‘There’s been a paradigm shift’: tattoos go mainstream

“There are definitely more people now that have tattoos than those who don’t,” says Stewart Ferguson, tattooist at the White Dragon in north London. With grey-blue eyes and tattoos up to his neck, Ferguson looks like a man who has been doing his job for 13 years. His clientele, he says, come from all walks of life, “from down-and-outs to the rich and famous”.

“I tattoo a lot of the police force, the fire service and some of the Queen’s guards,” he adds proudly.

The White Dragon might look like something out of a Guns N’ Roses music video – with devilish masks on the walls and an iron dragon bust as a door handle – but tattoos have become far less associated with rock’n’roll subcultures and much more mainstream in recent years. A recent study found that about 30% of 18- to 35-year-olds have at least one tattoo.

Tattooist Stewart Ferguson in his tattoo parlour in north London.
Tattooist Stewart Ferguson in his tattoo parlour in north London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“There has been somewhat of a paradigm shift in relation to an individual’s experience of others with tattoos,” says Sandie Tweedie of Watermelon Tattoo in Edinburgh. “In recent years, it’s more likely that you have one than you don’t.”

This week we were introduced to the gothic body art of Damiano David, the lead singer of the Eurovision winners Måneskin, while the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford showed off a few of his 12 tattoos in a lengthy photoshoot for July’s issue of Men’s Health. These include a lion on his left pec, a young boy playing football on his chest, seven lines of script on his right pec (“Nobody can judge me, only God”) and angel wings on his back. Rashford has been notably quiet on their meanings; his tattoo artist, Dale McGovern, says the footballer “likes to keep them pretty private to be honest”.

Eurovision winner Damiano David of Måneskin from Italy.
Damiano David, the lead singer of the Eurovision winners Måneskin, from Italy. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty

Ferguson says Rashford’s script tattoo in particular remains popular. “I do a lot of script work and have done for a very long time,” he says. “People like to have verses that are related to their own personal struggles, personal achievement, sad news or someone’s passing.”

When tattoo parlours reopened last month , Tweedie says there were a huge number of fiftysomethings queueing to get their first ever tattoo. “During our consultations, the majority cited the ‘bucket list’ as a reason,” she says, “[and] a newfound you-only-live-once mentality having spent months isolated, overworked or stuck indoors.”

Ashley Jagdeo, the owner of the tattoo parlour the Circle London, agrees. “Lockdown gave people more time to reflect more on what they want,” he says. “This, combined with the amount of time the public have spent on social media recently, has meant we’ve also seen a big increase in people deciding to get their first tattoo.”

Jagdeo also says he is seeing a rise in younger clients below the age of 21. “Normally our average age is above 25,” he says.

Ferguson says he has had requests for Covid-19-related designs. “Obviously a lot of people have died over the period, whether that be from Covid or whatever, so some people are getting commemorative memorabilia,” he says.

A tattoo is seen on the leg of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.
A tattoo is seen on the leg of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

What people choose to have as a tattoo varies between parlours. Tweedie says she has recently been asked to do small statement tattoos, including feminist, pride and vegan symbols. Jagdeo says he has had a lot of requests for ones based on celebrities, including Rihanna’s hand tattoos, Post Malone’s sword and Kylie Jenner’s lip tattoos. But he’s not a fan. “Replicating celebrity tattoos is something we normally try to steer clients away from,” he says. “It’s best to be individual and not replicate somebody else’s style and work.”

Tweedie says she would also discourage clients from copying Rashford and getting script work done. “They can be indecipherable from a distance,” she says. “And to read them, the person with the tattoo needs to stand very awkwardly until the other person has finished reading it!”


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