VERMILLION, S.D. – For a brief period last month, songwriter and performer Justin Bieber was once again in the spotlight, only this time for a new slate of tattoos which he showed off on Instagram.
The tattoos, which include a bird that looks like an eagle as well as some gargoyles, took 26 hours of work over three consecutive days to complete, according to Bieber's tattoo artist’s Instagram page.
David Lane, a University of South Dakota assistant professor of anthropology and sociology who teaches one of the only classes in the United States which focuses on the cultural significance of tattoos, said the art of tattooing has been around for thousands of years and has appeared in nearly every culture on Earth.
“There’s nothing new about tattooing,” Lane said. “There’s nothing new in the sense that the oldest bodies that we’ve ever recovered have tattoos. Otzi the iceman has 56 or 57 of them all over his body so here’s a 5,000-year-old body that has tattoos. In a sense, there’s nothing new about inserting pigment into the skin and creating some sort of permanent design.”
Lane said the reason Bieber's tattoos have been considered newsworthy to various news organizations is two-fold. Tattooing has been increasing in the United States and we’ve entered a period of time where people can portray idealized versions of themselves through social media.
“If you look at the ways he’s tried to distribute this, it’s all been through social media. It took 20 some hours to complete — well he didn’t take pictures and send it out when it was partially complete, did he? And when was the last time he was relevant as a public figure? But all of a sudden, he becomes relevant, and a day or two later he’s hanging out with Selena Gomez," said Lane.
In addition to Bieber being able to use his new tattoos to again reach relevance in the tabloids, Lane said Bieber's use of social media to show off his ink is also representative of his status as a celebrity. Unlike the majority of people, celebrities tend to not be in danger of losing their jobs or face adverse public reaction when they reveal they have tattoos.
“I think someone like Justin Bieber can afford to deal with the consequences of being tattooed. And when I say afford, he’s in a very different position of being visibly tattooed in that is he has enough money and relative security in his lifestyle that it is not going to drastically affect his life chances,” said Lane.
Lane said in the end celebrity tattoos just play into a larger history of tattooing and the social conversation which takes place around the art form.
“If you want to know more about Bieber, tattooing, tattoos, and this whole cultural production process, take my class," he said.