People are always asking Marc Jacobs what he’ll think when he’s 80. Will he regret the SpongeBob SquarePants on his right arm if it wrinkles or droops? Or will he feel sorry about the line drawing on his stomach of a sofa by Jean-Michel Frank, or the sketch of a laughing Elizabeth Taylor wearing 3-D glasses, or any of the words, like oui, lui (both name-checking seventies adult magazines), shameless, or bros before hos (he was going through a breakup)? And if he ever abandons his strict regimen of juices and the gym, would he feel differently about that famous scene from Poltergeist sliding down his back?
His answer is: Who knows what he’ll think about all of this 30 years from now? But even more than that: Who cares?
Jacobs will leave a creative legacy with his fashion, with clothes that weave through decades and inspirations and proportions and shapes. And in much the same way, his tattoos are a diary of his creative life—of his interests and his relationship to the world, specifically to the pop-culture portion of it. He’s not worried if, at 80, he’s less specific about the relative place in his life of bros or hos, or if he’s still shameless or not. The tattoos just are what they are: another piece of fashion, the world that has thus far defined a great deal of his life. His tattoos might as well be another collection, like the time he was inspired by Debbie Harry, or the time he couldn’t stop thinking about mods.
As in most things, Marc Jacobs is far from alone in matters of aesthetics and taste. He is, rather, right out front: In what is perhaps the greatest fashion shift of a generation, tattoos are now as desired and admired as a Céline bag, a Prada shoe, or one of those long mountain-man beards. They are not subversive; they are not transgressive; they are not a mark of outsiderness. They are not for thugs or sluts, for the angry or the dispossessed. What were once the province of sailors or bikers, and then the pastime of rockers and punks, are now all over bank tellers and advertising executives and stay-at-home moms. Will my daughters want tattoos one day? Probably not: Their parents have them. Odds are, their teachers do too.
Tattoos are in places they never used to be, and we’re not just talking about places on the body. The current Valentino ads, for example, feature not a model but a big, hairy tattooed arm (the arm belongs to photographer Terry Richardson) clutching expensive shoes and bags (for women). Valentino clothing is both glamorous and modest. Recently they’ve done lovely things with handmade Italian lace.
Out on the runways, it seems as if all the models have tattoos—in that context they announce the model’s personhood, a fact that can be easy to forget when their purpose is to embody a designer’s vision, when they all are asked to not-smile the same way or wear the same makeup or wig. Freja Beha, for example, has sixteen—it says float on her neck, the world tonight is mine on her wrist, and Serendipity is life on the bottom of her arm. Beha dated a model named Catherine McNeil for a while—she has the day that I die will be by far the most beautiful day I ever lived written on her rib cage. The birds tattooed on Kate Moss’s back were drawn for her by Lucian Freud, and the shooting star on Gisele Bündchen’s wrist is a tribute to a beloved grandmother. There is something especially wonderful about seeing a tattoo on a model on a runway—I’m here, it says. I’m different. I have a grandmother, a favorite poem, an opinion.
Perhaps the culture’s shift toward tattoos is of a piece with our need to constantly reveal ourselves, to live in a continual flow of art-directed personal information—Instagrammed photos of the eggs we ate for breakfast, the walk we took after lunch, the vacation we spent at the beach. With tattoos we speak to one another with messages that are supposedly for ourselves (Just Breathe reads the tattoo below Miley Cyrus’s left breast) but also announce to the world what we’re telling ourselves. Miley, are you breathing? This sort of half-reveal works especially well for celebrities. Their tattoos get them even more public attention, while hinting at an unspoken inner life. There are two little birds and a star on Reese Witherspoon’s hip. Rihanna has a handgun on her rib cage. Why does Mena Suvari have 13 on her chest? There’s something intimate about asking after the significance of a tattoo even when it’s right there in the open. Scarlett Johansson often says in interviews that the meaning behind the big, full-color sunset on her forearm is “private.”
The tattoos people get vary regionally, culturally, across lines of gender, race, and class. Full, and often ironic, sleeves are the thing in Williamsburg or Venice Beach, whereas something life-affirming or inspirational is more popular in other parts of L.A. Whatever the case, they’re increasingly not bleeding hearts or anchors chosen off the wall: They are specific and personal and—as much as they can be—unique, chosen to say something special about the bearer. They are a gift to oneself, and also to one’s audience: whether movie fans or merely spectators on a hot subway platform or crowded sidewalk.
Marc Jacobs gets his tattoos from Scott Campbell at Saved, in Williamsburg. Campbell has had the parlor since 2004, and it’s become ground zero for the new culture of tattoos. There are ten artists in residence, each with his own thing going on. There’s Campbell, whose thing can be fairly gothic but also simple (picture Jacobs’s sofa, for example), and there’s Stephanie Tamez, who’s an ace at color. Campbell and Jacobs met seven years ago: Jacobs’s fit model was a Saved client, and she gave him the gift of his first tattoo, a line drawing of his dogs. They’ve done a lot since then: a rainbow doughnut, a lot of South Park, a little Simpsons, that sofa, the bros before hos (Campbell has a matching one, though he amended his before his wedding in June).
Lately Campbell’s clients have been bringing in their parents, lots of ladies in their sixties who suddenly think it’s okay. These are the appointments he loves most. It calls to mind people asking Jacobs how he’ll feel when he’s old, and it makes Campbell think about his own mother, who died when he was 16. “She used to say, ‘Scotty, you could commit murder, and I would still be proud to call you my son,’ ” he says, “ ‘but get a tattoo, and I’ll shoot you myself.’ ”
He is certain that if she were alive today, she’d feel differently.
*This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.