As forms of adornment, clothing and tattoos each boast an illustrious history. Dating back milleniums, both played an important ceremonial role in ancient times, with the most ornate and intricate reserved for spiritual leaders and royalty. While tattoos and clothing have intersected a number of times—most notably amongst GIs following World War II—tattoos did not play a significant role in fashion proper until arguably 1971, when Issey Miyake presented his seminal Fall/Winter 1971 “Tattoo” collection. After Miyake, contemporaries Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier both referenced tattoos in collections in 1989 and 1994, respectively. Recently, there has been a resurgence of tattoo symbols and iconography on the runway, with Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe and Vetements all including tattoos in some form in recent seasons. Each instance illustrates the way marked bodies are perceived and, in turn, how the body is understood.

The relationship between tattoos and our collective view of body was made explicit in Miyake’s 1971 collection, which debuted the iconic dress and men’s bodysuit appropriately called “tattoo.” Both the dress and bodysuit feature the same imagery, a Japanese-style back tattoo with traditional wind bars and quasi-psychedelic images of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom died the year prior. Known for his technical virtuosity, Miyake seizes on technology to reinvigorate the traditional craft of irezumi (tattoos), which have long been associated with criminal activity and the Yakuza in Japan.

Initially used to brand prostitutes, prisoners and outlaws, irezumi was eventually adopted by lower social stratas and yakuza members. The prevalence of colourful woodblock prints in red light districts across the country influenced the style and motifs used in irezumi, with wind bars, cherry blossoms, mythological figures and creatures like dragons and tigers regularly appearing. Banned for its criminal ties in the 18th century, tattooing wasn’t legalized in Japan until 1948. In 1971—when Miyake presented his collection in New York—it was still considered taboo in his native Japan and wildly controversial.

With “Tattoo,” Miyake upended orthodox dress standards by placing a politically-charged symbol on the garments exterior. Normally obscured by clothing, the tattoo was front and center, inverting the tattoo-body relationship. By placing images widely regarded as criminal so prominently on the body, the garment—and in turn, the wearer—questions conservative ideas about the body and dress standards in general. Her death aside, Miyake’s choice to include Joplin was strategic. Joplin was in fact one of the first American pop icons to publicly display tattoos—a wristlet and small heart on her chest. Done by artist Lyle Tuttle—who, along with Don ‘Ed’ Hardy and Sailor Jerry, was among the first tattoo professional artists in America—Joplin’s tattoos were an open sign of rebellion and emblematic of her hippy spirit and the greater cultural movement.

While Miyake’s work was a shock to the Japanese audience, in America tattooing was readily accessible to the public as early as 1960. Though a majority of clients were initially members of counterculture or subcultural groups, the advent of professional tattoo artists helped to popularise the American traditional tattoo style. Recognized by its flat imagery and distinct color palette, American traditional consists of skulls, snakes, eagles, gambling and nautical motifs created using bold black lines and color fill. By the late ‘80s, American traditional became so prevalent that it had lost most of its Navy/biker/punk connotations and was openly accepted in society. Capitalising on the style’s widespread appeal, Ed Hardy licensed his artwork to the late Christian Audigier (designer of Von Dutch), who helped spread the Ed Hardy label worldwide. Garishly covering clothing and other products with roses, skulls and daggers, Audigier marketed directly to celebrities and Ed Hardy the brand experienced monstrous growth. For much of the ‘00s, the brand dominated the conversation around tattoos as clothing.

Yet, the growing acceptance of tattoos does not eliminate their deeper connotations. Art on skin—similar to the way we choose to dress—still fundamentally alters the body, albeit permanently. Like clothing, the tattooed skin is also a form of armor, an idea clearly demonsted in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring/Summer 1994 collection, “Les Tatouges.” Featuring the emblematic “tattoo tops,” Les Tatouges was influenced by a range of tattoo styles, mixing tribal, Japanese and contemporary styles with other forms of adornment and punk symbolism. A reference to Martin Margiela’s semi-sheer tattoo top from 1989, the Gaultier design reaffirms the immediate power tattoos have to alter perception, even at a time when they are no longer considered taboo. The top was striking, and highlights skin art’s ability to immediately transform the body.

Whether a reference to Margiela, Gaultier or both, the tattoo top has had a resurgence in the last couple of seasons. The Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Fall/Winter 2015 collection presented a few variations on the garment—including tattoo sleeves and cardigans—with an all-over scrawled print resmebling graffiit, a remark on tattoo’s still inherent edginess. Ever the provocateur, Rei Kawakubo knows that even in this decade, tattoos hold significance. For his Spring/Summer 2017 menswear collection, Junya Watanabe literally marked his models with black ink, creating fake tattoos in order to highlight the collections punk and gangster themes. For Watanabe, tattoos and uniform are highly performative, to the point where they almost lose their significance as symbols of belonging and identity. Rather than a singular piece making a bold statement, garments in the collection aren’t meant to constitute a certain subcultural style, however in conjunction with one another—and the false tattoos—immediately bring a specific sub-cultural connotation to mind.

Vetements’ Spring/Summer 2019 collection featured a top clearly inspired by the ‘89 Margiela piece—designer Demna Gvaslia’s prior employer who he regularly refferences. Utilizing Russian criminal tattoo motifs popularized by the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, the top is a reference to the DIY tattoo style prevalent amongst gangsters and inmates. Using home-made tattoo guns, criminals tattoo one another with a number of recurring symbols, each a reference to a specific category of crimes, including thieves and political prisoners—the Vetements top is concerned with the latter.

For Gvasalia, the top is a personal reference to his Georgian heritage. Adding a second layer of meaning to the already loaded graphic, when customers view the top through the Vetements app, they are redirected to a Wikipedia page on the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia. Even though tattoos no longer elicit the visceral reaction they once did, Gvasalia show how these images are still—and have always been—embedded with meaning and history, widespread acceptance aside.

In each instance, designers utilize tattoos as a signifier of belonging. A way to transform the body and in doing so recharacterize identity. As much as a tattoo or a piece of clothing is a demarcation of belonging (or rejection), it is also a historical image tied to particular events.

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