The tradition of tattooing has been nearly ubiquitous in human culture. Until recently, tattooing had fallen far from favor, and was popular primarily among sailors, criminals and a handful of groups who hung on the the ancient traditions. The yakuza (Japan's mafia) often get full "body suit" tattoos in solidarity with their criminal brothers. The Maori tattoo their faces to mark the passage into adulthood and to signify social status.
However, there are very few Maori men or yakuza gangsters living in the Bay Area, which leads me to believe the current resurgence in tattooing is due in large part to the fact that it's a hip thing to do. (You can rebel and follow a crowd at the same time!)
Tradition is one thing, fashion another. My guess is that of the 1 in 7 North Americans that have tattoos, only a handful were done for reasons that are purely traditional. The vast majority were done because, on some level, it's fashionable. Maybe you're a fan of Angelina Jolie, or you think your biceps look bigger ringed with an inked-in barbed wire pattern, or all your girlfriends have something tattooed on the small of THEIR backs.
Whenever I come upon one of these fashion victims (and this time I think I can use the term literally): a 19-year old with his favorite band's name peeking out from above his collar, or a teenage girl with a mandala inked into the small of her back, I think about the fashions I adopted when I was still a teenager -- and how incredibly glad I am I don't have to wear them today. In my late teens, I had a pair of pieced denim bell bottoms that I loved. Wore them all the time, especially when I wanted to impress someone with how cool I was.
But imagine if, in 1977, I had signed a binding contract to wear those same bell bottoms every day for the rest of my life. For the rest of my life, I could wear NO OTHER pants. On every date -- which would get fewer and fewer as the years went by and the pants went farther and farther out of fashion -- I'd have to wear the bell bottoms. To weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs -- the bell bottoms. To every job interview -- which would rapidly become limited to opportunities in the fast service food and record store industries -- bell bottoms.
Now every time I see someone with a Celtic pattern tattooed on his back, or a snake inked into the skin of her ankle or even (and these are the ones that really scare me) with a tattooed face, I have an overwhelming desire to go up to them and say: "Can we talk about bell bottoms?"