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Getting under the skin of tattoo cultures

Cultural tradition, fashion trend, therapy or drunken mistake - tattoos symbolize a breadth of different meanings. In Germany, people of all ages, professions and backgrounds are taking the plunge and getting inked.

In Western society, tattoos have never been more popular. In fact, social researchers say that Generation Y – that includes people that have been born from the mid 1980s until the 2000s - are the first generation in which tattoos have become mainstream. One US survey found that 40 percent of people in this age group had a tattoo. The situation in Germany is quite similar.

Guil Zekri, world famous tattooist in his Cologne studio.
Copyright: DW/Eliran Rubin
Oktober 2012, Köln

World-renowned tattooist Guil Zekri at his Reinkarnation tattoo studio in Cologne

Part of the trend may well be explained by the mainstream presence of many tattooed celebrities, like Johnny Depp, Pink, Rihanna and David Beckham. But, people involved in the tattoo industry say there is more to it.

Guil Zekri is a world-renowned tattooist. Born in Israel, he studied art in Paris and now owns 'Reinkarnation' tattoo studio in Cologne. He says that for many of his customers, tattoos are not just a body transformation, but also a sort of therapy.

"Lots of people get tattoos because it is very important for them, because they have something to say or because they want to belong to a certain social group," Zekri told DW.

Growing trend among women

In the past ten years, tattoos have become much more common for both of the sexes. But, a University of Leipzig study found that in many ways, women are driving the tattoo trend. According to the research, from 2003 to 2009 the number of women in Germany getting tattoos doubled across every age group.

Maria Maidana is a tattoo apprentice at Reinkarnation and part of the growing number of female tattooists. She started getting tattoos herself at the age of 15. She says she was always fascinated with the process, because it is basically irreversible. "It's something you mark on your body. It shows that you want to make a commitment to something," she says.

Guil Zekri says that, when talking about tattoo trends and fashions, one should be careful not to describe it as a tattoo culture.

"A German person who gets a koi fish tattoo on his arm is not doing it because of culture, but because it makes a really nice tattoo," says Guil. On the other hand, natives in parts of South America still do it because of their culture and traditions, he says.

The tattoo outline being made at Reinkarnation Studio
Copyright: DW/Eliran Rubin
Oktober 2012, Köln

"Tattooing is a statement of what we believe in and who we are," Chris Rainer says

Tattoo cultures around the world

Many indigenous peoples around the world mark their bodies with tattoos. The word tattoo actually comes from the Samoan word 'tatau', which means 'to mark'. Tattooing continues to be practiced among indigenous peoples from the Pacific, through Asia, the Middle East, parts of Africa, the Americas and Europe.

Chris Rainer is a photographic journalist who has spent the past two decades documenting tattoo culture in jungles, deserts and cities. In his book "Ancient Marks," he says that tattoos are engrained in the consciousness of many races as a way of expressing identity.

"The beautiful thing about tattooing is that it is a statement of what we believe in and who we are." He says that this is the reason why tattoos have probably become so trendy in modern-day culture.

Something for everyone

Today, in Germany, it is surprising to see who is getting inked, says Maria Maidana.

"It's very different ages, different jobs and professions. Some people are 50 or 60 years old when they get their first tattoo. The oldest person we have tattooed in this shop was 74 and it was his first."

Maria Maidana, tattoo apprentice in the Cologne studio where she works
Copyright: DW/Eliran Rubin
Oktober 2012, Köln

Studio apprentice Maria Maidana is just one of a growing number of female tattooists

One of the big design tattoo trends at the moment is La Muerte, a Mexican design which is part of the Day of the Dead tradition. Maria explains that customers usually want the figure of a beautiful woman with colorful skull make-up on her face.

And, it's also clear that the tattoo business is constantly developing too. What used to be basically an underground industry, is now becoming increasingly high tech, to meet the needs of the consumer, says Guil Zekri.

"You're penetrating the skin. That's the first point of contact to the outside world, and the first point in contact with inside the body. It's the most important, biggest part of the body, so the responsibility that we have is considerable," says Zekri.

DW.DE