories that the Class Survey measured, with their economic capital being the most striking; the average household income was only £8,000. Those that are employed, according to Guy Standing, find themselves flitting from job to job. The emergent service workers, the youngest group with an age of 34 and who cluster in urban areas, have high economic and social capital despite having low economic capital; in other words, they bear almost as much similarity to the elite as they do to the traditional working class. Many are not graduates, but of those that are, the arts and humanities are overrepresented, while the most common occupation is bar staff.

Why is that relevant to tattoos? Well, despite inheriting the economic status of the traditional working class, the precariat and emergent service workers have not inherited its romanticised, ‘noble’ identity. Precariats, often uniformly derided as ‘chavs’ and benefit cheats, are largely viewed negatively and unsympathetically. Emergent service workers are treated less uniformly, but one sub-section still gets pejoratively labelled as ‘hipster’. In contrast, the traditional working class continues to be romanticised through popular culture, such as in the films Pride, Billy Elliot, and The Full Monty, and through the adoption of working class symbols and icons as fashion—including tattoos.

Tattoos were originally appropriated and then reconfigured as art by the ‘hipster’ (for lack of a better word) subsection of emergent service workers, although this has since bled over to the mainstream. The appropriation of traditional working class culture creates a class history for emergent service workers that previously didn’t exist. Working in what are often low-skilled jobs yet with a penchant for culture, both established and emerging, there could be said to be a gap between expectations and reality. In a culture that looks down on bar staff yet perceives theatre as high-brow, artistic tattoos allow emergent service workers to both mythologise their position by ‘inheriting’ the ‘nobility’ of the traditional working class, a la the kitchen sink dramas, and by establishing themselves to be as artistic and elite as the culture they consume.

Unfortunately, this also powers the further derision of the precariat class, when members of it choose less ‘artistic’ tattoos. Precariats tend to participate in emerging culture such as sports matches and indie gigs, but not so much in established culture such as the theatre and museums, leading to stereotypes of being uneducated and uncultured. This same attitude is evident in the tattoo snobbery that celebrates T. S. Eliot quotes while dismissing popular song lyrics or football team badges, or admires symbolism-heavy pieces while looking on in sad sympathy at a simple ‘Mum’ tattoo. While hipsters have now moved on to nu-lad appropriation of precariat culture, for many others, the simultaneous vilification of precariats and veneration of the traditional working class through tattoos endures.

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About Tanya Newton 11 Articles
After studying English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tanya moved to Japan where she teaches English. She loves to read and write, and loves tea almost as much. She is strongly interested in cultures and social structures.

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